Looking To the Past To See the Future: More Anxiety May Await Us

BY Paul Solman  December 8, 2010 at 2:54 PM EDT

Name: Sophia Shelko

Question: What does the future hold for people that have lost or have been victims of this economic crisis? An example: those who faced foreclosures of their homes and had their credit ruined.

Paul Solman: If the past is any guide, the future holds continued — quite possibly heightened — anxiety. Ever since Asians crossed the Alaskan land bridge to North America, I imagine, humans have been traipsing here to improve their lot in life. That was certainly true of the European migrations. Religious freedom played a role, but as Bernard Bailyn’s “Peopling of British North America” argues, economic opportunity was paramount.

So what happens to those who have lost their jobs and homes? What kind of public-spirited citizens are they likely to be if their hopes are dashed? How is America likely to flourish?

Harvard economist Ben Friedman wrote this at the beginning of his major book, “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth”:

Economic growth — meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens — more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.

Friedman spent almost 600 pages making the case. If you buy his argument — and I do — then inequality, rising again in the wake of the financial crisis, may be the greatest challenge facing America.