Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Getting Sick Enough to Vomit: The Discipline of a Good Depression

We all know that you feel better after you vomit, but nobody wants to get that sick.

It is horrible to think about it, and I feel guilty for even letting the idea surface. But I will proceed anyway. Would a serious economic depression be good for us in the long run? It might.

Could a good depression revive the prudence, discipline, and caution that the Great Depression reinforced in the generation represented by my parents and grandparents.? If so, America might be the better for it.

In recent decades we have developed some toxic cultural habits -- runaway consumerism, an unrestrained self-indulgent hedonism promoted by corporate advertising, disdain for delayed gratification, greed for bigger houses, cars, and the latest gadgets, a pattern of living beyond our means, a careless attitude toward debt aided and abetted by the easy availability of credit and credit cards, failure to consider the consequences of our reckless extravagance, and the like.

To revive an old phrase, the "Protestant ethic" has died. Even many of the churches that are growing rapidly are preaching a gospel of prosperity that a shocked Calvin would have abhorred. Paradoxically, it was the disciplined style of life that valued work and thrift as a divinely-approved virtues that helped generate the widespread prosperity subsequent generations enjoyed. In capitalism individual self-interest was supposed to produce universal welfare. Sadly we find in the current generation a bastardized form of culture that lacks the self-restraint and prudence of the stringent ethic of the past and retains only the desire and expectation of the unlimited possession of material goods in a life of self-indulgent gratification.

No, I don't wish another Great Depression on myself, my children, and grandchildren along with the whole lot of us. I just wish that we could recover the ethic strengthened by it for a generation badly in need of repentance and newness of life. But sometimes we need to get very sick before we can vomit and feel better.

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