A Trembling World

A TREMBLING WORLD
Part One

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

In early August, our grandson Taylor and our son Greg, joined Connie and me on a whirlwind visit to Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Vatican City, and Croatia. The day-trips were long (9 – 11 hours the norm for most of them) and the pace far faster than we’d have preferred [more on that in a later blog series].

I had the advantage over the other three in that I knew Spanish. Because of that, I understood some French and two-thirds of the Italian dialogue. Croatian, of course, was a different story.

Connie and I had been to Europe three times before. This time, however, the mood there was radically different from what it had been earlier. Gone was the assumption that united Europe (the Common Market) was a global powerhouse on a par with the United States and (during the 1970s, U.S.S.R.). Not so this time. As one Italian told me, “I am frightened, for the whole world is trembling beneath my feet.”

I found that perception reinforced by others I spoke with. Gone is their erstwhile euphoria and smug complacency; gone too the unspoken assumptions that the entire continent would bask in lolling on their beaches during the entire month of August and that the cradle-to-the-grave care they’d been promised by the state was a given. In their daily news, the dominoes continue to fall: first Greece, then storm clouds gathered over the likes of the U.K., Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy—and now, possibly France. No one knows what nation’s economy will come under fire next.

As for the U.S. and our part in the global fiscal mess, I found that, rather than anger they felt disillusioned, accompanied by a profound loss of respect. They clearly expected much more of us than for our administration and Congress to put their possible re-election ahead of the needs of the American people and the world. For it was our inexcusable unwillingness to come together for a solution to our national debt ceiling that has exacerbated and even precipitated the world-wide plunge of stock markets.

In this vein, deeply sobering is Time Magazine’s August 22 cover story: “The Decline and Fall of Europe (And Maybe the West).” It begins with these riveting words: “Its economic union is unraveling, London is ablaze, and the continent’s once dependable trading partner the U.S. is too feeble to save the day or the euro. Say goodbye to the old order.”

Rana Forgohar (the writer of the cover story) postulates that “This is no blip but a crisis of the old order. . . . It is a crisis that is shaking not only markets, jobs and national growth prospects but an entire way of thinking about how the world works–in this case, the assumption that life gets better and opportunities richer for each successive generation in the West.”

Dominic Sandbrook in his “Capitalism in Crisis (London Daily Mail, Aug. 6, 2011) begins his sobering essay with his conclusion: “Eighty years ago, a banking collapse devastated Europe, triggering war. Today, faith in free markets is faltering again. . . . But in the summer of 2011, with the euro zone in chaos, the British economy stagnant and the U.S. crippled by debt, with social mobility at a standstill and millions of ordinary families squeezed until they can barely breathe, it feels disturbingly familiar.”

Sandbrook goes on to point out that not since the global meltdown of the 1930’s has the gap between rich and poor been as great as today; “with bankers still pocketing gigantic bonuses and Europe swept with a wave of austerity, even the Right are beginning to wonder whether the system is intolerably loaded in favour of rich metropolitan elites.”

And what happened next eighty years ago? In Sandbrook’s words: “Many turned to the Right, swelling the rank of the Nazis and their allies. In Britain, a generation of intellectuals turned their backs on capitalism, placing their faith in the utopian idealism of Soviet Communism and closing their eyes to the horrors of Stalin’s barbaric regime.”

In that same issue of the Daily Mail, City Editor Alex Brummer penned these scathing lines: “There has been a terrible failure of politics in America and euroland, where leaders have shied away from bold decisions and the gritty determination needed to follow them through. Those who will suffer the most from this inaction are millions of households in Britain and the rest of the western world, who face dramatic falls in their living standards.”

Truly, we are faced with a global crisis of epic proportions, a subject I have referred to from time to time in earlier blogs: That no global template lasts. Sooner or later it wears out, and something entirely different inevitably follows—usually after years of world-wide trauma and upheaval.

We will continue to explore this subject in next Wednesday’s blog.