THE BLOG
03/25/2009 02:13 pm ET Updated 5 days ago

We're in a "Repression": The Economics of Shame

If the current recession started last December, as the latest findings from the National Bureau of Economic Research clearly indicate, then it stands to reason that, considering things have gotten a lot worse since then, we're a lot closer to a depression than anyone has realized. Perhaps we're not quite there yet -- by some definitions we'd need a few more years of blight and an even higher drop in GDP and a bigger rise in unemployment to start seeing bread lines around the block and the return of fedoras and clarinet music.

But taking into account the generally sour and sexless state of the economy -- along with our present political limbo, which is a bit like waiting to finalize a divorce so you can swap a staid, dull-witted partner for a young, spunky new one -- and considering the chastened, even prudish mood of both consumers and businesses, perhaps we're better off thinking of our current state of economic ennui not as a recession or a depression, but as a "repression."

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Certainly, over the last two decades, whether shedding our inhibitions at E-Trade, Best Buy or Balthazar, we've all been rather profligate in our lust to exchange liquidity, whatever the moral cost, eventually turning credit tricks when we had utterly spent ourselves in random acts of impulsive and ultimately shallow purchase. As if waking up in someone else's bed, as the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti once described, to discover that "she has bad teeth and really hates poetry," there's an unmistakable whiff of shame and sleaze shadowing the corridors of power and the aisles of Circuit City alike (if not, indeed, true humility, which one suspects won't kick in until everyone realizes that the economy, as Paul Krugman has noted, is truly "falling off a cliff").

The horned bull studs of high-finance -- inspired by the libertine exploits of those two burly mortgage predators, Fannie Mae and the aptly-named Freddie Mack (sic) -- have spent their peak years engaging in the most dangerous kind of unprotected financial intercourse with a revolving-door of easily seduced consumers, in particular the impressionable new class of incoming freshman home-owners, screwing them repeatedly without the slightest concern that the mortgage industry's own potentially fatal and unchecked fiscal viruses would infect these naive and needy ingenues of the American body politic, and place their literal "family jewels" in jeopardy.

Like callous upper-classmen caught taking advantage of the local high-schoolers, even the once-cocksure titans of Wall Street and Detroit are now routinely sighted on cold D.C. mornings making the ignominious "walk of shame" across the Capital quad, scratching themselves silly while sheepishly begging their increasingly ambiguous Washington fraternity brothers to pump even more gobs of pirated tax revenue into their hoary bottom line -- anything to stay in the game until the next frenzied night of freewheeling, free-market debauchery.

It's telling that during their latest attempt to extract adequate pity from Dr. Paulson's economic health clinic -- along with enough hard cash to get them through the next term of ignoring the screams of the environment and making victims of the debutantes who buy their giant, nozzle-sucking vehicles on credit -- the Big Three automakers wisely left their steely, king-sized private jets at home, and arrived somewhat chastened -- if still prideful -- to the same tawdry tables where they once proudly drank the fortifying elixir of Republican deregulation, and dragged cowed and submissive legislators around by the hair.

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Those bestial nights are not likely to replay themselves anytime soon. Double-digit unemployment is now a very real possibility, and even the best efforts to jack up the wilting tower of American capitalism -- through infrastructure spending and tax rebates -- will likely take far longer to have an effect than those embarrassingly-titled herbal "stimulants" that those fading fat cats, no longer able to afford Viagra, are now forced to ingest in the hopes of regaining their lost potency. No, there's no magic pep pill this time, and no quick dose of Penicillin to "get you back out there"; what's more, everyone in that little black book is staying home tonight anyway, wearing sweatpants and cooking lentils and spinach greens. Purse-string promiscuity is so last year; checkbook chastity is the new hedonism.

In fact, read between the lines of our president-elect's sage exhortations to a new era of "sacrifice" and "responsibility," and the words "prudence" and -- oh, the horror! -- "restraint" can not be far behind. How dull it all sounds, how provincial, how utterly repressive, to give up the swinging life of expense-account orgies and hedge-fund bacchanals, fuel-engorged SUVs, feel-good credit extensions and wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am mortgages. Does the downturn ultimately demand that we all -- gulp -- settle down? It just might, even for you dollared denizens of the night. As for that wad of cash that you used to describe as "burning a hole in your pocket," perhaps now is a good time -- as even those meathead frat boys sometimes recognized -- to "keep it in your pants."