Sunday, March 01, 2009

Moral Hazards of a Coarser Time

Roughly three years ago, I stumbled upon an economist who, in the measured tones of a Harvard academic, proposed before an audience what some described as the "Voltairean" idea that economic growth brings "moral positives." Today, with only my own observation to guide me, I would argue that the reverse is equally true.

In the 12 months ended last December the gross domestic product declined a staggering 6.2 percent and now everywhere you go there is the language of the hustle. The phone company, the banks, the major corporations, they're all chiseling, double-dealing and outright lying at every turn, as if they were bookies, drug dealers and pimps.

What does it all remind me of? That used-car dealership portrayed toward the beginning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. In other words, what's come down to us from the 1930s: the unrelenting flim-flammery oozing from every pore of a society in decay.

What happened then, besides poverty? Lynching. The rise of the Mafia. Father Coughlan, the antisemitic radio priest from Detroit. In Europe there were black shirts and brown shirts and blue shirts marching all about; and millions of bullets expended on the back of someone's head.

That is why we must risk everything to pull ourselves out of this economic disaster. We humans are a selfish, materialist species that becomes meaner when times are leaner.
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