The End of Excess: Is This Crisis Good for America?

In the early 1980s, around the time Ronald Reagan became President and Wall Street's great modern bull market began, we started gambling (and winning!) and thinking magically. From 1980 to 2007, the median price of a new American home quadrupled. The Dow Jones industrial average climbed from 803 in the summer of 1982 to 14,165 in the fall of 2007. From the beginning of the '80s through 2007, the share of disposable income that each household spent servicing its mortgage and consumer debt increased 35%. Back in 1982, the average household saved 11% of its disposable income. By 2007 that number was less than 1%. (See TIME's top 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

The same zeitgeist made gambling ubiquitous: until the late '80s, only Nevada and New Jersey had casinos, but now 12 states do, and 48 have some form of legalized betting. It's as if we decided that Mardi Gras and Christmas are so much fun, we ought to make them a year-round way of life. And we started living large literally as well as figuratively. From the beginning to the end of the long boom, the size of the average new house increased by about half. Meanwhile, the average American gained about a pound a year, so that an adult of a given age is now at least 20 lb. heavier than someone the same age back then. In the late '70s, 15% of Americans were obese; now a third are. (Read "What's the Best Diet? Eating Less Food.")

We saw what was happening for years, for decades, but we ignored it or shrugged it off, preferring to imagine that we weren't really headed over the falls. The U.S. auto industry has been in deep trouble for more than a quarter-century. The median household income has been steadily declining this century ... but, but, but our houses and our 401(k)s were ballooning in value, right? Even smart, proudly rational people engaged in magical thinking, acting as if the new power of the Internet and its New Economy would miraculously make everything copacetic again. We all clapped our hands and believed in fairies.

The popular culture tried to warn us. For 20 years, we've had Homer Simpson's spot-on caricature of the quintessential American: childish, irresponsible, willfully oblivious, fat and happy. And more recently we winced at the ultra-Homerized former earthlings of WALL•E.

We knew, in our heart of hearts, that something had to give. Remember when each decade, not long after it finished, assumed a distinct character? We all knew and know what "the '50s" mean, and they definitively ended with the Pill, J.F.K.'s assassination and the Beatles — just as "the '60s" ended when Americans got tired of being alarmed and hectored, and "the '70s" ended when stimulants became more popular than depressants and AIDS appeared. But in all salient respects, "the '80s" — Reaganism's reshaping of the political economy, the thrall of the PC, the vertiginous rise in the stock market — did not end.

The '80s spirit endured through the '90s and the 2000s, all the way until the fall of 2008, like an awesome winning streak in Vegas that went on and on and on. American-style capitalism triumphed, and thanks to FedEx and the Web, delayed gratification itself came to seem quaint and unnecessary. So what if every year since the turn of the century the U.S. economy grew more slowly than the global economy? Stuff at Wal-Mart and Costco and money itself stayed supercheap! Even 9/11, which supposedly "changed everything," and the resulting Iraqi debacle came to seem like mere bumps in the road. Even if deep down everyone knew that the spiral of overleveraging and overspending and the prices of stocks and houses were unsustainable, no one wanted to be a buzz kill.

But now everything really has changed. More than a year into the Great Recession, we still aren't sure if there's a bottom in sight, and six months after the financial system began imploding, it's still iffy. The party is finally, definitely over. And the present decade, which we've never even agreed what to call — the 2000s? the aughts? — has acquired its permanent character as a historical pivot defined by the nightmares of 9/11 and the Panic of 2008-09. Those of us old enough to remember life before the 26-year-long spree began will probably spend the rest of our lives dealing with its consequences — in economics, foreign policy, culture, politics, the warp and woof of our daily lives. During the '80s and '90s, we were Wile E. Coyote racing heedlessly across the endless American landscape at maximum speed and then spent the beginning of the 21st century suspended in midair just past the end of the cliff; gravity reasserted itself, and we plummeted.

In the Road Runner cartoons, after each fall, the coyote is broken and battered but never dies. America isn't going to expire either. But unlike him, we will be chastened and begin behaving more wisely. For years, enthusiasts for unfettered capitalism have insisted that the withering away of enterprises and entire industries is a healthy and necessary part of a vibrant, self-correcting economic system; now, more than at any time since Joseph Schumpeter popularized the idea of creative destruction in 1942, we must endure the shocking and awesome pain of that metamorphosis. After decades of talking the talk, now we're all obliged to walk the walk.

We cannot just hunker down, cross our fingers, hysterically pinch our pennies, wait for the crises to pass, blame the bankers and then go back to business as usual. All that conventional wisdom about 2008 being a "change" year? We had no idea. Recently Rush Limbaugh appeared on Sean Hannity's Fox News show, panicking not so much about the economy but about how the political winds are blowing as a result. If we finally manage to achieve something like universal health care, Limbaugh warned, it would mean "the end of America as we know it." He's right, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is the end of the world as we've known it. But it isn't the end of the world.

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