A Pox on My House??

Joseph Knippenberg

October 1, 2008

Let me begin by laying my cards on the table. I’m not an economist, but I am a relatively rare bird in higher education—a conservative.

I’ve been watching our current political and economic crisis unfold and have come to the conclusion that it is, more than anything else, a moral crisis. We’ve lost sight of the old-fashioned virtues that made America great, substituting cleverness for hard work and prudence.

Our friends inside the Beltway are currently in the business of blaming one another for the failure of the House to pass an economic rescue package earlier this week. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Some conservatives can’t imagine that government is part of the solution. And some liberals can’t bring themselves to regard “us the people” as part of the problem. They’re both wrong.

Without claiming to understand all the arcane details, I know that we face a huge economic challenge right now. Perhaps, given enough time, the market will correct itself, clearing the inventory of foreclosed properties and allowing savvy investors to build something out of the rubble of failed financial institutions.

Do we have that time? Will our adversaries and competitors abroad wait for us to sort things out at home? Will we actually be able to learn that harsh—and perhaps necessary—economic (and, above all, moral) lessons if our economic difficulties carry Barack Obama to power and give him even larger Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress?

I’m not confident on either score. Terrorists will only be too eager to dig a deeper hole for a weakened and distracted America.

And I certainly haven’t heard Democrats speak about us as anything other than victims in need of being rescued posthaste from Republican incompetence and capitalist malfeasance. They’ll feed our eagerness to hold the other guy accountable and to make him (and our great grandchildren) pay the bill. It’s not our fault, they’ll tell us. And we’re only too inclined to listen.

But I actually do have some confidence that, after a couple of days of watching the markets and the polls, folks in Washington will find a way to muddle through. Conservatives need a seat at that table, not because the result will be something that they can celebrate, but because obdurate opposition will only buy them a long sojourn in the political wilderness.

I know that some of them—well, us—are happy out there, complaining amongst ourselves about how awful everyone else is. The problem is that, out there, it’s a bit harder to help address what I have come to regard as our real problem.

Our real problem is the one that liberals (and, to be fair, some people who call themselves conservatives) have a hard time acknowledging.

It’s us. We’ve grown accustomed to watching our home values appreciate by more than 10% a year, which seemed to obviate the need for any other sort of savings. If we’re not cashing out already, we’re (falsely) confident that we can cash out when we need to, in our golden years.

We’ve come to expect that we can buy more house than we can really afford. Those bills would never really come due. We thought we could always just refinance or move on, having sold at a huge profit. We took our motto from Wimpy, the character in the old Popeye cartoons: we’ll gladly pay you tomorrow for a big house we can live in today. A down payment? Paying down the principal? A traditional thirty-year mortgage? Those are for suckers and fuddy-duddies. We’re too clever for that!

And we’ve believed in the magic of the stock market, where we could take double-digit returns for granted. That’s almost like money for nothing.

What we’ve forgotten in all this is that success and happiness are ultimately based upon old-fashioned virtues like self-discipline, self-restraint, and sobriety. You’re honest, you work hard, and you scrimp and save. A house is a home, meant to be cared for and improved, not a magic ATM (with money coming out even if you don’t put any in). Our grandparents knew this, but we seem to think that we know better.

A government that acts like a helicopter parent—always hovering to save us from our vices and missteps—won’t let us relearn the old lessons. But that’s what we’ll most likely get if we conservatives hew to a strict free market orthodoxy and insist upon letting this economic crisis run its course.

I’d rather we talk to our grandparents. Having that opportunity requires that we talk to the liberals right now.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.