The Upside of the Downside

Jonah Goldberg

6/6/2012 12:01:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

One of my heroes, Irving Kristol, used to say that there's nothing wrong with the country a bad recession couldn't fix.

Kristol (father of the more famous Bill, by the way) wasn't hoping for a recession, he was merely making the point that so many of the problems with our culture, both popular and political, were the sorts of challenges that come with affluence.

Wealth makes it easier to abandon the old customs, rituals and habits of the heart that generated the wealth in the first place.

For instance, I always love reading about irresolute rich families that lose their mojo within a generation or two. When the illiterate shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt died, he had amassed a personal fortune larger than the U.S. Treasury. Within a few generations, his family had squandered it all. Vastly better educated and more refined than their tobacco-juice-spitting patriarch, they also lacked his entrepreneurial drive and financial thrift because they never needed it. It's a pattern that repeats itself in countless families. Billionaires so often raise their children to be playboys or poets.

Edward Gibbon's theory of the fall of the Roman Empire has come in for some revision over the years, but his basic thesis still has merit. The Romans became so wealthy they lost the civic and martial virtues that built the empire in the first place. They in effect contracted out the hard work of civilization that allows civilization to continue.

And then, of course, there's the universally recognized lesson of Rocky Balboa, who learned the hard way from Clubber Lang (aka Mr. T) that success can make you lose the eye of the tiger more than failure can.

Anyway, you get the point.

And while I hope we can get back to having the problems of a rich country really soon, it's worth pausing to appreciate America's capacity for self-correction and the fact that many of the problems we had over the last couple decades were good problems to have.

Illegal immigration is a great example of a rich country's problem. (For instance, no one but terrorists are sneaking into Somalia in search of work.) After years of screaming over what to do about it, the rate of illegal immigration has suddenly plummeted. Some say it has actually stopped entirely, as many illegal immigrants have started going home. Yes, there are other issues at work, but no one denies that if the U.S. economy were in good shape, we wouldn't be seeing what we're seeing.

In terms of self-correction, the examples are all over the place. In 2005, America had the lowest personal savings rate since 1933. In fact it was outright negative -- i.e., consumers spent more money than they made. Today it's at 3.4 percent.

For years intellectuals looked enviously at the way the Japanese live in multigenerational homes. Grandma and grandpa looked after the grandkids, and everyone looked after grandma and grandpa. From 2008 to 2010, American multigenerational households increased at a faster rate of growth than in the previous eight years combined, according to AARP.

In perhaps the most welcome news, laser tattoo removals have increased by 32 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone. "Employment reasons" are cited as the new No. 1 reason for the procedure. It turns out that in an era of austerity, having a Chinese-character tattoo that translates into "I have Kung Pao chicken pants" is an act of unnecessary self-indulgence rather than glorious self-expression.

It also turns out that our politics have a capacity for self-correction that few experts anticipated. When President Obama came into office, his administration's mantra was "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." This little prayer to cynicism masquerading as an idealistic insight was used to justify vast expansions of government. The social scientists even told us this was to be expected. After all, they explained, during times of economic hardship, voters rally around the government.

Except that's not true. Yes, it happened during the Great Depression. But ever since, liberalism has been a luxury thriving on prosperity, not austerity. The Great Society was a byproduct of the so-called Affluent Society.

Instead of a tsunami of political support for ObamaCare and government unions, we got the Tea Party and the rollback of public-sector collective bargaining. Instead of massive support for Obama's green agenda, the air is thick with calls for more drilling, more fracking and more Keystone pipelines. It turns out the "new progressive era" was just too pricey.

Hopefully, the interminable winter of Obama's "Summer of Recovery" will soon end. And when it does, I hope we take the lessons to heart.