The Importance of Thinking the Unthinkable

The Importance of Thinking the Unthinkable

Author Kurt Andersen’s new book, Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America, examines the economic, political and cultural opportunities to be found in the wake of the financial crises. In this excerpt, the fifth of five pieces to appear on, he urges America to keep its edge, even as the recession fades.

Although the famous Chinese curse May you live in interesting times is not, in fact, a Chinese curse, given China’s enabling role in our present predicament it ought to be. Since the fall of 2007, 35% of the value of publicly traded companies has evaporated, along with $3 trillion worth of home equity — $10,000 per American man, woman and child — and five million jobs. Iconic businesses and whole industries are variously dead and dying.

But these times are not just accursed, not simply an awful episode to be endured — they really are interesting times, because of the new and possibly improved America that might be created out of the wreckage. Last fall, the unthinkable became thinkable and then, in a matter of a few weeks, actual. A signature phrase of the decade, shock and awe, suddenly had an additional meaning.

Yet as the recession ends and the sense of crisis fades, we mustn’t lose our freshly, painfully acquired ability to think the unthinkable. We need to keep downside risks in mind, to remember that good times can dramatically end and systems suddenly fail. But in plotting our national reconstruction and reinvention it’s just as important — and maybe more so — to imagine the unimaginable on the upside. As we gasp in horror at our half glass of water, we really can — must — see it as half full as well as half empty.

This reset moment will not last for long, let alone forever. History and the zeitgeist keep moving. It’s a good bet that the 2020s will be fully roaring, the dawn of yet another thrilling, manic era of hypercapitalist easy money and overnight fortunes and conspicuous consumption.

So this next couple of years are our window of opportunity for a carefully considered reset. The untenable status quo, most obviously and critically in how we use energy and pay for health care and educate our citizens, but also in the ways we define contentment, are not immutable givens. Rather, they are the results of choices we made and habits we acquired and systems we built back in the 20th century. Different, 21st century choices are now available to us. Dysfunction and profligacy aren’t inevitable, and the American tendency to magical thinking can be kept in check. The diehard opposition of powerful institutions to fundamental change is implacable, for sure, but it isn’t invincible. We can rediscover common sense and the better angels of our nature. We possess the ability to rejigger and renovate our lives and our country as necessary. But to get there we have to keep thinking the unthinkable.

Read Kurt Andersen’sRESET blog on
Read the first, second, third, and fourth excerpts from Reset.

Click here to purchase a copy of Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America.