I know why America is falling into a cataclysm of debt and can’t get out.
I know because I’ve seen the cataclysm before on a smaller but no less poignant scale while growing up in New England. A Boston friend calls it WASP rot: a squalor of doom and debt that prompts the best sort of people to spit sarcasms at each other during cocktail hour, to weep and rage the way Congress is doing as the debt limit looms on Aug. 2.
Of course, losing a summer house isn’t losing a war or America defaulting on its debts. Yet to me, at least, the feeling is oddly the same. I worry that America is becoming a character in a story by John Cheever or F. Scott Fitzgerald.
My ancestors arrived early in North America, founded towns, fought at Bunker Hill, built railroads and cornered markets. But that day was long done when I was growing up. We were not unusual — in so many families, the money had been made, the money had been spent.
What made these families exceptional, the way America is exceptional, is that they believed that standards had to be maintained at all costs, a moral obligation, even though there never seemed to be much difference between the material and the moral. Houses in the right neighborhoods, alumni donations and keeping one’s word all seemed to have the same value.
As John Kennedy said in 1961, quoting John Winthrop’s speech to the Puritans aboard the Arbella: “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.” To maintain the city, he’d say later, we had to “pay any price, bear any burden.”
If the trust fund played out or Aunt Cornelia turned out to be broke when she died, the rotting WASPs believed they had no choice but to bear the burden of borrowing to maintain their place in the world.
There was nothing wildly luxurious in their spending, no polo ponies or pearls, just the obligatory private schools, Bloody Mary brunches at the Inn, station wagons with yachting flags, silver wedding presents, lots of dogs, the whiskey. They borrowed from banks and relatives to keep the city shining. They borrowed against their houses. They sold Aunt Cornelia’s breakfront. They ignored bills and they despaired.
Imagine a cocktail hour.
“I hate living like this,” says a wife — we’ll call her Martha. She rattles the ice in her glass.
“Do we have any choice?” asks her husband — we’ll call him George. “Do you really want to pull Ted out of Dartmouth? Do you want to move into an apartment?”
“I could get a job,” Martha says. “I could manage a bookstore, like when you met me. It’s odd — we were poorer then, but we seemed so much richer.”
“We didn’t have money, but we did have a future,” says George. “Freshen up that drink for you?”
The conversation usually goes this way: proposals for impossible cuts in spending are met by equally impossible refusals to make them. Slash Medicare? Stop saving oppressed foreigners from tyranny? Raise taxes? The rock and the hard place. It’s a question of standards.
“We have to face the facts,” says Martha.
“I’m so goddam sick of the facts,” says George.
“If your brother would come to his senses, we could sell Seely’s Cove,” Martha says, referring to a summer house with porches and a mossy roof and photo albums from the days when men wore neckties as they sailed.
“We have to sell it or put a new roof on it, but Buell is happy just to let it molder,” George says. “He says keeping it in the family is a matter of principle.”
“You could call Tom about getting another loan from the bank. “
“We’re at the point where we’re just using loans to pay off other loans.”
This is what the American government is doing, too. Whether the problem is summer places or wars, sailboats or health care, the despair and folly feel the same. So does the decline in power and prestige, and the poignant denial of decline, prompted by the fear that if we don’t live and spend a certain way we’ll cease to be us — we’ll lose our place in the world.
Cheever writes: “Where had they lost their competence, their freedom, their greatness? Why should these good and gentle people . . . seem like the figures in a tragedy?”
It’s WASP rot. They drop out of the country club. The drinking eases the pain. They don’t pull Ted out of college; he quits and says he wants to be a chef. The daughter ends up living with a jazz musician who beats her.
It’s as if they, and the United States, have lost their luck.
As for America, magical ideas float through the media: Sell the gold in Fort Knox. Sell the federal government’s land to the Chinese. Maybe the Wampanoag Indians could turn the city upon a hill into a casino resort.
The troops may come home, not because of casualties or futility but because they cost too much. We might have to impoverish the old and ignore the poor and sick, not on the principle that we’re creating welfare dependency but because they cost too much. How sad. How vulgar.
I know the ending of George and Martha’s story, but I won’t depress you with it. I have no idea what will happen to America. It’s impossible to imagine Americans starving to death or the Chinese owning Yellowstone. Next thing, we’d be tossing the bodies of veterans into common graves, though this has already happened at Arlington National Cemetery.
Well-trained in situations like this, I try not to think about it, the goddam facts of it all. Freshen up that drink for you?
Henry Allen, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000, was a Post editor and reporter for 39 years.