Why I Am Hopeful

Counter-cyclical thoughts on the economic crisis.

This article originally appeared in Books & Culture online, 20 October 2008.

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett reiterated his best-known investing principle in the New York Times last week: “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” It’s a vivid way of saying that the best investors are, to borrow a phrase from macroeconomics, counter-cyclical. Their investing sentiments are set by simply observing the prevailing mood in the marketplace, and doing the opposite.

Something like this maxim applies to the work of any Christian who wants to discern the times and speak truthfully about our culture. Reinhold Niebuhr famously said he wanted his preaching to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”—strangely akin to Buffett’s guideline. The whole record of the Hebrew prophets is counter-cyclical, seen most vividly in the transition from Isaiah 1–39 to Isaiah 40–66. The first half of the canonical book contains searing denunciations of a complacent, compromised people at the height of their comfort. The second half, its sights trained on a decimated population in exile, begins, “Comfort my people.” And Isaiah has his own version of Buffett-style counter-cyclicality: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.”

Well, our culture is pretty afflicted right now. Which is why I am more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time.

The good news: Easy is not going to be easy any longer.

I am not hopeful because I envision an easy way out of the current economic mess. We are entering into the Great Deleveraging, where an entire country of consumers will have to pare back their reliance on cheap mortgages and abundant credit cards. (Remember when your mailbox was stuffed with credit card offers? Seen any lately?) The national savings rate might even rise above 0%—yes, that is zero percent, the proportion Americans have been collectively saving for several years now. But that means that consumption, a major engine of our economy, will have to decline dramatically.

I am not hopeful because I have confidence in whoever will be elected president in 15 days. I have grave concerns, as a Christian and as a citizen, about both candidates and will in all likelihood vote for neither. (Not for the first time—in 2004 I wrote in Colin Powell.)

I am not hopeful because I think we are well prepared for what is ahead of us. We are not. We are a terrifyingly unserious people, our heads buzzing with trivia and noise. This is more true, if anything, of American Christians than the rest of our country. The stark contrast between what I experience among Christians anywhere else in the world—and not just the “Third World,” because Canada and Germany and Britain and Singapore come to mind as quickly as Uganda and India—and American Christians is astonishing. We are preoccupied with fads intellectual, theological, technological, and sartorial. Vanishingly few of us have any serious discipline of silence, solitude, study, and fasting. We have, in the short run, very little to offer our culture, because we live in the short run.

I am not hopeful because I think life is going to get easier in America. I am hopeful because I think it is going to get harder, and in a very good way. And I am hopeful because I think this means my children and grandchildren will live in a deeply and truly better world than I would have thought possible a few years ago.

I want to differentiate this hope from a kind of declinism among some of my “progressive” Christian friends, who frankly seem to salivate over the prospect that our capitalist culture may be teetering on the brink of collapse. I don’t share their sense of satisfaction, and I don’t share their analysis. At the analytical level, I believe liberal democracy and free markets are resilient and beneficial systems of human governance (granted that they are also, as Churchill said, the least bad of the alternatives). They have powerful self-correcting capacities. There is a reason that the American stock market has fallen the least of all the major world exchanges in the past few weeks. We have an impressively transparent economic system that, while certainly not preventing corruption and greed, does reveal it and punish it sooner than any comparable system, and frequently, though not always, rewards effort and innovation more effectively. Our political system is less robust, to be kind, but outside of the depressing morass of electoral politics there are public servants of incredible intelligence and character—among whom I would certainly include Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson, and Sheila Bair, along with many of the prospective leaders in an Obama administration. Precisely at times of crisis, as we’ve seen, the idiocy of politics can still be overcome by credible leadership from civil servants like these. I am deeply proud to live in a country where someone as fantastically wealthy as Paulson spends his days, nights, and weekends doing the largely thankless task of public service. Our markets and our system of government, for all their flaws, are an amazing renewable resource handed on to us by our forebears.

And this is why I can’t share the sense of satisfaction I sense in some of my “prophetic” friends. I believe the first step in culture making is not creating (let alone condemning, critiquing, or consuming) but cultivating: keeping what is already good in culture, good. American Christians, on the right and the left, have been painfully bad at cultivating. We want to jump to “transformation” and “impact” (words generally used on the right) or to “resistance” and “revolution” (favored words of the left). We often seem incapable of seeing ourselves first as gardeners: people whose first cultural calling is to keep good what is, by the common grace of God, already good. A gardener does not pull out weeds because she hates weeds; she pulls out weeds because she loves the garden, and because (hopefully) there are more vegetables or flowers in it than weeds. This kind of love of the garden—loving our broken, beautiful cultures for what they are at their best—is the precondition, I am coming to believe, for any serious cultural creativity or influence. When weeds infest the garden, the gardener does not take the opportunity to decry the corruption of the garden as a whole. She gets patiently, discerningly, to work keeping the garden good.

So why am I hopeful? Because I believe the coming years are going to reveal some pernicious weeds in our culture for what they are. One of the characteristics of weeds is that they suck up resources from other plants. They are quick-growing, quick-spreading, invasive. They do not coexist with the other plants in the garden, they overtake them. Kudzu is a weed not because it is unattractive in its own way or even has no rightful place in the ecosystem, but because it grows over and chokes out other valuable and beautiful things. Weeds are, as every gardener knows, the easiest thing to grow.

And I believe the fundamental weed in the American garden is, in fact, ease. Easy-ness. Effortlessness. Along with the incredible benefits of the rise of technology has been this terrible weed: the idea that things should be easy. The Staples office-supply chain has profited handsomely selling the ultimate symbol of our times: a plastic button that does absolutely nothing but is great fun to push, labeled “easy.”

