We think of spring as a time of cherry blossoms and renewed hope, as we slough off the depths of winter and ease into the warmer months. These bright days seem a strange time to encounter the by-now widely circulated warnings of impending doom by Ronald Reagan’s budget director, and current gadfly, David Stockman.
In a long essay in the New York Times drawn from his lengthy and just-published book The Great Deformation, Stockman this week made an impassioned plea for Americans to wake up to the looming crisis just ahead. This crisis, he predicts, will be triggered by a stock market collapse that will remove any lingering illusion that we are OK: “When it bursts, there will be no new round of bailouts like the ones the banks got in 2008. Instead, America will descend into an era of zero-sum austerity and virulent political conflict, extinguishing even today’s feeble remnants of economic growth.”
Stockman has many proposed solutions ‑ abolish Medicare, means-test Social Security ‑ but little hope of any change. The system is broken, the die is cast, sell, sell, sell, sit with cash in your mattress and hope we can make it through the reckoning.
Usually, such crib notes of an argument do it injustice. But the above is not a caricature of what Stockman predicts. It’s what he believes to be the imminent fate of America. He is an unusually erudite and eloquent voice, but his message is so stark that it’s almost impossible to violate by reducing it to its bare minimum.
It’s remarkable how much play these views get and how much traction they have. The tradition of jeremiads extends back to the dawn of recorded history; the biblical The prophet Jeremiah railed against the flaws and failings of the Israelites, and though he was ridiculed for delivering an unheeded message, in the fullness of time his words came back to haunt his people. American society is infused with that tradition. Just read the sermons of any number of 17th century New England pastors who decried the immorality and sloth of their congregations, or various Great Awakenings that called people to return to the right way or risk God’s wrath and misery.