In 1996, near the end of the 20th century, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan cautioned us against "irrational exuberance." Now, in the 21st century, we live in the age of anxiety.
Shopping is down; shoplifting is up. Here in the Washington area, employment is down, and cases of child abuse and neglect are up. The automakers plead for salvation; the cover of Fortune magazine proclaims, "GM: Death of an American Dream."
Dickens was only half-right. It is not the best of times, but only the worst of times. America, in the grip of a recession that we have exported to much of the world, has lost much of its influence abroad. "Superpower" is an antiquated word. Most galling of all is that this was done to us by people and institutions we trusted.
They exploited our trust by the manipulation of mortgages and credit. The icon for this era is Bernard Madoff, who treated friends as suckers.
Is there any light at the end of this darkening tunnel? Where is what the Greeks called the deus ex machina — the god who descends at the critical moment to sweep all our troubles away?
That could be President-elect Barack Obama, the new kid on the block who summons America to a common effort at rebuilding infrastructure and trust. The task seems superhuman, but it's the only answer we have in the age of anxiety.