Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America

Kurt Anderson, the co-founder of Spy (one of my favorite magazines ever) and the host of the smart public radio program Studio 360, has written a pithy, inspired, and inspiring book called Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America.

In 96 pages, Anderson describes the United States' previous boom and bust cycles and explains why the bust cycles are essential for innovation and improvement of living standards for everyone. Times of crisis, he says, open new opportunities for making positive changes.


200907160905 From the beginning of the 1980s through 2007, the share of disposable income that each household spent paying off its mortgage and consumer debt increased by 35 percent. Back in 1982, the average American household saved 11 percent of its disposable income, but then the percentage steadily dropped, to less than 1 percent in 2007. 

Not coincidentally, it was during this same period that state-sanctioned and state-run gambling became ubiquitous in America. Until the late 1980s, only Nevada and New Jersey had casinos, but now twelve states do, and forty-eight of the fifty have some form of legalized betting. It's as if we decided that Mardi Gras and Christmas are so much fun we ought to make them year-round ways of life. We started living large literally as well as figuratively. From the beginning to the end of the long boom, the size of the average new American house increased by half, even as the average family became smaller. During the two decades ending 2007, the average new American car got 29 percent heavier, 89 percent more powerful, and 2 percent less efficient. Meanwhile, the average American gained about a pound a year, so that an adult of a given age is now at least twenty pounds heavier than someone of the same age during the 1970s. Back in the late 1970s, 15 percent of Americans were obese; more than a third of us are now. 


It's as if the Roaring Twenties, instead of crashing to a halt in 1929, had lasted all the way until 1945, uninterrupted by a depression or world war. Despite the recession of 1990 . . . and the popped bubble in technology stocks in 2000 . . . and then another recession . . . and the terrorist attacks in 2001 . . . despite all of it, the 1980s spirit endured, like an awesome winning streak in Las Vegas or a multigenerational rave that went on and on and on. The Soviet Union collapsed: yes! American-style capitalism triumphed and spread: hooray! So what if every year since the turn of the twenty- first century the U.S. economy was growing much more slowly than the global economy? The (Chinese-made) stuff we were all buying at Walmart and Costco and H&M stayed supercheap-as did money itself, which our new best friends, the Chinese, obligingly supplied to us by the low-interest-rate trillion. The fresh technological miracles and wonders just kept on coming, reinforcing our sense that progress was on the march and magic was in the air. Even 9/11 and our resulting Iraqi debacle, after a while, came to seem like mere bumps in the road. 

Deep down we had an inkling at least that the spiral of over- leverage and overspending and the prices of stocks and houses bubbling ever higher were unsustainable, just as everyone figured that the unprecedented performances of baseball players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens couldn't be kosher, but . . . no one wanted to be a buzz kill. From 1982 until 2008, we partied like it was 1999. 

Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America


  1. a good time to start small manufacturing concerns. The hollowing out of the industrial sector by off-shoring to China is about to reverse in earnest. Also, invest in “Buy Local” and “Eat Local” T-shirts.

  2. At last! A perspective that is useful to all. No arguing about whether or not we are in an economic down-turn, just practical applications about how it can be turned to good use. Any cloud truly does have a silver lining, and if we learn to be more disciplined as Americans, good can come of this “crisis.”

  3. #1, Takuan:

    invest in “Buy Local” and “Eat Local” T-shirts.

    I’m going for “Buy local, eat lo-cal”.

  4. People will return to their old ways eventually. We got to our current culture even though we went through WWII and the Depression. Give a few generations and it’ll be right back to where it was.

  5. @ #6

    you’re right. no one should ever try to do anything new for that very reason. i’m glad you’re here to reign in all this reckless optimism.

  6. Speaking of reigning in reckless optimism, I hate to say it, but America’s not ready to admit its mistake- we’re going to hit a much harder “economic downturn” than 2008’s before people start waking up. Everything Andersen wrote is true, but also obvious while it was happening, and nobody cared. I look around me, and it’s clear that nobody still cares. People still live their credit-maxed life, buy tons of new useless shit, eat garbage, and have no desire to change their habits. We talk about the economy, but our daily lives don’t reflect the kind of “paradigm shift” we all know we need. I’m doing my part, for what it’s worth…

  7. All things considered, I think that selling a book with fewer than 100 pages for $10 is bound to be good for the economy.

  8. #8: That’s not quite true. The savings rate has gone way up.

    And people are gardening more.

    And for what it’s worth, the local Goodwill chain (“Goodwill Industries of the Willamette Valley,” an amazingly well-run outfit) has seen sales in its thrift stores rise by 8% or so.

    We’re not out of the woods, in our cultural and economic habits, but I think we’ve made a start. We’ve shown we’re still capable of change.

  9. So basically, it’s like The Shock Doctrine, only this time it’s a good thing because the proposed subversion of democracy is to enact measures I happen to agree with – have I got that about right?

  10. The title of this book intrigues me, but the excerpt posted here says nothing about how the crisis can “restore our values and renew America.” Wouldn’t it be nice to have shared something positive and perhaps have a positive influence, rather than this dreary list of statistics? I’m just sayin’.

  11. @#14 JPHILBY Not to mention how banks have fundamentally changed to rake in fees as a profit device. Really needs close examination.

  12. @#13:Living proof that accompanying boom and bust cycles is an increase in loony theories and, cue the drums, since 1913 attacks on the Federal Reserve. Apparently your access to history doesn’t begin any earlier than that. Save your allowance and get a real history book.

  13. Living proof that accompanying boom and bust cycles is an increase in loony theories and, cue the drums, since 1913 attacks on the Federal Reserve. Apparently your access to history doesn’t begin any earlier than that. Save your allowance and get a real history book.

    The business cycles are caused by fractional reserve banking, which existed before the Fed, but never as centralized and institutionalized as since the founding of the Fed.

    (It’s a “subtle” point that even the Wikipedia entry on ABCT misleads the reader on.)

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