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Is the Crisis Your Fault? or, Epochal Events On the Easy Credit Plan

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Josh Marshall links to a piece by Fareed Zakaria which begins this way:

Some of us--especially those under 60--have always wondered what it
would be like to live through the kind of epochal event one reads about
in books. Well, this is it. We're now living history, suffering one of
the greatest financial panics of all time.

I'm under 60 and I don't understand the age reference.  What happened during the ten years between 1948 and 1958 (for example) that's more historic than the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war, the 1968 uprisings, the fall of the Soviet Empire, the invention of the Internet, or our first forays into space - just to name a few events?

On the other hand, I fully understand these comments :

This crisis has--dramatically, vengefully--forced the United States to
confront the bad habits it has developed over the past few decades. If
we can kick those habits, today's pain will translate into gains in the
long run.

Since the 1980s, Americans have consumed more than they produced--and they have made up the difference by borrowing.

I agree ... basically.  Where I differ is when he goes on to castigate consumers - us - for their (our) inherent greed and superficiality.  Zakaria writes:  "If we wanted a bigger house, a better TV or a faster car, and we didn't
actually have the money to pay for it, no problem. We put it on a
credit card, took out a massive mortgage and financed our fantasies."

I think the blame lies elsewhere:  in the media, in our political leadership, and in the culture itself.

Those things didn't happen in a vacuum, nor were they as premeditated as that kind of language suggests.  Americans didn't wake up one morning and decide to be fiscally irresponsible.  They were actively encouraged to do it.  What's more, they were told that this kind of consumption wasn't irresponsible at all.  Many of the people entrusted with keeping them informed - journalists, politicians, and other persuaders - told them instead that they were merely fortunate. They were led to believe they lived in a time of endlessly expanding personal net worth, fueled by a long-term and open-ended boom in real estate values.

Don't blame me, said the American consumer.  Like the Dylan song says:  "I can't help it if I'm lucky."  And society's leaders nodded their heads in agreement as they hummed along.

Now it seems as if everybody's lecturing the same beleaguered consumer. Maybe I'm being a little too harsh on Mr. Zakaria as a result.  But where were the major-media voices telling people not to buy houses or take out loans?  Where were the 'trusted names in news' telling people that we were an overly materialistic, consumer-oriented culture? Sure, scattered words of concern were heard here and there.  But nobody sounded a clear warning bell for the huddled masses.

Fareed Zakaria writes for Newsweek and has his own CNN show. The voices that were condemning our borrow-and-spend consumer culture weren't particularly welcome at places like CNN or  Newsweek while all this was happening.  There were no major-media gigs for Paul Hawken or Bill McKibben. 

The root problem runs deeper than excessive personal debt.  The problem lies in a value system that measures our human worth according to our net worth.  The "fantasies" Mr. Zakaria describes didn't appear unbidden from the unbridled core of the American Id.  They were put there - by advertisers, business leaders, pop stars, moviemakers, and the features editors in a hundred thousand news outlets.

As a result, we care too much about our houses, our cars, our entertainment systems, and our clothes. But it's uncomfortable to hear those things, or even to say them.  It's too cliched, too hippieish, too filled with dewdrops and idealism.  Yet we're now able to quantify the results of the Culture of Consumption in clear, economic terms.  Yes, there were some Cassandras and a Paul Revere or two.  But they weren't getting much airtime.  The sponsors might not have liked it.

Nobody was crying "small is beautiful" from the steps of the Treasury building or in the halls of Congress, either.  Our government leaders were too busy encouraging all this borrowing and spending.  The outgoing President famously told Americans to "shop" in response to 9/11.  And his predecessor hired Robert Rubin, one of the architects of this collapsing economy.  Where were the political leaders of either party who suggested we dial down on all the consumption, or warning us that trouble was on the way?

Fareed Zakaria is right to suggest that there may be a silver lining to this crisis.  But I think he's wrong to adopt the currently-popular condemnatory tone against consuming Americans.  They were only doing what they were told, after all.  They were reflecting the values transmitted to them 24/7 by politicians, entertainers, advertisers, and ... yes ... pundits.

We need to re-think our assumptions on a variety of levels, starting with the economic, the cultural, and the personal.  We won't get that done by being judgmental.  We'll do it by educating people.  And by educating ourselves.  The values of the past are inadequate to face the challenges of the future. 

"He who dies with the most toys wins."  Remember that bumper sticker?  A lot of people looked down on it.  But they reflected it, too, in their culturally programmed yearning for whatever gave them the best buzz -- whether it was a bigger TV, a few more vintage guitars, or the ecstatic rush brought on by new-car smell.

A lot of people fell for that greed buzz sometimes, including many who consider themselves rational and not particularly materialistic.  I know I did.  Maybe you did, too.  It's in our collective DNA  -- and now we need gene therapy.  We need to evolve from a consumer society to a rational resource society.

If that happens, then we under-60's really will have lived through an epochal event.  Maybe the biggest in our history, come to think of it:  the end of the Age of Consumption and the birth of a humane and sustainable society.   That would be an event to remember.

RJ Eskow blogs when he can at Night Light and The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog

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