Time’s Wheel

     Is it too late?
     The continuing economic collapse, that I have long predicted to the folks in the Courthouse News pension fund, seems to have arrived and, if anything, is gaining strength.
     At the same time, a serious contender to lead the nation is a Bible-thumping hockey mom whose idea of government is to hire friends from high school while collecting travel per diem to stay at home. (It’s true she looks good on TV.)
     America has run into plenty of rough patches before and come through scratched up but still moving forward. It feels different this time.
     It is because of the confluence of powerful political populism with a global wind of economic change.
     I have never been a car buff so I’m not sure why the car industry keeps coming to mind when I want to illustrate what is I think is happening to the nation. All the car companies were set back by the hike in the price of oil, for example, the rising Japanese carmakers as well.
     But in the news stories about the collapse of the car market, I recall a car analyst’s comment about Toyota, saying that Toyota is at its best when responding to adversity. Can you say that about Ford or Chrysler or GM.
     And when traveling in Latin America, I was struck by the rise in car ownership in Brazil and in Ecuador, as those economies gain strength. There were all kinds of new cars for sale in their showrooms, brands I had never heard of from Brazil and Korea and other countries.
     There was even a massive, black, almost certainly gas-guzzling, but really cool-looking Citroen on central display at a big shopping mall in Guayaquil.
     But no American cars were on display, none were in the showrooms and none were being sold.
     Americans have long held a reputation abroad as friendly, can-do, business people. They get things done.
     But it is the Chinese, the Brazilians and the Indians who are getting things done these days, who are taking over markets. And our cold-war nemesis, Russia, is well on the rise.
     Such adversity should bring out the innovation and energy of our nation. We should, like Toyota, be at our best facing a challenge.
     That is where I paint political will into the big picture or, more accurately, leave a big blank spot where it should be. It takes political will to build a city of the future in seven years, as was done in Beijing.
     It takes political will and a patient and determined persistence to cobble 27 very different nations and cultures into a European Union of nearly 500 million people and then move that union towards consistent rules and free trade.
     While this is being done by other nations, our bridges and levees and roads fall apart. Our education system erodes and the gap between the wealthy in the U.S. starts to look more like that of a Third World nation than that of any nation in the West.
     But our nation – or more than half of it – currently embraces a “Forward to the Past” presidential candidate who would increase the wealth discrepancies and sustain our military adventures abroad.
     And that same majority enthusiastically admires – including people at Courthouse News – a vice presidential candidate who is primarily a conservative cultural warrior whose big issue is prohibition of abortion, who just got a passport and who appointed as the state head of agriculture someone whose sole qualification was that she liked cows as a child.
     A politician who has governed not through policy but through press releases and personal loyalty.
     I told our pension fund manager months ago that I thought the economic debacle was yet to come and that it would be a long, hard fall. You could compare the last couple months to a financial hurricane season where you have Hurricane Bear Sterns followed by the twin hurricanes, Freddie and Fannie, now Lehman and soon Hurricane AIG.
     They are low pressure systems that are sucking hundreds of billions out of the treasury and flattening the economy like it was some barrier island in the Gulf. But the season ain’t over.
     I looked at what would otherwise be a cool feature on the New York Times website today where you hover your mouse over a financial institution’s name and see how much value it has lost in the last year. Jaw dropping numbers.
     Washington Mutual – 90% loss of value, Citigroup – 58% loss, Wachovia – 68%, and big mama AIG – 82% down. I don’t know how institutions can survive such losses. I don’t think they can.
     So the government, already massively in debt over a misbegotten and tragic war, now starts bailing out banks and brokers with hundreds of billions of dollars. Where oh where does the money come from to get the nation back on track at that point, to pay for health care, for education, for wounded soldiers, for bridges and highways and trains.
     In this abysmal and dark situation, half the nation believes that the same crew that got us into it should keep leading us further down the same path, swinging the righteous sword of abortion banning and Bible thumping.
     So, is it too late.

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