The quest for technological ease has invaded and distorted not just, metaphorically, our culture, but literally, our agriculture. When we start to treat cattle as meat-producing devices, it makes sense to corral them in feedlots, where they start to make one another very sick. No problem—we will just dose them with huge amounts of antibiotics. Antibiotics are a fantastically useful button to push when your child is sick. But when they are used as all-purpose coveralls for situations driven by fundamentally flawed assumptions—that cattle should be efficient devices, not creatures worthy of respect and patient care; that children with the slightest discomfort should have every possible button pushed on their behalf, even when (as with almost all ear infections) the button will do nothing—they turn on their users. It is very possible that our great-grandchildren will look back with nostalgia on the twentieth century as the Antibiotic Century. Singular. I am hopeful that medicine will deliver a new way to ward off the worst that bacteria can do—but it is very likely that fighting bacteria will never again in human history be as easy as it was forty years ago. We have pushed the antibiotic button so hard, so often, that it may very soon cease to work altogether.

Examples could be multiplied. I spent a few days last week in Gwinnett County, Georgia, which for the past twenty years has been one of the fastest-growing counties in America. I was struck by the amazing, beautiful collector roads—Sugarloaf Parkway, Satellite Boulevard—their median strips, wide lanes, and turning radiuses tuned and trimmed to the needs of a huge volume of fast-moving vehicles. There is no better place in the world to be a car, especially a somewhat oversized, top-heavy sport utility vehicle, than the recently developed portions of Gwinnett County. If you are an SUV, it was designed for you: no curves too sharp, no lanes too narrow, no hills too steep. If there weren’t so many other people flooding the roads, it would be a place of perfect driving ease.

At the same time, those roads are a very unpleasant place to be a human being doing what human beings do so beautifully most places in the world: walking. Walking is simply not an option. Nor are there any other viable options—no trains, few buses, and no accommodation for bicycles. The beautiful ease of a car is the only choice. As long as you have a car, of course, that’s perfectly fine.

This is in stark contrast to the part of the world where I live, an early twentieth-century suburb designed before single-purpose ease became the de facto principle of urban planning. In my town, it is certainly possible to drive, but it is not exactly easy. The streets are narrow, forcing drivers to slow down and occasionally wait for other cars to pass. But this is actually a good thing, because cars are not the only mode of transportation. An eleven-year-old can happily and safely ride a bike almost anywhere in town (the two major through streets are a bit too busy for this parent’s comfort, though I ride on them myself all the time). There are sidewalks everywhere. The train that runs directly through our town to Philadelphia gets you downtown faster than a car at almost any time of day. I am sure that most journeys that begin in my town are still taken by car, but bicycle, foot, and train are all options, and often good ones. None of these options are perfectly easy—cars have to wait for the train at grade crossings, pedestrians have to watch out for eleven-year-old bicyclists—but the reduction in single-purpose ease is more than made up for by the abundance of choice, and the human scale of the choices available.

I couldn’t help asking myself: where would I rather live if gasoline cost $8 per gallon? Or, perhaps a more immediate and realistic question as the oil bubble deflates along with the whole economy, where would I rather lose my job, and with it the ability to pay for insurance and endless gas? Where would a person with suddenly limited economic resources have a richer, fuller human life? The answer, of course, is not Gwinnett County. A paradise for big vehicles and capacious houses is only a paradise as long as you have money. My town, cramped streets and all, is where you want to be when the bubble bursts.

So, to wrap up this way-too-long-for-Web-attention-spans essay, here is the good news in our very real and sobering predicament: Easy is not going to be easy any longer. Our culture’s addiction to ease is unsustainable. A core Christian conviction—one that informed much of the best of Western civilization—is that the good life is not easy. It requires discipline. It invites us into pain. It makes of us ascetics—not people who shun all earthly joys, but people who choose to limit our appetite for ease so that we might actually know true joy.

If we are not dualists, we will see that what is true for souls is true for societies as well—because both souls and societies are subjects of God’s creative intent. No society can build itself on ease. Most everything that is good about our society was forged by people who took discipline and work seriously, who built their lives around risk and enjoyed their leisure precisely because it was the fruit of discipline, the Sabbath after a week of concerted work. Most everything that is worst about our society—not least the very worst thing about America, the ongoing legacy of the Atlantic slave trade—was the product of an idolatrous desire to exploit human beings and the created world, extracting labor and resources with no regard for discipline, dignity, and God-given limits.

Our attention spans are indeed very short in America, but the evaporation of wealth in recent weeks has caused us to dimly recall the spectre of the Great Depression. Less often noted is that the Great Depression was preceded by a previous era of ease and abundance. The fruit of the (seeming) abundance of the Roaring Twenties was an economic crisis of shattering proportions.

But the irony is that the fruit of the Great Depression was not only dramatically improved systems of economic governance and ultimately even greater prosperity, but people of a fundamentally different character. They suffered tremendous hardship and lived for the rest of their lives with astonishing thrift, even as the post-war economic expansion delivered them real wealth. (The terrible experience of combat in World War II had a similar effect on many of their children.) A friend recently told me that the highest average household net worth in his Midwestern city is found in neighborhoods filled with modest, $100,000 homes. Most of the inhabitants are older. They have lived below their means, with discipline and integrity, their whole lives. Many of them, I suspect, are very much like my grandmother Ann Bennett, “Mimama” to us grandchildren, who died several years ago leaving not just substantial savings for her children, but a heritage of living abundantly within the constraints of a life that was never especially easy. If they are anything like Mimama, they will tell you that life has not been easy, but it has been good. Very, very good.

And this is why I am hopeful in the face of both the greed and the fear of the present moment: After the Great Deleveraging is past, with any luck and by God’s grace, a lot more of us will be more like them.