We are in for tough times. This morning comes word that Japan is officially in recession. On Friday came news that the fifteen countries which use the Euro are in recession. And then, of course, there is North America, where the storm first came ashore. The last time this happened was in 1979 -- after the first oil shock -- when Jimmy Carter went to the mountain (Camp David) and came down with an address for his countrymen.
"In a nation that was once proud of hard work, strong families, close knit communities, and our faith in God," he told his fellow citizens, "too many of us now tend to worship self indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose."
Not only was the search for more material goods a dead end, said Carter. It was also a clear and present danger, because it could only be supported by ever increasing energy consumption; and those energy resources would have to come from outside the United States. When Carter delivered his speech, 43% of America's energy came from beyond its borders. Just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq it was 60%.
Carter pleaded with Americans to turn down their thermostats and to wear sweaters, to drive their cars less and to learn to live within their means. But Americans saw him as a modern day Jeremiah, just when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were telling their citizens that a brighter future lay with free markets and unfettered capitalism. It was possible to have more -- much more -- not less.
Unfortunately, such a future required a reordering of American and British military priorities. And it was most fortunate that, ten years later, the Berlin Wall fell. Instead of concentrating their attention on Europe, both countries could concentrate on where the oil was -- the Middle East. As Andrew Bacevich makes clear in his book, The New American Militarism, Reagan began the process of refocusing the American military -- a process which continued during the administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton.
It was a process that began long before the elder Bush's prodigal son took office. Several administrations committed themselves to the same goal: "Only by enjoying unquestioned primacy in the region," writes Bacevich, "-- initially defined as "Southwest Asia" but eventually to encompass all of the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, and Central Asia -- could the government of the United States guarantee American prosperity and therefore American freedom."
For neo-conservatives -- from Thatcher to Reagan , to the two Bushes and Canada's Stephen Harper -- "freedom" has meant the freedom to have more. Unfortunately, that kind of freedom costs a great deal of money (most of it borrowed) and blood. In the last year, all the bills have come due.
It has taken thirty years to prove that Jimmy Carter was right. We are all going to have to live with less. And getting out of the swamp we are in will take a lot of effort and time. But we are not without hope. As Armine Yalnizyan writes in today's Toronto Star, "It's a time for action, and some of our governments have already begun. Even before this crisis, some municipal and provincial governments had started to focus on how to tackle poverty in a systematic, comprehensive way."
Besides injecting liquidity into the banks,Yalnizyan writes, governments will have "to speed up the repair and expansion of infrastructure . . . ramp up skills development programs . . .[and] improve income supports for those without work."
That seems to be Obama's plan, too; and it would appear that the leaders of the G20 have also seen the writing on the wall. Even Stephen Harper is making noises about the necessity of government intervention.
Obama's election does not mean, as Ronald Reagan boasted, that "it's morning in America" again. But it does mean that a man who knows something about collective action and social justice will be sitting at future G20 meetings. There is a long, long way to go. But we just might make it.