In his First Inaugural Address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the following:
"In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return."
That second sentence is wonderfully inserted there. As bad as it all is, FDR is saying: it's only money. Of course, he knew that poverty could cripple the spirit as well, and become more than a material problem, just as joblessness and foreclosure in the middle classes can lead to despair, suicide, violence, spousal and child abuse. But FDR meant to argue that the economic depression was primarily one of institutional economics, not the result of a personal, spiritual, or cultural failure by the American people. In a country with a puritan heritage, we often ask secular or religious variants of "why is God punishing us?" when these things happen. The tendency is often to look inward (or at one's neighbor) rather than at institutional or external causes. When I studied abroad in Russia in 1992, many people expressed to me there the feeling that "communism failed because we are failures." This was not a helpful attitude. It made the political space for ultranationalists and racists who promised to make people feel good about themselves again.
Around the world and on this blog, people have wondered whether this is an economic crisis or really the result of moral and cultural failings in the United States. Many in Europe seem to be urging the latter reading. They seem to say that it is America itself that is failing, including the ideals of individualism, home ownership, the "American Dream" and all that. I think that is both self-righteous and inaccurate. The most striking thing about traveling around Europe today is how much more it looks like the USA than it did 20 years ago. Starbucks, McDonalds, and tract housing developments did not force their way into Europe.
As in FDR's time, we should be focusing on economics. However, I have argued, and I think FDR would have argued too, that there are also personal attitudes to this depression that need to be overcome. The same attitudes of the 1920s were repeated in Reaganism in the last 30 years: from alpha-male bankers (a phrase that still amazes me) to investment bubbles, we abandoned sober, grownup capitalism for adolescent behavior. I think it is useful to separate broad-brush cultural critiques (e.g, blaming all this on American individualism) from more specific attitudinal critiques (e.g., that the anti-regulatory school of conservatism was at best naive, at worst complicit).