A Confluence of Crises

CHAPTER TWO  (Draft)

The viral pandemic that spread throughout the world in early 2020 is a harsh reminder of the growing vulnerabilities we face in an increasingly crowded and complex world.  Never have such extreme constraints been imposed on us – economic, emotional, and physically threatening.  The necessity to protect and secure ones’ household and family is only the beginning.  The crisis has unleashed social and economic devastation that has been difficult to comprehend. The world is changing even as the catastrophe widens.

It is difficult to be objective in such circumstances; impossible even to see clearly through the fog of anxiety and confusion.  If we have been attentive, however, we know that things have not been going well in America (and in the world) for quite a long time.  The pandemic erupted at a time of particular vulnerability.  Deteriorating civil order and the loss of civility among citizens may have been most obvious.  But fiscal irresponsibility and unprecedented extremes of public, corporate, and private debt pose the most immediate major threat.  Claims of economic strength under such conditions have been dishonest and, indeed, absurd.  The massive creation of new money “out of thin air” in response to the new crisis is compounding massive monetary inflation.  With an addiction to monetary liquidity and to prioritizing profit over prudence, the banks are in the worst possible position to survive an economic unraveling.  The lessons of the previous banking crisis had been ignored.

The United States Government has long been bankrupt, unable ever to repay its debts.  The willful blindness of politicians and policy-makers will be exposed eventually.  Massive increases in the money supply when an economy is dormant will lead ultimately to hyperinflation.  And, when someone is borrowing money to pay interest on existing debt they are already locked into trouble.  Everyone knows this.  These are a few of the signs that have gone unheeded; I flag them here simply to introduce the context for what follows.

I address my concerns to the American people for two reasons.  I believe we have entered a period of severe, successive and interacting crises.  The gradual degradation of social and economic well-being has been increasingly disruptive.  Growing economic instability, a disintegrating social order, and the degeneration of institutional capacity and effective governance have become pervasive.  Social disfunction has been visible to any with the eyes to see.  The civilizational vulnerability to potentially uncontrollable diseases has been radically demonstrated.  Continuing trends will not manifest themselves evenly, but major sequential disruptions promise to be ongoing.

Secondly, and most concerning, the bitter divisiveness and disunity current among Americans is limiting our ability to respond effectively to the dangers confronting us.  Indeed, our ability to solve problems, to secure the safety of our communities and to govern ourselves is severely impaired.  This is not simply the result of political conflict.  Many of you are aware that popular distrust in politicians and political affairs has been growing steadily in the United States for more than half a century.  This has been accompanied by a deteriorating concern of moral responsibility throughout society, and not surprisingly, by unprecedented extremes of economic inequality.  Americans are now facing a generalized loss of civility and ethical standards (both public and private), an alarming loss of social stability, and a broad deterioration of economic well-being.

In my view, we can only reverse deepening instability and disarray if we are willing to adjust our approach to problem-solving – to ensure the practical relevancy of thinking and action in rapidly changing circumstances.  This will be addressed in the second half of the book.   However, we must first begin with some understanding of the context.  Problem-solving will not be possible without a realistic awareness of the substance and range of the challenges we face.

We will not, and cannot, reinvent the United States.  We are, for better or worse, rooted in our national heritage.  Consequently, chapters three through nine will review some of the history of ideas, evolving civil order, and social consciousness that have influenced the present. This will be followed by a proposal for a constructive response.

What principles do we wish to salvage from a crumbling order? How can we best accomplish this?  We need to take essential values and shared principles with us, even as we engage in a new and unexpected context.  Solutions must be found for problems that humankind has never before encountered.

Core values are a primary source of stability.  We cannot allow them to be weakened by assumptions that are no longer valid.  Leaning on the strength of our values, we must find our way to new and constructive modes of thinking, seeing and doing.  Our purpose, as stated earlier, is to come through this great storm and out the other side as better people, both individually and as a nation.

A Defining Moment

The question for Americans is decisive and existential: Do we want the United States to be preserved as a constitutional republic?  Is our unique governing structure and unprecedented creative spirit worth preserving?  Are we personally prepared to rise above our differences – at least to the extent necessary for making this possible?

There are practical solutions to these questions, but they will require us to rise to the challenge.  I have never said it would be easy.  I have said I do not think we have a choice.  The alternative would be submission to disaster and disintegration.

