America is in the midst of yet another Great Awakening. There may not be any white tents out in the cotton fields or fire-and-brimstone orators, but there sure is a bandwagon.
Drive past a billboard, flick on the TV, open your newspaper or read the New York Times online and you will be swiftly inundated not only with lists of ideas to save money but stories of this new breed of American. Competitions are springing up for the “cheapest family” in cities and states across the nation as we search for self-sacrificing saints to promulgate the faith. Converts congregate in the aisles of 99-cent stores sharing recipes for bean casserole and baby boomers’ eyes glisten knowingly of those tribulations their own grandparents must have faced. A national confession of our sins and a casting off of those childish former days are accompanied by vows of chastity: “No matter if the economy improves… I will never live beyond my means again!”
The fall back to reality was hard, and like a runner’s high there is an element of catharsis and confidence through the pain. Those experiencing this sudden sensation of salvation want to share it with others, and the commandment of saving instead of spending certainly fits the times. An ascetic response to the global recession that combines a mix of adoration for “old-fashioned values” with pious devotion and religious ecstasy, it’s the inevitable swing of the pendulum back towards conservation and preservation and away from the sins of a world gone haywire with consumption. Yet while it may bring personal atonement in this time of reckoning – as well as plenty of opportunities to judge those who do not fall in line- it offers few solutions to our nation’s hard problems.
Americans, ever self-reliant and loathe to depend on the state or society to pull them up, are failing to appreciate the dimensions shaping this crisis. Instead, we are simply behaving in the same mode as we always have: every man for himself. In the 1990s it was your own fault if you weren’t making enough money and couldn’t buy yourself the world; today it is your own fault if you can’t save enough money to protect yourself from the world. Essentially unchanged…it’s as if we’ve learned nothing.
Making cleaning supplies from hand and growing our neo-victory gardens are great ideas. But they are no substitute for policy that could shape a livable future. Instead of asking ourselves how many boxes of cake mix we can buy for a dollar at one grocery store versus another, we should be reflecting on what it means to be a functioning society in 2009. A great many things are broken - from our financial institutions to our health care system to education and retirement. Trust is essential in building the local and national bond that sustains a country, but other than some nostalgic pride in our patriotic holidays, what faith in our society do we have?
Why do we have such a shortage of affordable housing - which would guarantee that everyone, regardless of their income, could afford to live in the city where they work? Why do most American cities and towns lack public transportation but have an abundance of freeways - which forces most of the Middle Class to take out huge auto loans just to get to work? Why do we hear of bridges collapsing over the Mississippi River, lead in children’s toys and almost monthly e. coli breakouts in our food supply? How can it be possible that the FAA merely “suggests” standards for our air transportation safety instead of mandating regulations, and why is college becoming so prohibitively expensive? Why is there a donut hole in Medicare coverage and how can we have 46 million people without insurance at all? In every department of our lives, the story is the same: a bloated bureaucracy of lobbyists and corporate talking-points that have driven the nail of deregulation into the coffin of the American dream.
Today we are surrounded by the wreckage of nearly three decades of this laissez-faire approach. The conventional wisdom told us that the market had “everything under control”, and somehow we were collectively brainwashed to believe that those piddly little details like civil rights, access to health care, employment for those willing to work, privacy of our personal details and credit information, and the safety of our streams, bridges and airplanes would be managed through mysterious market mechanisms that the groveling masses couldn’t possibly understand.
I’m not anti-capitalism or communist, but I’d say that in almost every regard, the market has failed. And how could it not have? The market is designed to reward the survival of the fittest, to line the pockets of those who can capitalize on the moment and make a fantastic overnight gain. It’s not designed to promote stewardship, to bring fulfillment or equality to society, or to foster a better democracy. We’ve asked of it what it simply cannot give us. That which we really need.
And now, we all wait with bated breath for the economy to turn itself back on, as if it’s merely been sleeping. The day will certainly come that the economy will improve – all recessions end – but we are fooling ourselves if we expect our lives to become measurably better. The same wealth disparity will persist, as will the revolving door between Wall Street and the halls of Congress.
In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the US has the highest inequality after Mexico and Turkey, and the gap has increased rapidly since 2000 (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/10/21/business/main4535488.shtml). Noting that social mobility is lowest in countries with the greatest inequality, the report adds that “In the United States, the richest 10 percent earn an average of $93,000 - the highest level in the OECD. The poorest 10 percent earn an average of $5,800 - about 20 percent lower than the OECD average. "The report cautions that “Greater income inequality stifles upward mobility between generations, making it harder for talented and hardworking people to get the rewards they deserve…It polarizes societies, it divides regions within countries, and it carves up the world between rich and poor."
This, not a previous failure to clip coupons, is the real crisis that we face. All of the weekly specials on ground-chuck and 2 for 1 T-shirt deals won’t set things right.