I have been having a lot of ‘state of the economy’ conversations lately. The consensus is that we are going in the wrong direction and the only question is how long, how deep and how prepared we are for the long haul. I made the observation that the economic consequences of a recession are only part of the problem. A recession is a trust issue. When credit dries up, it means that lenders don’t trust the borrowers to keep their commitments. It creates a kind of double-bind. Here is how it works.
- People borrow money to improve their lives and invest in their future. Presumably, if they continue to grow and prosper, they repay what they borrow with interest. Everyone wins, everyone is a capitalist. The problem is when people spend what they borrow as income and don’t invest it in something that pays future dividends.
- At some moment, enough people (lets say a critical mass of us) have spent more than we have coming in and start borrowing on our homes and other assets to repay what we owe.
- Sooner or later, we don’t have anything left to borrow on, so we default on our debt—we go bankrupt if we can do it legally and just run away or build psychic fortresses to protect ourselves from the creditors if we can’t.
- The lenders eventually stop loaning us money or put us into a kind of slavery to exorbitant interest rates. This is usury. Biblically speaking, putting people into debt beyond which they can ever recover is a sin, which is why Jesus threw the moneylenders out of the Temple.
(Parenthetically, I remember a bumper sticker I saw in Calgary one time in the 90s that said “Dear God, just give us one more oil boom and we promise not to piss it away”.)
You get the idea.
Now the problem is that this now sets up a catch 22 and a downward spiral. We now really do need money to dig ourselves out of the hole, but no one will lend us money to do so. I travel a lot to Argentina and you see this vicious cycle in spades. What we don’t see too clearly, however, is the cost that the society pays in terms of trust in the government and the system itself. Once the economic system gets locked into a ‘no trust’ condition, so does the relationship between those responsible for the system and those whose labors and participation keep the system going.
Those that govern and those who are governed grow further and further apart. This fosters corruption on everyone’s part and a growing ‘everyone-for-themselves’ mentality. Black markets then arise and people begin to live their lives in smaller and smaller enclaves and communities. Social entrepreneurs can fill the gap created by the breakdown between the government and its people, creating more allegiance to their church or ethnic group or class than to the society as a whole.
You’ve all heard me preaching the possibility of the Boomers being the generation that could through their responsibility and actions do something meaningful about the state of affairs in our world—take on some of the intractable problems and basically clean up the mess before we die. What I haven’t spoken about is that given the critical mass of the Baby Boomers, we might also be the tipping point for a kind of negative downward spiral as well.
We’ve weathered other recessions primarily because most people kept working and social costs were minimized in one way or another. Given the Boomers are the ones who’ve done most of the borrowing, have most of the debt and are insufficiently prepared to retire, we are also the ones who could easily ‘give up’ and exacerbate the looming breakdown of our system. Add to this higher health and other costs for a ‘senior generation’, divisiveness between the generations, and a prevailing culture of aging equaling decline and we have the components for a very unpleasant situation.
I am not a ‘Doom and Gloomer’. But as a grounded observer, I believe we all have cause for concern. We need to wake each other up to our responsibility for the future and be cognizant that just as the Baby Boom generation has shaped the discourse for the past 60 years, we will continue to do so for the next 20 or more. In fact, given what’s at stake environmentally and socially, we could expect that we’ll impact the quality of life on Planet Earth for probably the next century.
There is a lot going on. Awareness of who we are and who we can be is building. There are now hundreds of sites aimed at seniors and senior issues. Happily there are even more now emerging that are aimed at intergenerational issues and possibilities.
It is becoming crystal clear that the future is at stake and that no one generation or group knows the answers or can mobilize the forces and actions to turn negative trends around or implement the myriad positive solutions that exist. It is clear that we are in the middle of a defining moment in history, perhaps analogous to the period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is clear that all of us—regardless of age or any other distinguishing characteristics—must join forces to stop the drift toward disunity and despair and create a world of possibility and sustainability by transforming ourselves and our relationships. Let that time be now and let a vision of a transformed world define our actions each and every day.