The exquisite morbidity of the BP oil spill has concentrated the collective national mind like few other events in this ongoing long emergency. How many times a day does it occur to you — perhaps while sitting in traffic, or oogling some girl in a nearby cubicle, or cruising the freezer stacks in the supermarket — that one mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico that crude is just blasting away into the deep blue sea? Anyway, it troubles my hours. But what if it hadn’t happened? What if the nation’s attention was not fixed on the “fierce urgency” of this disaster and we were left with all the tiresome familiar problems of politics and economy?
After the financial storms of May, people in the knife-and-fork-using nations may feel that all our troubles with money have been sorted out and settled. Greece had an apoplexy and Europe somehow survived — at least so far. Spain fell to its knees and apparently remains there, in mid-aria, waiting for an orchestra to strike up the next measure. Portugal is trying to hide in plain sight, like a beach-goer who has lost swimsuit in the surf. Hungary choked on something last week and was left sitting at the table with its face in a plate of goulash. Iceland has been put on, well, on ice after stiffing its British account holders. The Brits have discovered that they have enough money to run their country in the style of Edward the confessor. France is weeping over all the Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese bad paper in its bank vaults. Italy, having become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Silvio Berlusconi, is eating lunch under the grape arbors. The Baltic states are sinking into a northern peat bog of penury…. And Germany remains upright, wondering how it can wiggle out of this sad-ass collective of fazed cookies.
June so far is a strange ebb tide of events relating to the world’s money, but when the water goes out like that, you know it’s sure to return before long, and the peaceful mud-flats of June may vanish under a summer tsunami. I know I’m not alone in the creepy feeling that really nothing has been sorted out and the world is waiting to get hammered six days to Sunday by the consequences of living too large for too long. The markets have been stranded, too, gyrating on the peculiar life-support of robot-traders — since all the humans have packed up and left the scene for higher ground.
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President Obama may be lucky that he has something he can pretend to be decisive about in the BP oil spill. It’s allowed him to completely avoid taking a public stand on crucial parts of the financial reform legislation working its way through congress like a stinking bolus. For instance, where does Mr. Obama stand on the reform of credit default swap activities? This dark realm of swindling has come close to choking the American money system to death — and might yet do the job — but the president hasn’t offered up a word of leadership on it. My guess is that the gestures of reform will leave reform completely unfinished by the time the high water of events starts rushing back in. All the structural fault-lines will remain as even more decay sets in and new cracks appear. Something is gonna give this summer.
It all comes down to one thing: the world is mismanaging contraction. The world will not solve the problems of massive over-complexity with more complexity. But scaling down is apparently not an option. It will happen whether we participate or not. The USA is like Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.
This article has been published on James Howard Kunstler’s blog.