11/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Upside of Economic Apocalypse

Today, I called my grandfather to wish him a happy birthday; he was doing laundry but paused long enough to ask me what the mood seemed like in New York. So naturally, I told him all about the gloom and doom, the bad and the worse, etc. And he responded by asking a question that must have lodged in his head when he was a child during The Great Depression: "Do you have enough to eat today?" I assured him that I did and he replied, "If you had enough to eat today, then everything is okay." He didn't mean that quite literally, but I did take his point that I'm alive, healthy and likely to have the opportunity to make amusing new mistakes tomorrow.

As we talked further, I started to think about the positive aspects of flirting with disaster. Sure, one can obsess over the whole economic nightmare but that's so negative. And besides, the media is locked in a ratings race to to see which outlet can deliver the most bad news the fastest. I simply can't compete. Instead, I'm going to take a few minutes to accentuate the positive.

Let's start with the electorate, which has finally woken up to the fact that the November election is actually important. All the people who sacrificed to give us the universal franchise must have been spinning in their graves as they witnessed the theatrics that the campaigns had descended into or the indifference -- versus outrage -- with which the public greeted those entertainments. Fortunately, the economic crisis is like a bucket of cold water being hurled at people who are hungover from 7 years of over-consumption: we're shivering but very, very sober. And sober people know that the country doesn't need someone who looks good in a flight suit landing on aircraft carrier; it needs a smart, creative leader who is capable of forging consensus to get us out of this mess. Reasonable people can disagree about who the better man is, but I'm pleased that so many people are considering the question rationally.

There's also terrific news with respect to the federal government, which finally seems to understand all these wars of ours are being financed on what might as well be a credit card, one issued by a Chinese bank. Don't get me wrong, I supported our efforts in Afghanistan, but the war in Iraq was simply a hugely expensive blunder that never should have happened. But now, we can no longer afford Bush's neo-conservative folly: lack of money and soldiers will force that conflict to end. The fact is that we should not engage our wars unless the whole country -- in and out of sacrifice -- is willing to make the necessary sacrifices. (The people who send soldiers to fight should be willing to foot the bill, even if that means higher taxes.) By necessity, the executive branch's appetite for destruction is declining. That's something to smile about.

And finally, the knife poised at our economic jugular reminds us that the same fiscal gravity binds us all. If you buy a house on credit, wait for it to appreciate, and then borrow on the bubble-generated equity, then you're likely to get in trouble because the real estate market can't go up forever. If you let Wall Street create financial instruments that only a few people actually understand and allow them to enrich themselves without regulation, then at some point, something unexpected (and very bad) is inevitable. And if the federal government consistently spends more than it has in its coffers -- without even bothering to ask how it will be repaid -- then our whole economy will find itself in peril. Both history and common sense tell us that this is the case, but it's better to learn the right lessons late than not at all.

I'm not stupid: I wouldn't wish the current situation on ourselves. But we're here, and I can find real cause for optimism in an electorate that suddenly understands what we're up against as a country and the use of the ballot box as a first step to doing something about it. Change is coming, and that is something to smile about.