A Planet-Sized Sense of Foreboding

“In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer

Turn on your television, or log on to the Internet, or pick up a newspaper – in whatever way you get your daily news, chances are pretty good you’re seeing a lot of stories like this:

Writing for the BBC, Economist Chris Williamson recently summarized the moribund state of the global economy:

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“Four years after the financial crisis began and the world has certainly not returned to normal.

No major developed economy has yet fully regained the output lost during the recession and global share prices remain almost a third lower than their peak prior to the crisis.

Financial stocks have lost two-thirds of their value. Government debt has spiralled due to the bank bailouts, although it has become apparent that not all governments can finance this debt.”

“The crisis has consequently taken on an increasingly political focus in recent months.

Political leaders are struggling to manage a situation where austerity measures designed to reduce deficits and retain credit worthiness have coincided with a near-stalling of developed world recoveries.

Economic growth slowed to 0.3% in the US and 0.2% in the UK. Germany – the eurozone’s hitherto star performer – expanded just 0.1% and France stagnated.”

Williamson explains that Stage One of the crisis was the transfer of toxic liabilities from the financial sector to governments – the so-called bailouts and stimulus packages that have created massive government debt – and that Stage Two of the crisis appears to be the transfer of liabilities from weaker governments to stronger ones, most clearly exemplified by recent EU intervention on behalf of Greece. Williamson doesn’t say what Stage Three might be, but the implications are disturbing; the “stronger governments” –  Germany, France, and the UK in Europe, the US, and China – are the end of the line. Sinophile analysts would like to think China will come out the winner in all this since the four Western powers are quite obviously sailing into dire straits, and that is probably true – but in the relative sense that “bad” conditions are better than “horrible” ones, because China has its own unique set of problems.  China is saddled with a massive over-capacity in housing, infrastructure, and durable goods, and as a result, an enormous level of domestic debt. Easing that debt without resorting to a similar sort of massive financial intervention as what has occurred in the West requires revenue, and that requires jobs and investment – things that become much harder to develop when global markets for China’s export-driven economy are spending much less.

The planet-sized sense of foreboding comes from the incredible depth of uncertainty about the future.  Economists  talk about ways the world’s major powers can engineer a “soft landing,” but the dysfunction in the global economy is at a fundamental level, and for every suggestion that is made there is another condition that will prevent it from working. Predictions are invidious, because the world has never been in a place quite like this before, and the uneasiness is manifesting itself in unusual and sometimes frightening ways. The uprisings across the Arab world are easy to connect to economic tribulations, but the speed and scope of the upheaval –three governments upended, two on the brink, and at least four more at serious risk – are unprecedented.  At any other time, Anders Behring Breivik’s rampage in Norway could be written off as a horribly tragic aberration; now we’re not so sure, particularly when things like the riots in the UK, which in themselves were not unprecedented, are carried out by young people who are not the usual suspects. India at the moment has come to a virtual standstill in a drama between the government and a civil society activist over the adoption of a Lokpal (Ombudsman) law aimed at curbing rampant corruption in that country.

Even the environment seems to have a grudge against humanity, with 2011 so far witnessing, among other things, massive flooding in Australia in January; a destructive earthquake in New Zealand in February; the appalling disaster in Japan in March; the worst outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded in the US in April; flooding of epic proportions in the Mississippi valley in May; huge wildfires in Arizona in June; and a brutal heat wave in the eastern US in July.  And those are just the ‘normal’ events; 2011 has also seen such oddities as massive numbers of dead birds and fish in different parts of the world, a bizarre city-sized mirage which appeared over the Xin’an River in China, and just this week, a rare damaging earthquake in the eastern US. Certainly, only the apocalyptically religious or the tinfoil hat-wearing, late-night talk radio audience would make more of any of this than Mother Earth just doing her thing; but the coincidence of what seems like an unusually high frequency of natural calamities occurring at a time when our social and political systems are not in the best shape to deal with them doesn’t make the rest of us less superstitious people feel secure, either.

