Looking at our besieged globe, it's difficult to know if we're dealing with a tragedy or a comedy. Whatever your viewpoint, it certainly smells a lot like my Chicago Cubs. Win a few games, then strike out--again!--with the bases loaded. Aargh. Collectively, we are like wounded exhausted soldiers trying to make it to the top of the hill--only to discover a dozen more hills ahead.
The Greek play (tragedy, comedy) began over 2,500 years ago, but this current resurgence makes it the longest off-Broadway play in history. Not many are celebrating, though. Greece entered the Eurozone in 2000, but their accounting techniques disguised its true economic state. This was followed by a decade of statistical manipulation and debt under-reporting. Finally, in May 2010, someone opened their closet door, lifted high the lantern, and screamed.
Who are the villains? Ancient Greek plays used only three actors, but today's playbill lists eleven million. For starters, politicians, economists, and financial institutions. The populace daily demonstrates their rage, and rightly so. Futures have been snatched away as the average worker's share of the national debt is an incomprehensible $250,000. But the citizenry must also look in the mirror. Generous pensions, entitlements, holidays, early retirement = profligate spending. Even the universities, where tuition is free, teachers make few demands, students take 7.6 yrs to complete a first degree, and many turn to political activism. Police are forbidden on campus, resulting in drug dealing and bomb making. (A new law confronts such foolishness.)
We might (a bit hypocritically) laugh it off in the US, but Europe can't. No matter how frustrated they become, the Eurozone is linked in dysfunction and no one quite knows what to do about it. French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel, at great risk, championed yet another bailout plan. "If Greece had defaulted," Sarkozy said, "there would have been a domino effect carrying everyone away." Merkel predicted "If the euro fails, then Europe fails." At the last possible moment, previously respected Greek Prime Minister Papandreou put on his comedy mask and announced a disastrous referendum proposal. Betrayed, Europe went ballistic.
Perhaps it's too late anyway. Contagion has already escaped the bottle and is spreading across the continent like The Blob. Belgium, Portugal, Hungary, Italy, and Spain have experienced credit-rating downgrades in the last couple of months. Powerhouses Germany and France have received warnings. As a consequence, the costs of financing debt through treasury bond auctions has soared. It does not bode well that Germany, anchor of the Eurozone, failed a bond offering a few days ago.
My thesis throughout is that something has switched, changed, lurched. We live in an unprecedented moment in history. The world is a different place, one marked by dysfunctional math, high levels of volatility, and soft-anarchy. Notice in the following list of countries how soft-anarchy is reflected in public opinion polls. In the case of any single country, low approval ratings are not particularly newsworthy. Taken across an entire globe, however, we begin to discern a pattern of how things are being shaken.
Italy - Silvio Berlusconi (approval 30%), the 75-year old billionaire prime minister of Italy, resigned in scandal two weeks ago and was replaced by a caretaker prime minister and a cabinet of technocrats. His infamous bunga-bunga parties wore thin and vacating office now leaves him exposed to prosecution on three charges. Despite his swaggering style and personal wealth, his tenure saw Italy sink rapidly into the debt crisis.
Spain - In power since 2004, the Socialist party (approval 30%, down from 44% in 2008) last week suffered their worst defeat since the 1975 transition to democracy. With deep indebtedness and unemployment at 22%--highest in Europe--many are fatalistic about their economic prospects. "We can choose the sauce they will cook us in, but we're still going to be cooked," said a 45-year-old civil servant.
Germany - Angela Merkel, Germany's first female chancellor and the longest serving leader in the Eurozone, has responsibility for the fourth largest economy in the world. However, a poll in August found her coalition with only 36% support compared to a rival coalition's 51%, and her party has recently lost regional elections in areas of previous strength.
France - President Sarkozy's approval has improved recently to 34% in the run-up to elections early next year. Prime Minister Fillon warned this month that France has been overspending for thirty years and that "Bankruptcy ... was no longer an abstract word."
Belgium - Despite hosting the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, this small country with compulsory voting has not had a permanent government for 530 days.
Greece - George Papandreou became prime minister of Greece in 2009, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He soon discovered that the country's debt problems were three times worse than stated by the previous party. It was all downhill after that. Unemployment doubled. Internal politics, European pressures, and IMF stipulations were enough to cross a rabbi's eyes. "As far as Greece is concerned, the news changes by the minute," said one market economist. The people are always in the streets, deeply resentful of austerity measures. When Papandreou offered the referendum and then withdrew it, his already-low approval plummeted more. He resigned three weeks ago and a new PM was appointed until February elections.
Japan - This battered country just installed its sixth prime minister in five years. Who would want such a job? Tsunami devastation, nuclear meltdown and contamination, national debt twice the size of its economy, low growth, aging population and dwindling workforce.
Afghanistan - President Karzai has never hidden his hatred for Pakistanis. It was therefore all the more stunning when he said last month, "God forbid, if any war took place between Pakistan and the United States, we will stand by Pakistan." After 1,800 U.S. deaths and half-a-trillion U.S. dollars, this swallows hard. Anarchy? You want anarchy? Stay tuned.
Pakistan - Following the death of Osama bin Laden, Pakistanis increased their disdain of everything American. The sixth most populous nation and the "most dangerous country in the world" is barely governable. A memo to Admiral Mullen, Chairmen of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, surfaced earlier this month allegedly seeking U.S. assistance on behalf of President Zardari to prevent a military takeover. That such a document came to light will harm all parties. Also, breaking news this morning reveals a helicopter strike by NATO forces that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. In response, Pakistan shut down NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. This escalation is potentially very serious.
Israel-Iran-Arab Spring - Regrettably, as you know, there is nothing positive to report in this theater. I really must write soon on this epicenter of concern. Following the recent and worrisome IAEA report about Iranian nuclear programs, talk of Israel attacking Iran has grown rapidly. One of these days, it will not be a rumor.
U.S. - A CBS/NYTimes poll last month gave Congress a 9% approval rating. President Obama's approval rating currently is 43.4% with elections a year away (as low as 39% Gallup in August). The only two recent incumbent presidents with approval numbers this low (Carter and Ford) lost reelection attempts. Additionally, no president in the past fifty years has been reelected with unemployment higher than 7.2% (currently 9.0%). While our economy is marginally better than Europe's, this is a tightly-coupled world and we continuously fear the cross-Atlantic contagion from Europe. The Supercommittee failure last week makes one wonder how we will ever be able to solve our massive debt burden.
In this work of watching trends, data points often speed past my eyes so rapidly that I'm "content-fried." My hair hurts. If you've read this far, perhaps yours does as well. A few final thoughts.
- I'll never advise that we ignore the signs of the times, but I would suggest that we take selective holidays away from news, depending on our personalities and tolerance.
- Having said that, we are always called to "be alert" and to "be wise." Willful ignorance never solves problems. So pay attention, but never allow despair access to your spirit.
- Consider periodically disconnecting, or, even further, perhaps practicing technological asceticism for a period. Cultivate a therapeutic aloofness to advertising.
- Widespread soft-anarchy suggests to us a different direction: affirmation. May we do so often and generously. Spreading goodwill not only heals the other but ourselves as well.
- The Thanksgiving-Advent-Christmas-New Year's season is an appropriate time to look up and to look out. We have much to be thankful for. Let us focus on eternal priorities and give ourselves to the things that matter most.