The Crisis Bubble

For obvious reasons, this lede from Keith Bradsher’s IHT piece describing how the Chinese are cooling to U.S. government debt got me clicking through to the Merriam-Webster definition of the word, “crisis”:

China has bought more than $1 trillion in American debt, but as theglobal downturn has intensified, Beijing is starting to keep more ofits money at home — a shift that could pose some challenges to the U.S.government in the near future but eventually may even produce salutaryeffects on the worldeconomy.

Theword has its roots in medical usage, and me being the optimist that Iam, I’d identified it with the moment at which symptoms peak as thebody’s defenses against disease finally gain the upper hand. Of course,I’d forgotten that definitions don’t necessarily take sides in thesesorts of outcomes:

1 a: the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever; (Emphasis added.)

Right. In case you’re wondering, things don’t look much better under the word’s political meaning:

3 a: an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending ; especially: one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome <a financial crisis>; (Emphasis in original.)

Sothere it is. But of course, while the state is often described inanatomical terms (the body politic), the difference between a medicalcrisis and a political crisis is that the former, if it takes a turnfor the worse, results in a stable endstate — death, after all, beingthe ultimate Keynesian long run. A volatile political or financialcrisis, on the other hand, can always devolve into an even morevolatile, more unstable endstate. When I was growing up, the catchwordfor total chaos was Beirut. Judging from recent Gaza coverage, Somaliaseems to have become the new shorthand.

But the medical meaningof crisis is still useful, in that it underscores the ways in which theevents that signal the onset of crisis are the result of an alreadyexisting state of disease or imbalance. Now, that’s certainly not ascoop. While there’s been some discussion of why no single analystreally nailed the actual extent of the financial crisis that’s beenbrewing for some time, that amounts to wondering why no one connectedevery last one of the dots that were, individually, common knowledge.Paul Krugman identified the link between Chinese debt purchases and theAmerican housing bubble years ago. And as for the longterm viability ofsubprime lending, that was a conversation I remember having in Euless,TX, back in 2003, when we were having trouble filling the low-incomeapartments I was managing at the time because the cash-economy tenantswho barely passed our credit check were buying houses instead ofrenting.

The parallels to the Israel-Hamas crisis, I think, areobvious, and I’d toss the Afghano-Indo-Pakistani mess into that basket,too. If subprime lending was a collective effort to ignore risk, itsdiplomatic parallel has been the stubborn refusal to effectively dealwith the underlying conditions that have dramatically inflated thepotential cost of conflict. In fact, it’s possible that the only thingthat’s kept the entire global order from melting down precipitously isChina’s strategic calculation to pursue a peaceful (read: profitable)rise.

But one thing that strikes me, amidst the efforts toformulate a way to manage the immediate crises, is the lack of anymeaningful concensus as to what a healthy, stable endstate looks like.Crises offer the opportunity to make structural changes, and oftenresult in them whether or not they are well thought out and planned. Sothere’s definitely some room for, and I’d go as far as to say the needfor, some ambitious thinking.

The champions of globalizationhave had an easy time of it the past eight years. But if the impressiverecord that’s been run up is based on fundamental imbalances andignoring costs such as global climate change, then what does a healthyglobalization look like? On the diplomatic front, the broad outlines ofan Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement are already known, evenif they remain as politically inaccessible as ever. But what about thewider region? So far the only proposal I’ve seen is the oft (and in my view unfairly) deridedUnion for the Mediterranean, and the recent Iraqi proposal floated fora regional integration. More broadly, which of the competing models fora post-unipolar world offers the best hope for stability and, in theevent of conflict, minimizing the risks involved?

Consider thatboth a preview of the kinds of things that will probably be grabbing myattention moving forward, as well as an open call for any thoughts oropinions you might have on the matter.

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