We face a formidable array of current and emerging crises.  The problems are profound, diverse, and mutually reinforcing.  Some are the inevitable consequences of natural forces in the physical world; not all are caused by human frailties.  Some will impose themselves suddenly, others gradually, but all will ultimately converge to impact our lives in the coming years.  What is most extraordinary is the multitude and diversity of crises emerging into view simultaneously: social and economic, moral and material.

Much of what has changed in recent decades, and much that can be expected to change in the near future, suggests that we stand at a time in human history from which there can be no turning back.  There have been other turning points in human history that have felt like ‘end times’ for those who were alive at the time.  Never, however, has humankind entered a time of such profound and world encompassing challenges as lie before us now.  Americans will be called to dig deep into our traditions of loyalty and overriding national unity.

The most profound crisis we face, in my view, is the loss of personal integrity – honesty, trustworthiness, responsibility.  These attributes form the foundations of civilization.  Such deterioration strikes at the core of our character as a people.  It influences everything else.  Moral standards have collapsed on a societal scale, infecting personal relationships and institutional integrity at all levels. This is not a concern about “sweetness, goodness and light”.  Make no mistake!  Trust and dependability, responsibility and truthfulness are the basis for the sound functioning of all human affairs, and lack of them has led us into a suffocating quagmire of disorientation and disorder.

This is a deeper, foundational crisis, and it is ultimately responsible for the general deterioration that appears to be dragging civilization to its knees.

Why has this happened to such a stunning extent?  While we have lost the ethical foundations that have contributed to stability in the past, it has not happened suddenly.  But, why?  We are intelligent people.  What happened to good judgment?  Where is self-respect?  Has mass media stunted our ability to think for ourselves?  Do we imagine that honesty and fairness limit our freedom?  Or have we simply allowed ourselves to become undisciplined, uncaring, sloppy?

Whatever the reasons, we are now reaping the whirlwind.  In a world where many young people have grown up with little or no effective parenting, and where many of their elders have lost their grounding in values or virtues, there will be no mature guidance for us in the chaotic upheavals that lie ahead.

Consequently, I seek to restore fundamental stability, to focus our attention on the foundations of integrity that all else must depend upon – on the meaning of safety, the reality of common felt needs, and the necessity for constructive purpose in our local communities.  Above all, we must give attention to the integrity of personal lives, because this is where society is grounded.  These will be the essential concerns regardless of the nature of unpredictable events.

We have entered a time of severe testing.  Such challenging forces us out of an exclusively materialist orientation.  We must rethink personal interests in terms of new priorities.  To seek genuine security requires that we rise to our full potential as human beings – patiently, steadfastly, determinedly working with others in our communities despite our differences.

Are you following this logic?  Because, ultimately, patriotic loyalty to the nation’s common cause is the only antidote to the toxic cocktail of partisan negativity that has poisoned the American soul.

Writing on the Wall

Until recently many of the challenges we have faced appeared resolvable when viewed superficially or in isolation from others.  Only those who were being hurt the most, notably the working poor, knew that something was terribly wrong.  Surely political leadership should be able to manage the nation’s financial affairs responsibly.  However, the reality was more complex.

We are now living in an era that is extraordinary in every way.  Here is where the substance of greed, thoughtlessness and irresponsibility are manifesting themselves in the hard reality of the real world.  With the continuous expansion of debt required by a credit-based monetary system, the banking system entered a fantasy world which made it increasingly vulnerable to unexpected shocks.  An explanation of this foolishness and its’ consequences is beyond the scope of this book.  Suffice it to say that nothing was done to correct the basic causes of a long history of repetitive financial crises.

Well before 2020 the United States had become the most indebted nation in the history of the world.  Yet, Americans remained oblivious to the inevitable consequences.  The loss of the American character and sense of “exceptionalism” seemed to go unnoticed.  And, we ignored the loss of spirit that normally motivates a healthy society.  Given the extraordinary stresses the country is now experiencing, these are no small matters.  The forces of change have been building for decades, yet we continue to blame current politicians for the current consequences of past mistakes.  Accepting our lives as they are, with little awareness of the past or our own assumptions, we have expected that each day will be like the last.

Near the end of the 20th Century the seeds of economic destruction were sewn as the economy became “financialized”— dominated by a small number of banking institutions and other very powerful actors.  The price discovery mechanism of markets was essentially destroyed by manipulative trading by financial institutions wielding immense wealth.  Normal entrepreneurial activity, which depends on trust and predictability, was stifled for small and medium-sized businesses.  The profitability of the larger concerns became parasitic, extracting wealth from others rather than generating it themselves.  With access to sufficient liquidity the wealthy elite no longer needed a functional marketplace, and indeed it no longer served their purposes.  So it was that “main street” America was destroyed.

