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Published: Sunday, 12/14/2008

If tough times are always with us, how does today compare?

ARE we in more or less trouble than in the early Reagan years, when a deep recession prompted the biggest opponent of taxes ever to inhabit the White House to push through the biggest peacetime tax increase in American history? More or less than in the Carter years, when the economy was in a funk, when American diplomats were being held hostage in Iran, and when a president could give an address known to history as the "malaise" speech even though he never uttered the word?

How about the 1973-1974 period, when inflation raged, wage and price controls were imposed, the president swore and lied in the Oval Office, and the Constitution itself seemed to be creaking? How about 1968, when one generation battled another as Americans fought in Vietnam and the seeds of the cultural war were sown? Or the Cold War period, when the survival of America was in doubt in the face of a giant rival governed by fossilized tyrants and armed with nuclear weapons?

Sometimes columnists start out their work with a general idea of the topic and then let the facts at hand steer the course. (It's an honest way to explore your own perspective, because it requires thought, not impulse.) Three paragraphs ago I thought I might write a little meditation putting our woes in perspective.

Now, after that two-paragraph dissertation about the crises we've faced in my own lifetime, I am thinking that this country isn't living so much a country-music song as a Negro spiritual. No country's known the trouble we've seen. (Sometimes we're up, sometimes we're down, sometimes we're almost on the ground.)

That's not quite true, of course. History, nature, maybe providence, surely luck, have smiled on America, placing us safe between two great oceans, endowing us with a great breadbasket and incalculable natural resources, bestowing upon us a generally temperate climate with an adequate growing season, giving us great rivers for navigation and great natural ports for trade (and, as if that were not enough, a great national pastime too). This is a rich land. If you do not think so, let me mention one five-letter word for comparison: Sudan.

It is also true that we have achieved many of our founders' dreams - maybe, after November's election, even the one that opens the second paragraph of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.

Take a deep breath and plunge into the magisterial 1,035-page new history of American diplomacy, From Colony to Superpower, the latest volume in the estimable Oxford History of the United States (and a great treat, if you find it among your holiday gifts this month). You will be rewarded by the very first sentence, when George C. Herring of the University of Kentucky reminds us of George Washington's fondest hope, that the United States would "possess the strength of a Giant and there will be none who can make us afraid. "

We may be "God's American Israel, " as the Puritans called us, but right now we have real troubles, though we're not quite God's American Chile (high inflation and serious political instability, 1970s) or God's American South Sea Bubble (the economic blemish of a speculation crisis mixed with the moral blemish of the slave trade, 1720), or even God's American Weimar Republic (hyperinflation, hyper-unemployment, hyperdangerous political enemies, including Hitler, 1919-1933).

There are a lot of things about the current troubles that we don't know, and the beginning of understanding this crisis is reckoning all that is unknown.

We know how bad things are - the last unemployment numbers were staggering - but we don't know whether they will get worse. We know how long this recession has lasted - about a year, according to the federal record-keepers - but we don't know how much longer it will run. We know how much consumer confidence has been shaken - anyone who has visited the local mall sees fewer packages in people's hands, an unscientific but reliable guide - but we don't know when it will bounce back.

We can only guess, and hope. We can guess that this recession will be worse than the one in 1981 but not as bad as the one that we call the Great Depression and that began in 1929. We can hope that the country doesn't lose its moorings - it didn't in the Great Depression years - even though it has lost about 40 percent of its portfolio. We can hope too that amid the severe heartbreak and hardship, the economy and the country will emerge smarter and stronger. We might even fix a few highways and prevent a few Minnesota bridge collapses.

Every economic cloud has its silver lining, and here is this one's, if we are lucky: This recession may shake the flab and rot out of the economy and, as a result, the new economy of the new era may be sharper, more focused, leaner, and shrewder.

We already have reaped some lessons that we should have learned in previous recessions: We now know that unfettered spending is as dumb for adults who should know better as it is for the kids to whom we have tried to teach the lessons of restraint. We now know that a deal that sounds too good to be true (and here the phrase "subprime mortgage" comes to mind) probably is too good to be true. We now know that the good times don't roll forever.

Of course we knew all that before, but we didn't pay attention, which is why we're in the trouble we're in. Learn those lessons this time around and we'll have earned the next boom, whenever it comes.



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