Our Sense of Troubled Normalcy Returns

A year ago, the panic was at full bore. October 2008 was the month in which the economic collapse seized the nation by the throat. After weeks in which Congress could not get a grip on the emergency (remember the frantic John McCain suspending his presidential campaign to ride to the rescue in Washington?), the $700 billion bailout bill was passed. Even so, the stock markets went into their steepest declines in decades, the gross domestic product registered its first drop in almost 20 years, and jobs fell off a cliff.

In early November, the economic news took second place to the astonishment of Barack Obama's election, but soon enough the word "depression'' began to define the fear even of the experts. In subsequent months, the rotating earth seemed to hesitate on its axis, as the global scale of the economic crisis showed itself. What was happening?

"The US economy has emerged,'' The New York Times reported Friday, "from the longest economic contraction since World War II.'' The GDP rose 3.5 percent. Stock markets have stabilized, and rising indexes seem predictable. The word depression has resumed its place in the diagnostic lexicon of psychology. Pillars of a new economic structure, like health care reform, are being nudged into place. Jobs remain a dark hole, the housing sector recovers in fits and starts, no one knows if the improvements will survive the expiration of stimulus funds, and some social wounds, like homelessness, show no sign of healing. But over all, last year's air of crisis seems a world away. Things are getting back to normal.

What did we learn? For all of our attention to the higher things, we were universally forced to confront the harsh fact of life that money matters a lot. The levels of fear caused by the evaporation of retirement accounts, failing banks, pink slips, fraud exposure, and the rank incompetence of so-called experts reminded us that the entire concept of credit, like the word itself, is based on the idea of faith.

Once faith is lost, there is no hope, and goodbye charity. It was not so much that, as Puritans complain, we put our faith in money, but that money is itself a token of faith. It is a symbol of an unspoken covenant that binds humans in a joint project of mutual protection and advancement - what we call "commonwealth.''

Money is the value we put on the effort each one expends at work. The good news this year - and the source of what recovery has occurred - is that most humans, however afraid, never stopped making that effort. Those who did stop, by and large, were forced to when they lost their jobs.

But money, it turns out, has an even deeper meaning. It is how we register the value of our time, and here is why the pins of money are so sunk into our psyches. To accumulate money, we seem to feel, is to accumulate time. To lose money is to lose time, which is the only thing keeping us alive.

The accumulation of time, we believe, is a way of fending off the end of time, which is death. Money offers an illusion of immortality. Even to put such a thought into words is to reveal its irrationality, yet nothing was made more dramatic in the last year than the "exuberant irrationality'' of our economic assumptions.

Things are getting back to normal? What if normal is the problem? The US economy is more shackled than ever to a military budget (a $700 billion bailout every year), which is money spent, for all its benefits, on death. Why is the gulf between haves and have-nots still the normal structure of economic order - or is that what our military budget aims to protect against?

And why, for that matter, does the growth of the economy still define normalcy when endless expansion, for all its benefits, inflicts a catastrophic cost on the environment? The coming collision between economic growth and global resource scarcity can already be foreseen. Chaos looms.

Can the resilience with which the human population has responded to this year's economic crisis shift now into a reckoning with its deeper warning? Life and death - there's the year's lesson: choose life.

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