13 November 2010

A New Prosperity - or Not

It occurs to me that certain kinds of success contain within themselves the seeds of their own failure. In fact, I often wonder if some of our most extraordinary human successes aren't also some of our shortest-lived.

I say this because it appears to me that, in the 15 or so years building up to Mega-recession, we Americans and lovers of America managed to achieve an altogether unique kind of success - one perhaps quite as extraordinary as anything we've ever done. For we succeeded in creating an economic culture not only historically unprecedented, but unprecedentedly sick and confused. And sick not just in those moments when we felt tired and broken-down - assuming there were any - but even more in those ways in which we were (or thought we were) robust and vigorous.

Note that, in every other period of human history, extravagant and recurrent indebtedness was most often a measure of what a wastrel you were, of how poorly and fecklessly, and reluctantly, you worked. So far as I know, however, only in the Nasty Nineties did it begin to become a solid mark, not only of how titanically successful you were, but of how zealously and innovatively you were working, and how well.

But now wait a minute. Can I accurately describe our most recent Gilded Age as unprecedented? Weren't the Roaring Twenties - at least in the place where they roared the loudest, America - a period of similarly unbridled, bare-knuckled optimism? Weren't they also a time in which Americans ever-so-trustingly embraced a gospel of visionary debt as the key to wealth and growth?

But I need to tread carefully here. Because if I in any way denigrate the business culture of the American Twenties, I also risk impugning - however indirectly - the reputations of those two very different presidents who presided over far the better part of that decade. Never mind, of course, about Herbert Hoover, the vile crypto-socialist who all but singlehandedly created the Great Depression (with a little help at the front and back ends from Wilson and FDR, if not also Teddy). But dare I question the judgment, competence or compassion of Hoover's two Republican predecessors - those bright stars on the national horizon who, at least until the sun of Reagan appeared, were all that managed to illuminate a century of otherwise unrelieved Presidential darkness . . .

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