by Andy Crouch
Why I Am Hopeful
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett reiterated his best-known investing principle in the New York Times last Thursday: "Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful." It's a vivid way of saying that the best investors are, to borrow a phrase from macroeconomics, counter-cyclical. Their investing sentiments are set by simply observing the prevailing mood in the marketplace, and doing the opposite.
Something like this maxim applies to the work of any Christian who wants to discern the times and speak truthfully about our culture. Reinhold Niebuhr famously said he wanted his preaching to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable"—strangely akin to Buffett's guideline. The whole record of the Hebrew prophets is counter-cyclical, seen most vividly in the transition from Isaiah 1–39 to Isaiah 40–66. The first half of the canonical book contains searing denunciations of a complacent, compromised people at the height of their comfort. The second half, its sights trained on a decimated population in exile, begins, "Comfort my people." And Isaiah has his own version of Buffett-style counter-cyclicality: "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low."
Well, our culture is pretty afflicted right now. Which is why I am more hopeful than I've been in a long time.
I am not hopeful because I envision an easy way out of the current economic mess. We are entering into the Great Deleveraging, where an entire country of consumers will have to pare back their reliance on cheap mortgages and abundant credit cards. (Remember when your mailbox was stuffed with credit card offers? Seen any lately?) The national savings rate might even rise above 0%—yes, that is zero percent, the proportion Americans have been collectively saving for several years now. But that means that consumption, a major engine of our economy, will have to decline dramatically.
I am not hopeful because I have confidence in whoever will be elected president in 15 days. I have grave concerns, as a Christian and as a citizen, about both candidates and will in all likelihood vote for neither. (Not for the first time—in 2004 I wrote in Colin Powell.)
I am not hopeful because I think we are well prepared for what is ahead of us. We are not. We are a terrifyingly unserious people, our heads buzzing with trivia and noise. This is more true, if anything, of American Christians than the rest of our country. The stark contrast between what I experience among Christians anywhere else in the world—and not just the "Third World," because Canada and Germany and Britain and Singapore come to mind as quickly as Uganda and India—and American Christians is astonishing. We are preoccupied with fads intellectual, theological, technological, and sartorial. Vanishingly few of us have any serious discipline of silence, solitude, study, and fasting. We have, in the short run, very little to offer our culture, because we live in the short run.
I am not hopeful because I think life is going to get easier in America. I am hopeful because I think it is going to get harder, and in a very good way. And I am hopeful because I think this means my children and grandchildren will live in a deeply and truly better world than I would have thought possible a few years ago.
I want to differentiate this hope from a kind of declinism among some of my "progressive" Christian friends, who frankly seem to salivate over the prospect that our capitalist culture may be teetering on the brink of collapse. I don't share their sense of satisfaction, and I don't share their analysis. At the analytical level, I believe liberal democracy and free markets are resilient and beneficial systems of human governance (granted that they are also, as Churchill said, the least bad of the alternatives). They have powerful self-correcting capacities. There is a reason that the American stock market has fallen the least of all the major world exchanges in the past few weeks. We have an impressively transparent economic system that, while certainly not preventing corruption and greed, does reveal it and punish it sooner than any comparable system, and frequently, though not always, rewards effort and innovation more effectively. Our political system is less robust, to be kind, but outside the depressing morass of electoral politics there are public servants of incredible intelligence and character—among whom I would certainly include Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson, and Sheila Bair, along with many of the prospective leaders in an Obama administration. Precisely at times of crisis, as we've seen, the idiocy of politics can still be overcome by credible leadership from civil servants like these. I am deeply proud to live in a country where someone as fantastically wealthy as Paulson spends his days, nights, and weekends doing the largely thankless task of public service. Our markets and our system of government, for all their flaws, are an amazing renewable resource handed on to us by our forebears.