Here's a chipper question for my fellow conservatives as we stumble drunkenly into Super Tuesday: Would it be more depressing to wake up in the morning to learn that our next president will be a Democrat or a Republican?
Me, I don't know, but it's hard to shake the sense that four more years of GOP rule from the White House might just about kill off conservatism as a viable governing philosophy. Given the exhausted and brain-addled state of the right at the end of the Reagan Era, it's arguably better for both the country and conservatism for our side to retreat to the woods for some hard thinking and meaningful reform.
Here's the most despairing thought: that in the grand scheme of things, it's not going to matter much who wins the presidency. Why? Because it's quite possible that the economic crisis now breaking upon us is going to be beyond any politician's ability to manage, so severe that the fallout will dwarf any other issue that has preoccupied American political debate of late.
Come what may, we do seem destined to reap what we have been sowing for a very long time. We both individuals and the government have paid for our long consumption binge on credit.
The federal deficit is exploding as our politicians mortgage our liberty to overseas lenders. The national savings rate is zero percent. The average American household owes $8,000 to credit card lenders. People who took on far more debt than they should have to buy houses far bigger than they needed or could afford now face the possibility of losing them. Personal bankruptcy filings increased 40 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute, with many more forecast for 2008.
The current crisis was caused chiefly by foolish, greedy lenders and foolish, greedy borrowers thinking we could get something for nothing, and the party could last forever and by a government that stood by and did nothing because it has no more common sense or moral backbone than the rest of us.
Now, to avoid a recession caused by excessive indebtedness, Republicans and Democrats propose that we or rather, our children go further into debt with a $150 billion stimulus package. The president has instructed Americans to spend the free money to keep the economy going.
Mike Huckabee put this logic in perspective: "What we're about to do is borrow $150 billion from the Chinese" and "give it to people who will turn around and buy Chinese imports."
A credit economy depends on the confidence that money borrowed will be paid back. And that, in turn, depends on a shared moral sense, one that entails mutual obligation, a duty to be true to one's word and the self-restraint not to promise more than you can reasonably deliver.
Last Sunday's 60 Minutes gave viewers an idea of the moral collapse behind the looming economic collapse. Steve Kroft detailed the corporate greed and growth-at-any-cost pathology that led financiers to throw money at bad credit risks.
He also interviewed Matt and Stephanie Valdez, a California couple who took out a mortgage on their house, which, owing to the subsequent bursting of the housing bubble, is worth a lot less than they owe on it. Even though they can pay their monthly mortgage, they're going to walk away from it. Just like that.
Why should they feel ashamed? It's just business as corporate elites continually remind us when they abrogate moral relationships to their employees and pensioners. Honor and fidelity get in the way of profit and personal satisfaction. Confides a Texas mortgage broker who has seen reckless irresponsibility from lenders and borrowers both: " Everyone in this cycle is implicated in this mess. It's greed, and entitlement. It's all about to come crashing down, and hard."
That has been the ideology that governs our consumerist society: The costs of living as we want to live in the present moment economic, environmental, military, social and moral ultimately are something we push off on other people. Usually, our children. What will they think of us one day when the full bill of what we've done to them comes due?
We don't need to look to Washington for rescue. We need to look at ourselves. We need to return to an older ethic that rewards self-restraint and good stewardship of our resources, financial and otherwise. As it stands now, there is little in American popular culture, including politics, to counter the powerful idea that if we want it, we should have it, and now.
Religious leaders should stop pandering to our most decadent instincts with therapeutic bromides that distract us from the consequences of living beyond our means or, worse, proclaiming a so-called prosperity gospel that makes a golden calf of consumerism.
And it would help if we actually had a conservative party in this country. Rush Limbaugh said not long ago that the purpose of applied conservatism is to enable capitalism to provide for the material desires of the masses. That's what many people who identify themselves as conservatives believe, but it's exactly wrong.
Traditionalist conservatism supports the free market but is acutely aware that unfettered capitalism undermines institutions and practices that conservatives consider crucial to a life whose quality is measured not by individual autonomy or material gain, but by virtue. All the McMansions and plasma TVs and SUVs in the world could be and in many cases is evidence of decadence.
No politician has been elected by scolding the American people, telling us that we have to live within our means or that the glittering idea of limitless material growth and personal freedom conceals severe consequences. But it happens to be true.
Reality, as we are learning, is a harsh teacher.