Monday, March 02, 2009

The Soft Generation

Those of my generation, raised in the age of Reagan, and reaching maturity in the Clinton administration, have taken for granted that modern capitalism and western democratic values have made the world a stable, idyllic place. We are too young to recall the economic turbulence of the Carter years, and we recall our triumphant defeat of communism. For years we have watched, from afar, the violence in other parts of the world. We have understood that if only the rest of the world had democratic self-government and were capitalism allowed to rule economies, that the rest of the world would be as peaceful and pleasant as the western world.

We have not faced something like the Great Depression, the drafts of World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. We have enjoyed peace, stability, prosperity, and the globalization of American values. We were taught that if we did our part in the economy—worked hard, saved money in our 401k, bought a home, and had children that the prosperity, the peace would persist. What we had we would always have—what we wanted, could always be ours. The world was ours for the taking.

We knew there were always hiccups along the way, but recessions never last long—do they? They didn't for us. We remember the recession at the end of the first George Bush's presidency and into the early years of the Clinton's first term. We also remember the recession that began at the end of Clinton's second term and the beginning of the second George Bush's first term. Neither recession lasted long. The unemployment never became unmanageable and though many preached doom and gloom, we never experienced it ourselves—economic suffering was something others had—not us. We saw real suffering on television—not in our own lives.

The promise that things always got better seemed true enough to our experience—why would one think otherwise? We bought houses as big as our parents, knowing that in a few years they would be worth much more than we had paid. We put money in our 401k plans knowing that we would have large nest eggs for retirement. We spent more than we had, knowing we would have a larger income in future years. This was all normal—it was the way things were, and we played along.

Now, as we have at least begun to learn, our way of life was a mirage—one that could not last—it never did before us. We have seen twenty-five years of prosperity and decadence crumble before our eyes. The homes many of us bought are worth less than our mortgages, and our 401ks have dwindled, even as we've continued investing in them. We've seen our jobs taken from us, and we're now told that even more of us will lose our jobs. We now see that years worth of labor and investment has vanished along with seven-thousand points on the Dow Jones Industrial average. We've been spending fake money for a decade or more.

And now, as Niall Ferguson argues, the world is ripe for global conflict and upheaval. He writes,

"…the resources available for policing the world are certain to be reduced for the foreseeable future. That will be especially true if foreign investors start demanding higher yields on the bonds they buy from the United States or simply begin dumping dollars in exchange for other currencies.

Economic volatility, plus ethnic disintegration, plus an empire in decline: That combination is about the most lethal in geopolitics. We now have all three. The age of upheaval starts now."

We've had it good for a long time and we've now gotten the tab and it is more than we can afford. We've lived on debt without knowing it and we don't have the wherewithal to get ourselves out of this mess. Economics have repercussions, and we may be on the cusp of another major conflict.

So the question now, of course, is whether or not we're up to the challenge. Are the circumstances greater than our spirits? It is our time to rebuild what was lost. It is time to act like men, time to rise above and time to excel.

But the point of this lament is that we ought never put our faith in the things of this world. The world and the people in it will always disappoint, will always fail, and will ultimately fade. Our faith is to be in the creator and sustainer of the world. My generation has deceived by the gods of democracy and capitalism, and are naturally disillusioned. Life is hard and we ought not deceive ourselves into thinking that life is easy that we are not entitled to peace and prosperity. These are blessings that come from God, to turn the blessings into the god is idolatry.

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