What Happens When the Culture Collapses?

ParthenonIn her weekly Saturday column in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan alerted me to an amazing article on the economic crisis in Greece. The article is written by Michael Lewis and appears in Vanity Fair. The discovery of this crisis took place with breathtaking speed: “Last October,” Lewis says, “the Greek government had estimated its 2009 budget deficit at 3.7 percent. Two weeks later that number was revised upward to 12.5 percent and actually turned out to be nearly 14 percent.”

The world’s financial markets went into some measure of panic. How could this be happening without anyone paying closer attention? Leaders across Europe faced enormous economic and political challenges as they decided what to do in response. Economic recovery across the globe seemed to be on shaky foundations.

The numbers are staggering: “In addition to its roughly $400 billion (and growing) of outstanding government debt,” Lewis says, “the Greek number crunchers had just figured out that their government owed another $800 billion or more in pensions. Add it all up and you got about $1.2 trillion.” This amounted to “more than a quarter-million dollars for every working Greek.”

Rumors of profound mismanagement began to circulate across the globe: “The national railroad,” to take just one example, “has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses.” Not much chance of solving problems like these overnight, the world surmised.

But what interests me most in all of this is the evidence of a culture in utter disarray. Building on the crisis of numbers, Lewis begins to make this point: “The extent of the cheating — the amount of energy that went into it — was breathtaking”; “The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting”; What we are witnessing, Lewis claims, is a “total moral collapse.”

Here are some of the frightening signals of cultural crisis: “No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion.” “Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate” — so, why not? “This total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing,” says Lewis. “The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.” People even have a hard time “saying a kind word about one another.”

I am no expert on Greece, of course, and my point is not to rag on one country apart from my own. But what is so startling for me is something I worry about often: What happens to a society, and even to an economy, when the culture collapses into chaos, when certain values and principles cease to guide the decisions and actions of people? To be more specific: Isn’t it possible to ask whether pervasive dependency on a government on the dole is damaging to individual initiative? Doesn’t the glittering prospect of easy credit/easy money take something away from individual responsibility? When the bright line about cheating grows dim, isn’t it possible to spot the signals of a damaged and collapsing culture?

I find myself wanting to dig down to relocate some pretty important principles, moral principles that translate into economic principles, perhaps economic principles that reinforce strong moral principles. We might call them American principles, but I am happier reaching even further down to call them Christian principles. I am thinking here of the kinds of principles that have helped to shape our American way of life over time, notions of hard work, self sufficiency, personal responsibility.

I am also thinking about honesty and integrity. I worry these days that we may have crossed that bright line that defines what it means to be truthful. I worry that our young people may cross those bright lines without even knowing it: “After all, everyone does it, cheats a little, breaks a code of honesty, violates a behavioral standard defined by a community. Who cares? Everyone’s doing it. It’s the only way to get ahead” — if these ever become the normal ways to describe our economic and personal decisions, we are in deep trouble.

We worry this morning, to be sure, about how to restore economic prosperity. But we’ve also got to be thinking hard about how to create cultural prosperity. What will it take to re-alert ourselves to the moral bright lines? What will it take to realize that crossing those bright lines is dangerous and profoundly damaging, and that course corrections for the culture may be more difficult that economic corrections? I find myself thanking God for Seattle Pacific University, a place that tries to model cultural engagement of this sort, and in so doing, seeks to make the world a better place.