What lessons, I wonder, will the great downturn of 2008 teach our children? Obviously, the answer depends on how bad things get. This is a global cataclysm that's more vivid in the headlines than in most people's pocketbooks. Unemployment remains below 7 percent, and gas prices and mortgage rates are down. The crisis is still more like a dark thundercloud than a pelting hurricane.....
What would be the lessons of such a "near-miss" world? The first precept would be that bad behavior brings a rescue. If Wall Street investment banks can get away with it, why not auto companies? And if auto companies, why not the guy who bought a house he couldn't afford, or who maxed out his credit cards without a hope of repaying the debt? What the heck? We're all living in bailout nation. As a prominent foreign investor observes: "In America, loans have gone from 'something to be repaid' to 'something to be refinanced.' "
Ignatius has some good thoughts here. I know of some Christians that wouldn't mind a long-term depression because people would think more about deeper things than poverty (which might be generally true and totally go against Maslow). I know of some Christians that hope America retains its economic greatness so that it can be a blessing to the poverty of the world. Either have noble ends, I suppose. But we don't get the luxury of being omniscient, and we humans are left to taking whatever we're dealt with. So, what will be the lessons? How do we respond to history? Some suggestions:
1) Stop suburban sprawl. This mess started with a housing crisis. Americans felt they were entitled to a house, and went and put one up where there wasn't one before. I know the counterargument, though: "It's cheaper to live in the suburbs than it is in the city." Well, we Americans live under the mind-numbing hubris that there will always be enough water (which I didn't fully appreciate until I lived in the American West- also see Las Vegas declining water supply) and that there will always be enough gas (somebody's gotta drive to work from those suburbs). Maybe living smarter and less greedy will cost us, but someone's has got to preach about sacrifice. Perhaps C.S. Lewis was prophetic when his vision of hell in The Great Divorce had the most evil people moving far away from each other (everybody lived in a suburb, or far away from everyone else, because self-interest was the ruling principle in hell).
2) Stop greed. Ignatius said it best above. We all feel entitled to security, safety, health, and wealth. Americans feel entitled. We are owed a good job, and then we're owed all the trappings of what rich people have: nice cars, houses bigger than we need, expensive vacations, high definition tvs, high-speed internet, ad nauseum. I wish we'd stop feeling greedy and be pleased with what is necessary- appropriate housing, food enough for the family, and workable transportation.
3) A sense of community. With the stopping of suburban sprawl and greed, maybe this one will come out on its own. Do we know our neighbors? The people that live right next to us? Sure, Jesus asked about "who is your neighbor," in the Good Samartian parable (with his emphasis that even enemies are neighbors), but I always hear suburban evangelical churches reaching the interpretation beyond who is your next-door neighbor. Well, it also includes them. It especially includes them. I hope this economic recession helps teach us that we can do so many things together. We can change violence in the neighborhood. We can spend time with one another over a good board game for entertainment without spending money. We can enrich our lives by having a floor potluck and thereby culling resources to feed many people (a good potluck is the capitalistic epitome of specialization). I hope we learn this in this recession. And if we don't learn it because of the recession, I hope we learn it anyway.