It is a special joy when a bright young girl offers to help make dinner, and an even greater joy when she consents to watch the nightly news as she does so. Last night was, for this very reason, a very good night. The bright young girl in question is eight years old. I, like all the players on the television last night, am not.
As Jim Lehrer interviewed Timothy Geithner about the President’s new budget, and ongoing debates about the stimulus package, the following exchange took place:
She: [furrowing her brow at the obviousness of that statement, made by an alleged adult] People who have jobs can’t afford to stay in their homes. Me: Right, and those are the people President Obama says he want so help.
She left to set the table and returned to a flurry of talking heads in a video clip, weighing in on the stimulus package and the market’s perplexing refusal to be reassured.
She: They sure do say the obvious things. Me: They don’t sound much like experts, do they? She: Nobody is.
She: What’s so funny?
The situation is so clear at this point that a child, albeit a bright one, understands it quite clearly. People, many people, are living much closer to the edge than they have in recent memory. And no one seems to know how to help them. The smarty-pants, whether they are elementary school teachers or economic experts, fool no one. They can make you re-do your homework, they can even give you detention, but they can’t win your respect. Not this way. Nobody is an expert in unexplored territory.
If a child can see this, and say it so clearly, then it is incumbent on the adults to start connecting the dots. General Motors has reported another quarter of staggering losses, and its need to dip further into the bailout fund, “in order to weather this recession.” The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) just reported unprecedented losses this quarter as well. The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has gone through its third CEO in as many months. And perhaps most unsettling, recently consented to a US request for information about tax-dodging account holders, thereby violating the sacrosanct, if suspect, principle of absolute privacy.
The details of the adult news cycle confirm the wisdom of the child. Nobody is an expert, not now. Nobody knows what is happening, nor how long it will last. We are truly in uncharted waters, the vast and unsteady sea of globalization. And no one—not the experts, and not even the most well established banks—trusts anyone else to tell them the truth. That’s why the Swiss opted out of principle, because they realize how close to the edge they have veered, too. Like seven year olds late for school, they suddenly and belatedly hear their alarm, awaken to the fact that “trust”’ and “fidelity,” not to mention “securities” and “futures,” are fiscal terms for reasons.
If everybody is a liar, and if everyone is living like there’s no tomorrow, then the system actually may collapse. We are near that now, nearer than the experts or the banks can bring themselves to admit openly.