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.