Friday, December 26, 2008

Maybe It's Time for the Next Crisis

The received wisdom on the New Deal -- the wisdom as I've received it, anyway -- is that Roosevelt's efforts helped some people a lot, but what really yanked the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression was the advent of World War II. So maybe that's the kind of solution we need now, or maybe that's what will ultimately end the current economic crisis. If that's possible, then it might make sense to try to select the crisis that will pull us out of the current economic funk. Another global war is a possibility, but is there something comparably extreme -- something that people can and would die for -- that might be capable of stimulating extraordinary commitments by large masses of individuals? No comparable candidates spring to mind. People might somehow become united or energetic in the face of a global epidemic, but it is hard to see how the prospect of a few billion people being killed by disease would call for superhuman efforts by the remainder. Moreover, wars are competitive; are people apt to exert themselves to the maximum, without regard for their own ease and comfort, only when they are competing against others? A different sort of constructive scenario might emerge if World War II were instead construed as an excuse and opportunity for large numers of people to work together to build something remarkable out of great deprivation. In that way of looking at it, a period of tremendous growth could result if, say, the social, political, and economic map of the U.S. were suddenly scrambled, such that people were no longer locked into what may be outmoded forms and structures. If, hypothetically speaking, people were free to take off westward in covered wagons, to found new settlements in remote regions, they might well display the same industry and determination now as did those white settlers who went westward in the 1800s. But what, precisely, is the modern equivalent?