Upsides of the downturn: questions for Kurt Andersen

We've heard the cliches: "That which doesn't kill us makes us strong;" "Something good will come of this;" "A blessing in disguise;" "Find the silver lining." And when it comes to the impact of the current recession, they are the kind of empty words that don't usually make us feel much better. But after reading Kurt Andersen's book, Reset, I started to believe that once we come out what he calls this "economic emergency," we may be living in a culture that is a lot more sane and healthy than the one that brought us down.

Andersen traces the crisis of the past few years to the excesses that began in the late 1980s -- the increasing size of the average American house, the rise in consumer debt, the ubiquity of state-sanctioned and state-run gambling, even the expanded girth of the average American. He uses the vocabulary of addiction to explain how America needs to get back on track -- "to teach ourselves to buy and sell and borrow in healthier, more moderate ways."

I had a chat with Kurt Andersen, an acclaimed journalist (New York Magazine, Spy magazine, Vanity Fair, Time), novelist, and radio host (and a lot more), about what this all means for the future of work. Below is a condensation of our conversation:

You say it is a moment for businesspeople to think differently and to think big. You've also been talking to scores of people who have been laid off and seized the time as a chance to reinvent. What are the commonalities among those who managed to use this moment for a personal turnaround?

I haven't done a national survey so it's all anecdotal and who knows how my sample skews. In all cases they decided not to simply give up, whatever that would mean. They are people who, after the initial trauma, don't panic. Instead they see the possibility in their own lives. And are willing to take a gamble on their own native skill and hard work. There's some heroism too. It's not just getting back on the horse. Sometimes it's finding a giraffe to ride. So they must be equipped with some amount of optimism.

You cite some ways in which the two giant generations are poised to change the cultural mood, with the millennial generation supporting reformist projects like Teach for America and boomers being equipped to "channel their vast energies and micromanagement they lavished on their children to pro-social enterprises and volunteer work." What about those who still can't get out of the present rut? Are you being a little idealistic when so many are worried about paying the rent?

Why shouldn't we be hopeful about where we're going? One can always point to unfortunate or miserable people and say life is terrible. I don't want to say those people aren't important and don't deserve help. But progress happens by virtue of the people who have the gumption to keep going and do something beyond simply paying the rent.

You've written two novels -- Turn of the Century, which opens in the year 2000, and Heyday, set in the mid-19th century. What have you learned about American boom and bust cycles that might help us think more objectively about this Reset moment?

Reset came out of thinking about history and living in the American 19th century for a while. I sort of discovered this kind of boom and bust , expansion-contraction, these left to right swings. For a while we are all speculative and full of get-up-and-go, making and spending a lot of money. Then we get chastened and go the other way. Then we get bored, tired, oppressed by those virtuous habits and go wild again. That seems to be the way we roll.

What about those who didn't take part in the binge, who lived moderately and didn't acquire houses they couldn't afford. What do you say to them?

Those people call up my radio show often and I share something with them. I pay off my credit card bills. I don't have a second mortgage on my house. I've done fine in earning money when money was flowing. But I was always fairly prudent and didn't take advantage of loose money and easy credit. So I'm sympathetic. What I'd say to those people is that they are more in sync with the new era. They are the "ants" I refer to in the book. And they can take some quiet pleasure in the grasshopper being out of luck now that it's winter. Everyone has now seen what has happened and learned their lessons. One way that dismay will be channeled is politically. That will be part of what comes to be the political choices that are made over the next two years. How much regulation we have in the financial industry. What kind of health care and energy reforms we will have.