When the Bill Came Due

11/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With little room for doubt, we are in a financial crisis of epic proportion. Most of the world knows this, though some people only caught on a few weeks ago (call it delusional, ignorant, out of touch, whatever). It has become painfully clear how deep and extensive this crisis is and will be for some time. The American economy should eventually recover, but years will pass before it returns to the ridiculously inflated levels of 2006 and early 2007. The bailout legislation could provide some temporary relief, but it's not the solution to our problems, nationally or globally.

In a fell swoop, it seems, money that had been growing on trees suddenly disappeared overnight. The bear market has managed to overtake the bulls of Wall Street who bet everything but the kitchen sink on continued growth, bolstered by contrived forecasts. Potential voices of concern were quelled with luxurious retreats and astronomical bonuses. Now the market is over-correcting in a most severe fashion. Moreover, we're bringing the rest of the world down with us.

There's no loss of irony in this situation. This recent chain of events is inspiring consumer behavior that could have prevented at least a small portion of this mess. Unlike before, many American consumers are now afraid to spend money they don't have, in part because they realize they may never be able to pay it back... due to job losses, unaffordable adjusted mortgage rates, rapidly depleting home equity, increased health bills, and the like. In other cases, people are afraid to spend because the money they had vanished into thin air. Others have begun to realize that buying a home (or a second home) they can't afford is a monumental risk because there is no guarantee it will resell for a higher price.

A consumer driven economy is only as strong as consumer ability to pay. With nearly 800,000 jobs lost this year, decreasing wages and benefits, increasing numbers employed part-time (because full-time employment is no longer an option), and pension funds tied to our volatile market, consumer ability to pay is at the lowest it's been in roughly 80 years. As of late, we've been hit over the head with that fact, and our households are reeling from the financial vertigo of the last few months.

Without intelligent, capable leadership to address this issue, we are in grave danger. The job market has tightened, meanwhile, citizens from all walks of life will be competing for employment -- from recent high school and college graduates to retirees and those on the verge of retirement whose retirement accounts have all but vanished. We need jobs, full-time jobs with benefits, so that people can spend the money they have, not dig themselves into a grave of debt. We need jobs that offer room to save for college funds and trips to the Grand Canyon. We need jobs before a bad recession plummets into something much, much worse. If George W. Bush and his friends want businesses to be solvent, they need to contemplate the lack of patrons, the soaring unemployment rolls and the ever-worsening plight of the working poor. The best way to prevent societal atrophy is to treat the problem at its root, by providing comprehensive investments in job training and education... two areas where the current president has clearly failed.

Let's contemplate the worst-case scenario for a moment, as there's a thin line between forecasting and masochism lately. Imagine the Great Depression -- joblessness, homelessness, starvation, crushed businesses, failing banks, etc. Then add extremely high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now add the influx of powerfully addictive substances such as heroin, crack cocaine and crystal meth that can rot your brain, your body, and from what I've seen, even your soul. From there, we get the increases in crime and violent crime, only our city and county governments cannot afford an increased police force because they've been cash-strapped for years. And, of course, there's the rapid rise of drug-resistant diseases, massive global food shortages due to climate change, and so on and so forth. While this picture may seem far-fetched to some, it simply reflects an aggravated extension of our current social ills. The sooner these issues are addressed, the better. Early and thorough prevention measures are infinitely more effective than late, inadequate, reactionary policies.

But there is a further issue that cannot be ignored. Societal inequity and unchecked greed are not sustainable unto themselves. That is, without a more genuine predisposition towards equality and a demonstrable path for social mobility, the legitimacy of our system becomes laughable. This is also apparent when considering international relations. With the advent of globalization -- and the more rapid succession of global networks -- comes a need to address inequity that exists far beyond the borders of the United States, no matter how many fences we try to build.

In the end, we may have done to ourselves what no enemy could have accomplished. It seems that rampant American materialism is our own Achilles' heel.... Our greed is our undoing, eventually forcing a global reorganization of financial power. The luxurious items some so desperately cling to as a manifestation of worth will cease to remain in their possession. The buying power that some members of our society blindly crave takes away from a greater truth: our worth, be it individual or collective, cannot be measured externally. Those who attempt to do so have failed to learn a necessary lesson about greatness.