During the dot com nineties, my generation found out that boom can turn to bust in a hurry. As a sock puppet famously belted, “what goes up, must come down”. The tech bubble became the teachable moment at the end of the wild ride, as gullible youngsters realized they were not going to retire to a tropical island by age thirty and the phrase “irrational exuberance” replaced “day trader” on the tips of televised tongues.
By the time I left college in the early oughts, things were looking bleak on our economic landscape. Instead of being offered high paying jobs in our chosen fields, my classmates and I faced a choice between taking whatever job we could find to pay the student loan bills, or going on to graduate school with the hopes that the increased debt load would be offset by increased earning power.
Some of these same friends who were in over their heads with student loan debt were somehow able to buy their first houses soon after leaving college and started talking about how all the equity they were building could be used to buy their way out of the debt hole created during their years on campus. This worked for a while, but even the most irrational of the exuberant ones must have seen that it could not go on indefinitely. Eventually we would have to pay for our consumption; eventually the chickens would come home to roost.
Fast forward to the present, change the names just a bit, and the song remains the same. The new phrase that pays on financial news programs is mortgage crisis, and the same folks who gleefully refinanced their credit cards and new boat into their shiny new adjustable rate mortgages are now playing Chicken Little and point the finger and other shell games to make sure that none of the blame lies at their own doorstep.
There is blame enough to go around, and now that our political leadership is poised to alter the large scale structures of our lives including taxes, financial regulations, and massive public works projects, we must prepare to transform on the small scale as well. We must take a hard look at the decisions we are making and make the cultural corrections ahead of the market corrections.
In fifteenth century Florence, Girolamo Savonarola had his bonfire of the vanities, a cultural purge to destroy the consumerist ethos of the Florentines in which many paintings and books were burned along with cosmetics and mirrors, but we may be wiser than he. We may be able to abandon the trinkets while keeping the treasures, to keep our long term prospects in mind as we change the way we live for the better.
What would happen if we supported the local institutions that enrich our lives and abandoned the expensive personal artifacts of class and status to which we have become accustomed? What could be accomplished if the educated tutored the illiterate, if the physically fit ran errands for the infirm, and the well-represented made room at the table for those weak of voice and unsure of parliamentary procedure?
We are at a crossroads in history, and the future is ours for the taking. We have immense resources of technology and information at our fingertips, we have a national sense of crisis along with a rising sense of hope and we have the outrage to overcome the inertia of the past. In the words of Savonarola, “Do you wish to be free? Then above all things, love God, love your neighbor, love one another, love the common weal; then you will have true liberty.”
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