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Betting the farm

The collapsing economy has exposed failures almost too monumental to comprehend

By David Wilson

Growing up in the mid-1960s was one of the greatest blessings of my life. If ever there was a sun-kissed time to be a kid, that was it. Prosperity seemed endless, the potential for growth limitless.

It always seemed out of step with the times when my parents would rein in the family spending. No, we wouldn’t buy that colour TV; our black-and-white set would do fine. We kids would squawk, and they’d remind us, “We’re children of the Depression.” It was their way of saying that good times don’t last forever, so act accordingly. My parents certainly knew what bad times looked like.

Their prudence annoyed me, but it stuck. Part of me has always been a little leery of things getting too good and people — me included — getting too used to it. I always wonder when the bubble will burst.

It burst with a vengeance last fall, and today we find ourselves in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. The collapsing economy has exposed failures almost too monumental to comprehend: a financial industry hijacked by rogue managers; manufacturers completely out of touch with consumers; consumers completely out of touch with reality; and political leaders out of touch with anything beyond saving their own skin.

Perhaps the greatest failure of all was to decide collectively that the hard-earned wisdom of our elders no longer counted. Our elders told us never to buy what we couldn’t afford, and we started borrowing like crazy to buy what we didn’t need. They told us to invest wisely, and we bet the farm. They told us to look before we leap, and we jumped into schemes that nobody understood.  

The crisis has entered the blame phase. Clearly, some are more to blame than others. But aren’t we all a little complicit? I don’t recall very many of us clamouring for change as the value of our RSPs, our pension funds and our real estate shot skyward. We were happy to be along for the ride — and just as happy not to know how dangerously close to empty the tank was running.

Last fall and through the winter, we watched, helpless and bewildered, as the economy fell apart in front of us — just as our elders always said it could. Now we watch, no less bewildered, as governments throw around unimaginable amounts of money trying to piece it back together again.

Many, many people are hurting. Many, many more will be hurt. One of the cruel ironies of this crisis is that our elders living on fixed incomes are among those hurting the most. I have no idea how long this crisis will last. I have no idea how or if it can be fixed. But I do know this: coming out of the Great Depression, our elders learned that we must never let the economy own us; we must always try to own it, through the sweat of our brow and the integrity of our purpose. In the uncertain months ahead, we owe it to our elders to hear their wisdom with fresh ears, to reconsider their values with newly humble hearts.

• The economy dominates The Observer's June print edition. Among the highlights: Joe Martelle’s opinion piece on the Bible and the economic crisis (My View, page 9); Larry Krotz’s feature examining opportunities the crisis presents (Ethics, page 14); and Keith Howard’s column on what the church has to offer in these recessionary times (Living in Faith, page 35).
Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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