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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Moral Origins of the Great Recession

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

On September 23, David Bosworth visited the Boisi Center to discuss his new book The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America: The Moral Origins of the Great Recession. Bosworth, a professor in the University of Washington’s Creative Writing Program, explained that he wrote the book in an attempt to unearth the moral and cultural changes that were at the root of the housing market bubble and collapse, and the ensuing recession.

Noting that people frequently act contrary to their professed ideals, Bosworth blamed the fact that traditional ideals no longer aptly apply to the changing social situation. He hoped that his book could help people recognize this disjunction and thus realign ideals and realities.

Bosworth pointed to many changes that have occurred since the 1950s, and tried identifying those factors responsible for these changes. Consumerism was a big theme throughout—both in shaping the tastes and lives of consumers, as well as the private lives of employees. Bosworth sees “evangelical mammonism”—the spirit of radical capitalism of our era, which seeks to spread the “good news” of material consumption—as replacing the republican and Judeo-Christian roots of our country, to our great detriment.

When children were raised in the 1950s, time and play were unstructured. Now, the structure of the work place has seeped into private life: children’s lives are scheduled, and their play highly organized. Fifty years ago, there were public spaces—parks, the town square—that facilitated civic life. Now, the indoor mall has replaced the outdoor town square; the benches and plants bespeak this intentional transformation. Except, rather than facilitating civic life, the mall aims only to facilitate consumption.