As President Obama and Congress barrel toward the latest emergency program to resuscitate the American economy, one question is looming over their search for a cure: Can the government fashion a fast and efficient economic stimulus while also seizing the moment to remake America?
For now, Mr. Obama and his aides are insisting they can accomplish both goals, following their mantra of using the urgency of the economic crisis to accomplish larger — and long-delayed — reforms that never garnered sufficient votes in ordinary times.
The Invisible hand:
All recessions have cultural and social effects, but in major downturns the changes can be profound. The Great Depression, for example, may be regarded as a social and cultural era as well as an economic one. And the current crisis is also likely to enact changes in various areas, from our entertainment habits to our health.
First, consider entertainment. Many studies have shown that when a job is harder to find or less lucrative, people spend more time on self-improvement and relatively inexpensive amusements. During the Depression of the 1930s, that meant listening to the radio and playing parlor and board games, sometimes in lieu of a glamorous night on the town. These stay-at-home tendencies persisted through at least the 1950s.
In today’s recession, we can also expect to turn to less expensive activities — and maybe to keep those habits for years. They may take the form of greater interest in free content on the Internet and the simple pleasures of a daily walk, instead of expensive vacations and N.B.A. box seats.
When all is said and done, something terrible has happened in the United States economy, and no one should wish for such an event. But a deeper look at the downturn, and the social changes it is bringing, shows a more complex picture.
In addition to trying to get out of the recession — our first priority — many of us will be making do with less and relying more on ourselves and our families. The social changes may well be the next big story of this recession.