Friday, March 20, 2009


March 19,2009

You’d think if some tiger were lunging at your neck, your attention would be riveted on the tiger. But that’s apparently not how it works in the age of global A.D.D. As a tiger sinks its teeth into the world’s neck, we focus on the dust bunnies under the bed and the floorboards that need replacing on the deck. We live in the world of Perverse Cosmic Myopia, an inability to focus attention on the most perilous matter at hand.
The tiger, of course, is the collapsing world financial system. Americans actually have a falsely mild view of this crisis because the economy is worse abroad. The U.N.’s International Labor Organization projects between 30 million and 50 million job losses worldwide. Central European countries are teetering; Japan’s economy is horrifying; and the Chinese job creation machine is losing the race against its demographic pressures.
There have been riots in Greece and China as well as huge protest rallies in Dublin, Paris, London and beyond. So far, the protesters express anger without an agenda, but if the global economy continues to slide through 2010, they’ll discover one. A predictable result is a series of beggar-thy-neighbor exchange-rate policies, followed by rising trade barriers and the degradation of the entire global system.
In times like these, you’d expect prudent leaders to prepare for the worst. After all, the pessimists have recently been vindicated by events. But that’s apparently too painful to think about. In normal times, leaders like to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term. But now the short term is really confusing, so leaders take refuge in projects that are years or decades away.
The president of the United States has decided to address this crisis while simultaneously tackling the four most complicated problems facing the nation: health care, energy, immigration and education. Why he has not also decided to spend his evenings mastering quantum mechanics and discovering the origins of consciousness is beyond me.
The results of this overload are evident on Capitol Hill. The banking plan is incomplete, and there is zero political will to pay for it. The president’s budget is being nibbled to death. The revenue ideas are dying one by one, while the spending ideas expand. By the latest estimate, the health care approach will cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years and the national debt will at least double, while the Chinese publicly complain about picking up the tab.
The Obama administration is at least distracted by important things. The Washington political class has spent the past week going into made-for-TV hysterics over $165 million in A.I.G. bonuses. We’re in the middle of a multitrillion-dollar crisis, and our political masters — always willing to throw themselves into any issue that is understandable on cable television — have decided to risk destroying the entire bank-rescue plan because of bonuses that account for 0.001 percent of the annual G.D.P.
Even this is not the most idiotic of the distractions. For that, you have to look abroad.
This is a global crisis, and a core lesson of the Great Depression is that a global crisis calls for a global response. As such, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers are preparing for the upcoming G-20 summit with an agenda that has the merit of actually addressing the problem at hand: coordinate global stimulus, strengthen the International Monetary Fund, preserve open trade.
But the G-20 process is heading toward global impotence because the Europeans are dismissing this approach. Instead, they want to spend this moment of peril working on a long-term architecture to regulate global finance. The world is in flames and they want directorates and multilateral symposia and vague plans for a powerless “college of supervisors.” This is what Marie Antoinette would be for if she were an annual Davos attendee.
Why are they taking this position? First, many European leaders think the answer to every problem is more global architecture. They’ve got Jean Monnet on the brain. Second, they prefer to free-ride on the stimulus packages that the Americans and Chinese are already paying for. Third, the fiscally responsible European countries can’t commit to a policy that their debt-ridden partners can’t live up to. Fourth, some reject the idea of using fiscal policy to end recessions.
Some of these reasons have merit, especially the last one. But one thing is for sure: The American agenda might work to ease the immediate crisis, but efforts to build a long-range global architecture certainly will not. After all the pious talk about post-Bush international cooperation, the current approach will lead to a big multilateral zero.
Many people used to wonder how the world’s leaders could be so myopic at various points in history — like during the Versailles Treaty or the turmoil of the 1930s. We don’t have to wonder any more. We get to watch the cosmic myopia replay itself in our own times.