Free Fall: December 2008.

I'm writing this because I know people will look back sometime and wonder, 'What were they thinking? What was it like?'

I don't pretend to be H. L. Mencken, but I want to make sure I knew. The beauty of the Internet is that whenever I'm wrong, someone will happily tell me. (Although sometimes too, people will say this even when I'm right. Either way, this document is incomplete without your comments, so for-god's-sake write some. Please don't leave me falling alone through cyberspace.)

Here, at the end of the Bush years, the bottom has suddenly dropped out of the world just like this summer's bad remake of 'Journey to the Center of the Earth'.

The Presidential election brought no resolution. Americans are still in mid-fall, struggling to stay upright and wondering when it will end.

No one wants to say this financial crisis may last for years, but that's our deepest fear. As we tumble down the elongated shaft of the global economy like astronauts falling through space, our stunned faces ask: 'where's the ground?' Nothing below us is visible.

It began with the greed of our financial institutions, but irresponsibility, not greed, is this moment's main theme: inflated greed bred catastrophically irresponsible corruption more widespread than anyone imagined possible.

This week's flavors -- Blago and Madoff -- are only symptoms of our irresponsibility to ourselves. No one was willing to admit that something too good to be true wasn't. And now, in a time of need more extreme than any since the Great Depression, we wait again not wanting to say that if the fall doesn't kill us, we may encounter monsters worse than anything Jules Verne could imagine.

I say this because -- together -- climate change and national poverty will bring drought, mega-fires, famine, and disease: all of the horsemen.

How did it happen?

Well -- irresponsibly -- our politicians accepted money from lobbyists and then removed the safeguards that restrained lending institutions. Suddenly there were higher revenues born of easy credit and this spurred decades of growth...

But then, widespread bad debts created shortages of money which in turn created steeply declining consumption.

Manufacturers' supplies backed up from the lack of demand and this restrained production. Jobs were lost and less production meant less demand for energy so oil prices fell.

Hell bells, the price of everything fell.

Retail outlets this December are desperate to sell goods. Weeks before Christmas-Hanukkah you can get 25% off anything at most outlets. If you had the money and wanted to risk committing yourself to payments, you could get $1000 back for buying a new car with 0% financing over the next three years.

A dealership in Belgium is giving a free compact to anyone who buys a sedan. But there are few takers.

Not many people want to assume the personal responsibility of a large, bad debt in a bad time. They have loved ones, families, mortgages. They need to hold onto their shelter and put food on the table, if they can: (a big if these days).

For politicians and financiers though, responsibility is a less tangible thing. In our world, a professional entrenched in a faceless system of other professionals is rarely accountable.

For instance, power brokers at the top of a political food chain can line their pockets with impunity while weakening their temporary administration with bad appointments who are willing to pay. Everyone involved will cover for the dishonest bribe-taker rather than risk exposing himself, and -- of course -- law enforcement is usually reluctant to turn on its own masters.

Last week, a dishonest pol was caught stuffing his pockets with payola. Blagojevich's lack of responsibility is Rabelaisian: there's no sense of shame at being caught. He's decided his own best interest means hanging onto office until he can bargain for a reduced sentence. Dynamite won't get him out of there.

Similarly, if you make money by encouraging people to assume bad debts, the debts are then packaged and spread across a faceless financial network. This doesn't make you less culpable, but it does remove personal consequences.

The size and complexity of our society, therefore, removes commitment, and engagement, the human forces that inhibit greed. And since size and complexity also remove the possibility of punishment, people become free to act irresponsibly.

-- And now everybody within clicking distance knows what a cheerful son-of-a-bitch I really am. So Merry Christmas-Hanukkah to you all and...

Humbug to 2008!