With the financial crisis in 2008, and the destruction of the middle class as the engine of the consumer economy, the myopia of the wealthy elite began to subvert their own interests.  The market system that capitalism depends upon was undermined and finally disabled.  Free markets are essential if we are to have a free society.  Yet, we watched incredulously while free markets were destroyed by those who insisted on their right to do so in the name of “free markets”.

The incongruous opulence of a few, made possible at the expense of the many, was obvious to everyone but themselves.

Those in positions of fiscal responsibility have been ignoring the inevitability of oncoming crises for many years.  The insolvency of the United States Government is accompanied with the insolvency of the Social Security System and other “entitlement programs.”  Public pension funds at the state and local level have also faced an impossible future. Defaulting would be political suicide.  So, printing new money, which significantly devalues the dollar, is the only alternative.  Gradual devaluation has been underway since 1913 and is accepted as normal.  However, a far more radical devaluation is required for stabilizing social security and other “entitlements”.

Those who fail to understand monetary systems will argue that the United States can always print the money it needs.  Unfortunately, the consequence of expanding the money supply at a more rapid rate than economic growth is massively inflationary   This error has led to hyperinflation in a number of countries during the past century.  It is the most catastrophic crisis that can befall any society.

Strangely, American politicians, bankers, and the wealthy elite have pursued courses that could not possibly be sustained.  By the late 1990’s deep fissures had appeared. As central bankers papered over the excesses by creating increasing amounts of money out of thin air, the value of money deteriorated ever more rapidly.  Working Americans were losing their jobs as well as the value of their meager savings.  A slim hold on a respectable lifestyle deteriorated rapidly.  A growing underclass of painfully disappointed citizens was soon left trying to understand what had happened.

While the causes of growing economic pain were papered over in the financial world by doubling down on failed policies, the writing was on the wall.  By the second decade of the new century populist anger had turned to rage and upended the political establishment. However, the issues outlined here are not political.  They are about irresponsibility, greed, and lack of foresight.  The world has been overwhelmed by a materialism built on a foundation of moral bankruptcy.

Resources related to this aspect of the long crisis are identified in the bibliography for this chapter.

Complexity

I will focus briefly now on three oncoming crises among those currently emerging over the horizon.  In my view, these three can be expected to have the most profound impact on both the immediate and long-term future.  I will begin with the invisible and unexpected threat of complexity, an extraordinary danger that most of us have little knowledge of.

In recent decades complexity has been growing exponentially.  The densely interconnected world of digital networks, instant communication, and global markets have presented a seductively attractive frontier.  Yet, we find ourselves awakening now to the danger embedded here.  Hidden within this new reality is a menace that is difficult to comprehend.  An unpredictable and impenetrable world, it hides hazards of barely imaginable magnitude.

Exponential population growth and digital connectivity, along with warfare, fragile commercial distribution systems, and the global transmission of deadly diseases, are all contributing to rapidly intensifying complexity.  It is, however, the immensity and density of digital networks that is most difficult to grasp.  It is here where we are learning that complexity can behave in very strange and disturbing ways.  Complex systems are capable of spiraling out of control suddenly and inexplicably.

In his book, “Ubiquity”, science writer Mark Buchanan writes that a natural structure of instability is in fact woven into the fabric of the world.  He writes that complex structures and processes – in geology, in rush-hour traffic, in financial markets, and in the many intricate networks of human society – have a natural tendency to organize themselves into what is called a “critical state.”  When this happens they are poised on what he describes as the “knife-edge of instability.”

A critical state occurs when a system is poised for sudden change.  Some mathematicians and scientists now believe that a pervasive instability is a fundamental feature in nature – and in the structures of human societies.  Any event, even a small one, can have an effect that seems far out of proportion to its cause.  A single grain of sand, for example, will cause a sand pile to avalanche. But it is impossible for us to know which grain of sand, which individual maneuver in heavy traffic, or which specific circumstance in the financial markets will trigger an inevitable catastrophe.

What is the difference between something that is complicated and something that is complex?  James Rickards answers this question in his book, “The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System”.

