In his new book, “Reset,” New York Times best-selling author Kurt Andersen explains why the country’s winning streak had to end, and how the current financial crisis could make the United States a stronger place. The following is an excerpt.
Chapter five: Change is possibleWe’ve brought about the current crises through a quarter century of self-destructive financial excess and reckless overdependence on debt and fossil fuels. Yet during the same quarter century we’ve become familiar with a clear-eyed and often effective way of thinking about self-destructive excess and unhealthy dependence. In other words, the vocabulary of addiction recovery might come in handy. We’ve just had two two-term presidents who publicly struggled to overcome addictions (to sex and booze, respectively), and as a nation we are substance abusers coming off a long bender, now hitting bottom (we can only hope). I’ve always thought some of the Twelve Steps were superfluous, so here is a streamlined, secularized Seven-Step Program for America — Bubbleholics Anonymous? — to start getting back on track:
- Admit that we were powerless over addiction to easy money and cheap fossil fuel and living large.
- Believe that we can, individually and collectively, restore ourselves to sanity and normal living.
- Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admit the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Be entirely ready to remove our defects of character.
- Seek to improve our awareness of law and of the natural forces that govern life, hoping only for knowledge of right and wrong and the strength to follow that knowledge.
- Having had an awakening as the result of these steps, try to carry this message and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Of course, we all know that when addicts finally manage to quit, they feel awful for a while, and that’s where we are right now. This last year of recession, provoked by the sudden, essentially cold-turkey abandonment of spending, lending, and borrowing, is something like our national equivalent of the jitters, sweats, goose bumps, and seizures that addicts experience right after they give up their junk. In fact, though, the applicable addiction trope is more like food or sex than drugs or alcohol, since as economic creatures we can’t quit. Instead, we have to teach ourselves to buy and sell and borrow in healthier, more moderate ways. The new America must be about financial temperance, not abstinence.
The great national rehab won’t be easy. But it wasn’t only in olden times that Americans successfully coped with breathtaking flux and undertook dramatic change. In fact, without quite realizing what we were doing, we just did it. Consider all that’s happened during the era that’s just ended, and to which we’ve adjusted rather easily, given the scale and rapidity of the changes. Until the 1980s, we had one telephone company and four big TV channels. Now we’ve adapted to hundreds of TV channels and multiple phone companies, as well as airlines and health insurance entities that arise and disappear as fast as strip-mall stores. Pornography is universally and easily available, and pretty much everyone, since HIV/AIDS emerged, has learned to use condoms. And we’ve grown accustomed to the weird transparency, instant accessibility, and 24/7 connectedness of the new digital world.
The other transformations America has undergone since the early 1980s are no less drastic for being unambiguously positive:
- Back then, half again as many of us smoked cigarettes.
- We have sequenced the human genome.
- We watched (and helped) the Soviet Union and its European empire collapse, and watched (and helped) China change from a backward, impoverished, dangerous Orwellian nation into a booming, much less Orwellian member of the civilized global order.
- We’ve managed to reduce murder in New York City by two-thirds and crime almost everywhere by unthinkable amounts.
- Women have come close to achieving true equality of expectations and opportunity.
- Being gay has become astoundingly public and unremarkable.
- We’ve elected a black president.
In other words, as a society we remain flexible, nimble, still able to enact and adapt to dramatic change. This time around, though, compared with the early 1980s, when the last long political and economic era began, it’s much clearer from the get-go that one epoch has ended and a new one is about to begin. A lot of the change that’s necessary now must be the result of deliberative policy choices, as we reconsider the habits and schemes that got us into this mess and remake our systems accordingly. But at least as much of the refashioned new America will be the result of transformed attitudes and sensibility, changes in our understandings of what’s important and sensible and attractive, and what feels hollow or silly or nuts.
Reprinted from the book “Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America” by Kurt Andersen. Copyright © 2009. Published by Random House.