What all this means is that all of our relationships are changing; the relationships of states to the global system, the relationships of states to each other, the relationships of governments to business, the relationships of people to their governments and institutions, the relationship of Mankind to his environment. These are all processes that have been happening for a long time, of course, but at no point in our history has the process been so accelerated and comprehensive. We are right to feel uneasy, because the only real plan we can devise to face an uncertain future is …to plan for uncertainty.

Instead of looking into the fog of the future and imagining what we want to see, we ought to be imagining what might be there. It’s an exercise in asking ourselves “What if…?” over and over again.

What if a million or more OFWs lose their jobs because of economic recession, or labor nationalization, or both?

What if the catastrophic earthquake, drought, typhoon, or health emergency happens here?

What if economic conditions and competitive wisdom cause others among the few foreign enterprises still here to “do an Intel” or “do a UPS?”

What if they actually do get around to changing the system of government …and the people, in their democratic wisdom, give the Liberal Party and all its usual suspects control of Parliament?

What if, instead of finding peace in Mindanao, the people of the Bangsamoro decide to just go ahead and secede, having (probably correctly) realized the government of the Philippines can’t actually do eff-all about it?

What if China decides to test the Philippines’ new-found courage that arrived with the 40-odd year-old American hand-me-down Gregorio del Pilar, and send some of the at least 83 ships in its own fleet that outclass her to make a point in the Spratlys?

For that matter, what if the only thing the President hears on his upcoming visit to Beijing is not how much money the Chinese plan to spend here, but how they’re rather offended that he chose to refuse to offer the requested apology to the survivors of the Manila Bus Massacre, and instead visited his “new” warship on the anniversary of the tragedy while, as Jojo Robles of The Manila Standard points out, “Just a kilometer away up the same road, the relatives of the victims of the massacre, in town to seek an apology from the government, gathered for a Buddhist rite to honor the dead at the Quirino Grandstand.”

What if, what if, what if. No one wants to ask that here, because Filipinos – and in some cases, the apologists for their mediocrity – are not wired to face uncertainty. But if there’s one thing the last couple of years should have taught us all, it is that there is no such thing as “too big to fail.” That applies to the jobs we always thought we’d have, the financial safety nets we thought would be there in our old age, the sanctity of a home as a good investment, the giant corporations, or even entire countries. The sincere vagueness of Pinoy belief that “somehow things will just work themselves out” is certainly not too big to fail. “Just roll with it” is not a plan. One inflexible solution with no alternatives and little bearing on reality is not a plan, either. It’s easy to blame the government for our insecurity, because governments do a lot of stupid things. But in a democracy, government is just the mirror we look in – complaining about the mirror or even changing it doesn’t make us any prettier. Once we understand that – all of us, from whichever side of the ocean we’re from – maybe then we’ll have earned the ability to look at the future with honest hope and not trepidation.

3 Replies to “A Planet-Sized Sense of Foreboding”

  1. We live in uncertain times…we are being led by uncertain people. If we would like to know about our future; just look at our pasts…People like us lived with the same anxieties of thier future, as we are now.
    The Egyptians, who were the World Power during the Ancient Times; conquered nations like the Romans. Wars were fought to gain territories. However, national development were not attended to. There were crops failures. Crops simply refused to grow, because of the wars…
    I’ve read on the Quatrain Prophesies of Nostradamus, and the Allegory Prophecies of the Book of Revelation, written by St. John the Divine. It points, that we’re nearing the End times of our Era, or civilization…
    If it will come…we cannot do anything about it…let it come, and renew our consciousness…

  2. In the world of commerce, failed banks are taken over by healthy banks who strip them of the stinking assets, throw out the duplicate costs of running two banks, and make hay while the sun shines. I wonder what would happen if Germany said, we will absorb Greece within our nation and save the rest of you the burden. (a) Greece would get tough, for the politicians would know it is their asses that would be consolidated away. (2) Other European nations would pony up to bail Greece out. End of crisis.

    Go Germany.

    To me, an “apologist” is one who apologizes. I think recognizing the good that President Aquino does, as well as the bad, is hardly being an “apologist”. “Apologist” as you use it tends to be a loaded word that seeks to diminish or negate any voice backing him, thereby suppressing open minded debate.

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