Many of us (Republican and Democrat alike) were drawn during the Ronald Reagan eulogies last summer to the image from our countrys Pilgrim heritage: America as John Winthrops "City Upon a Hill." These lines spoken by Winthrop in 1630 to the 700 colonists about to depart for the New World give a sense of their mission: "We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities." Winthrop believed the secret of America would be that each person could live a simpler, less wasteful life and the commons would benefit.
But today America sails blithely towards the greatest economic and spiritual crisis of a generation and has gone through a presidential election without once debating one of the most serious issues of our times. Quite simply, America is living beyond her means, spending more than she is earning. We are awash in Winthrops "superfluities," on a global credit card binge, dependent on the "kindness of strangers" in China and Japan to not call in the loans. As Stephen Roach, chief economist of Morgan Stanley, wrote recently, "In my view, the U.S. economy is an accident waiting to happen."
THE CRISIS IS not just economic, but spiritual as well. Modern secular consumer societyembodied by the classic bumper sticker "The one who dies with the most toys wins"has redefined the meaning of a worthwhile life. The consumption of material goods as a way to define ourselves has left the average family with no savings, high levels of stress, and a gnawing sense that the whole American culture is on the wrong track.