You don't have to be Chicken Little to think the sky is falling. Panic selling on stock markets around the world reflects the fear that we're headed for a deep recession and that the United States is unable to stop the slide.
History teaches that we have been here before. Consider a passage describing the nation's mood during the Great Depression: "Capitalism, it seemed to many, had spent its force; democracy could not rise to economic crisis. The only hope lay in governmental leadership of a power and will which representative institutions seemed impotent to produce."
That's from volume two of the late Arthur Schlesinger's three-volume account titled "The Age of Roosevelt," which compellingly chronicles how America spent decades digging itself into a hole, and how FDR, within 100 days, started the recovery. The times and specifics are different, and we're not in a depression now, yet broad similarities between the 1930s and today are striking.
Start with the fact that wealth, in terms of homes and other assets, is vanishing daily in great gobs. Confidence in our leaders, once again, is missing in action. Fear has become a psychological barrier. The levers of power are elusive.
We need somebody with vision and courage to show us the way forward.
But is there a new Roosevelt among us? Would we recognize him? Would we even follow anyone who told us the truth instead of just blabbing on in feel-good happy talk?
Judging by how timidly and unrealistically the presidential candidates are approaching the unfolding crisis, the 2008 campaign has not yet produced a leader or the bold ideas America desperately needs. Even the alleged geniuses at the Federal Reserve were slow to see the train wreck coming. The .75% slash in the interest rate yesterday was a sign of panic, an emergency measure reflecting a dire situation mere months after the same bankers expressed a "don't worry" nonchalance. That it made a disastrous day only a bad day is no cause for cheer or hope.
Failure, like success, is often a matter of will. And the failure by the leading candidates of both parties to offer solutions is surely because such solutions will be painful for many Americans. Better to hide the scope of the problems, at least until after Election Day.
Let's face it - promising pain and sacrifice is not a path to victory. Not when our culture preaches we are entitled to the easy way out. The hard work and discipline that made our nation great has been replaced by magical thinking. Heaven help the pol who tells us otherwise.
So we are stuck with the shared illusion that if only the government hands out fairly modest amounts of money and tax breaks, all will be well. Hence the competition to see who can offer the biggest and fastest stimulus package, as though the candidate with the most expensive, least-considered giveaway will look the most presidential.
Hardly. Not when you realize that, with the government operating in the red, the planned giveaways to consumers and businesses are financed with borrowed money. That China has become our biggest banker adds to the sad point. The government is borrowing more money from China so Americans can go to the mall and buy more goods made in China. Sounds like we're bailing out China and digging a deeper pit for ourselves.
It's time to stop pretending the economy has small problems that we can fix quickly and painlessly. To do so only puts off the day of reckoning, and makes it ultimately more severe. The overriding truth is that we are living beyond our means and have become dependent on other countries to prop us up.
It can't go on forever, no matter how tightly we close our eyes and wait for magic.