07/28/2011 04:03 pm ET | Updated Sep 27, 2011

Deeper Lessons of the Debt Crisis

The ludicrous circus called the debt crisis reveals very interesting things not only about our political tendencies, our economic system, and the way our mainstream media enjoys holding a rat in its jaws and shaking it until it becomes a rhino, but also the precepts upon which we have been building our country for decades. It brings up at least as much about the rotting foundation of American society as it does about our spending and saving habits, and the state of our finances. More than that, it tells us a great deal about how most of us have lost sight of what's important.

On the surface, we are a nation incurring an increasingly unsustainable level of debt. This is tantamount to borrowing more than we make in the face of the growing possibility -- if not likelihood -- that we will not be able to pay it back. Many pundits are out there saying that this behavior is hurting the economy. This is like saying that a person lost his job because he ran up a big credit card bill. As individuals, we're more likely to borrow to maintain our lifestyle when our income falls, not suffer a falling income because we're borrowing. Similarly, our national economic doldrums lead to a rise in our debt. Our debt does not flow from a high debt ceiling -- most other countries don't have one at all -- but from poor economic fundamentals -- irresponsible spending and borrowing. When the economy recovers, if the recovery is lasting and strong enough, we should be able to reduce the debt relative to our GDP.

In addition to not earning enough, we're spending too much, and our national character mirrors our individual characters in this and many other regards. While our older generations are familiar with delayed gratification, behavioral discipline, financial constraint, and cultivating realistic expectations, our younger generations have not been taught these values. Is this because they are weak or flawed? Not really -- it's more that they're a product of social forces that have been developing since this country was founded.

The original idea of the United States was, of course, to create a refuge for people seeking freedom from onerous taxation and religious constraint. Our country was a set of ideas very nearly as much as a physical place, and those ideas were idealistic, high-minded, and even utopian. Our founding fathers likely did not have in mind that we should become international policeman or an expansionist empire -- although the millions of Native Americans our forefathers exterminated would surely experience it as such -- nor did they likely have in mind a land of 52" TVs stretching from sea to shining sea. What they expressed, by contrast, was an American Dream of a place in which liberty and justice would reign -- a place where individuals would be free to pursue happiness.

That may have been the original American dream, but today's consumptive nightmare bears much more on our debt crisis than the self-righteous, self-interested ramblings and bumbling of Republicans and Democrats. The dream was tarnished first by an Industrial Revolution that placed a premium on cheap goods and cheap labor, then by the post-World-War-II economy, which, while it managed a transition from a weapons-of-war manufacturing machine to a domestic-goods manufacturing machine, also subtly linked consumer behavior to happiness and success. The 1950s saw the beginning of the media's role in representing what everyone should want -- rows of identical houses with TV antennae on their roofs, washing machines and dryers under those roofs, and at least one car in the garage. In not-so subtle fashion, the message was that the American Dream had become more about stuff than soul.

The transition from an economic model of material abundance to one of material consumption was catalyzed by the appearance of credit cards. First showing up in the 1940s, reaching wider acceptance in the form of the Diner's Club card and the American Express card in the 1950s, and then finally becoming the savings-sucking juggernaut we know today in the 1960s. Credit was cheap and buying was easy. Gratification did not need to be delayed, compulsive behavior was rewarded, and people took to it like they would to free booze or street drugs. Freedom had once been the opiate that drew people to our shores, but it was replaced by shopping.

Over the last 235 years we have seen American utopianism and spiritual high-mindedness replaced by a culture of overeating, overspending, and over-wanting. The result is that we have become obese, indebted, and unsatisfied. Our consumer culture benefits corporate fat cats and corporate interests while encouraging the rest of us to work and borrow to buy things we don't need with money we don't have. Convinced that our existential angst will be answered by acquiring more stuff, we have shifted from a material culture that venerates and celebrates human innovation and creativity to one that consumes natural resources and excretes them into landfills in the form of obsolete and discarded products. This behavior stratifies us ever more firmly into socio-economic classes that have less to do with wisdom and knowledge than with money and flashy spending. Only now, and only in certain pockets of society are we learning that a complex, speedy, materially oriented life may seem appealing, but actually commands our time and energy in such a way that it becomes a prison cell for the spirit.

The referendum itself is fine. The free exchange of ideas is what Democracy is about. Even when it's ugly, it's better than a totalitarian alternative in which nobody is free to speak his or her mind. Still, wouldn't it be better to spend this time and energy developing a new paradigm for our nation than sinking ever deeper in this pool of mud we've created for ourselves, and then execute the shift in direction carefully in deference to the fragile state in which we find the economy?

What might that direction look like? It might be free of the special interests and strong lobby groups that are stopping us from having a new economic boom based on developing alternative and sustainable sources of energy. It might emphasize biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the development of artificial intelligence, with all the manifest benefits to productivity and lifestyle such breakthroughs would bring. It might reconfigure the tort system in healthcare, limit the profits of insurance companies and HMOs, and streamline redundancies and graft in healthcare delivery and in government. It might tighten political term limits, restore mainstream journalism to its former status as the conscience of the nation rather than the blithering salve it has become, and regulate Wall Street so that shoot-from-the-hip, self-interested gunslingers didn't rule the place like some kind of economic Wild West. It might limit corporate salaries at the top and institutionally reconfigure compensation to be more equitable at all corporate levels. It would and must deliberately and systematically make these changes so as to avoid economic collapse, protect individual jobs and rights, and maintain American leadership in the world by setting a great example rather than aiming big guns and little, pilotless drones.

It's time to question our values rather than point fingers at each other, to address the shortcomings of immediate gratification as a path to happiness than to try to figure out ways to keep the current, economically and spiritually bankrupt system in place. It's time to apply Tea-Party-like zeal not to xenophobia and religious fundamentalism, but to a groundswell of interest in restoring the original high principles on which this country was founded.

Let's work to help each other find meaning and satisfaction in life by helping each other rather than competing with each other, through compassion rather than fear, through hard work on committed causes rather than overtime applied to the purchase of more personal electronics, bigger houses, fancier cars. Let's stress our relationships over our salaries and education over consumption. Let's value contribution over celebrity. Let's concentrate on improving the way we treat our environment, and assume a sustainable role in the fabric of life on Earth. Let's assume responsibility for our own actions rather than blaming others. Let's ask for help when we really need it, and use that help to put ourselves in a better position to help others.

Our real crisis is not just with the national debt, it's with ourselves and what we think is important, how we spend our time and resources, how we judge each other and measure our accomplishments, character, and quality of life. It's time to replace our corrupt, self-indulgent, cynical, culture with a modern, informed version of the values on which America was founded, even if at this particular point in time doing so seems hopelessly idealistic and naïve. After all, in setting a new course, it's better to set our sights high than leave them low.