He explains: “Many analysts use the words ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ interchangeably, but that is inexact. A complicated mechanism, like the clockworks on St. Mark’s Square in Venice, may have many moving parts, but it can be assembled and disassembled in straightforward ways.  The parts do not adapt to one another, and the clock cannot suddenly turn into a sparrow and fly away. In contrast, complex systems sometimes do morph and fly away, or slide down mountains, or ruin nations….

“Complex systems include moving parts, called autonomous agents, but they do more than move. The agents are diverse, connected, interactive, and adaptive. Their diversity and connectivity can be modeled to a limited extent, but interaction and adaptation quickly branch into a seeming infinity of outcomes that can be modeled in theory but not in practice.  To put it another way, one can know that bad things might happen yet never know exactly why.”

James Rickards goes on to expound on the increasing instability of financial markets and the global economy in recent years.  He writes: “Bankers’ parasitic behavior, the result of a cultural phase transition, is entirely characteristic of a society nearing collapse.  Wealth is no longer created; it is taken from others. Parasitic behavior is not confined to bankers; it also infects high government officials, corporate executives, and the elite societal stratum.  Today the financial markets and monetary system are again poised “on the knife’s edge of criticality.”

This is new to the human experience.  The fabric of civil and economic order is shaken when stability fails.  Systems and institutional structures can come unraveled in a self-perpetuating chain reaction.  Given the interrelated dynamics of social, economic, and political pressures pushed to extremes, we are stumbling into a systemic crisis capable of triggering a cascading collapse.  We must be prepared to respond rationally, without panic and with our principles intact.  The integrity of the whole is a dynamic reality, physical, mental, and spiritual.  And here is the crux of the matter.  Behind the material problems there is a rarely perceived but underlying crisis:  It is about the way we see and the way we think.

The Challenge of Nature

That the global population is rapidly overwhelming the capacity of the planet to provide clean water, sufficient food, and other essential natural resources is painfully apparent to those who study and record the details.  Unfortunately, this has dramatic economic and geopolitical implications for Americans.  Farmland and clean water, the two most vital of all resources, have vanished rapidly in the face of population growth and climate change.  Drought conditions, drained aquifers, and expanding deserts are having a major impact around the world – in America’s western plains, in central China, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Theoretical advances in science and technology can increase food production and reduce the need for natural resources, but only at an arithmetic rate of growth at best.  The human population is, on the other hand, growing exponentially.  This is a reality that can be difficult to comprehend without basic mathematics, but there is no way around it.

Tensions rise when resources are scarce or an economy deteriorates. The United States is fully engaged with a global economy in which stress is never isolated and can suddenly spread and metastasize into political instability.  The US economy depends on diplomatic relationships, global markets, and the international monetary system.  We are intimately and unalterably engaged with the rest of the world.  It is more than impractical to build a wall around ourselves; it is completely impossible.

The natural world is essentially finite.  Its’ flexibility will always self-correct to an essential norm.  This reality imposes itself, uncomfortably at times, on our sense of free will.  Nature determines the physics and biology of our material environment, even when we manipulate it.  Balanced natural systems provide the filtration systems that purify the air and water we depend on for life.  This planet is our home.  We have been living with the belief that we can control nature, yet we seem sometimes to doubt our responsibility for it.  Many behave as though they think it can sustain unlimited abuse.  However, as science has begun to understand the delicate balance and complexity of natural systems it has become clear that human survival depends on sustaining the natural order.

The science explaining the inevitability of climate change has been challenged.  However, setting aside contentious details, the idea that nature might have limits when sufficiently disrupted appears self-evident.  We live on a small planet with a delicate balance of air, water, sunlight, and chemistry.

When I was a child there were two billion people alive on this planet.  Now, having reached my seventies, I am confronted with the fact that the number has reached seven billion and is growing exponentially.  This has taken place in a single lifetime: My lifetime.   I cannot imagine how more than seven billion human beings, along with a massive agricultural and industrial footprint, could fail to impose a strain on natural systems.  Yet, the idea that absolute freedom has collided with limits in the natural world seems to cause a violently negative reaction.  What is this about?

If belief in an absolute freedom divorced from responsibility is threatened by none other than the revelations of science, this would be no small matter.  And so, a disagreement that might appear to simply raise questions as to material fact has instead descended into bitter accusations of conspiracy, treason and dishonor.  Am I wrong to wonder if this reaction might be about something more than climate change?  The emotional climate suggests that freedom itself is under attack.

Climate change or no climate change, it is clear that the natural systems on which we depend for economic sustainability (as well as for biological life) are under duress.  It is probably too late to avert profound changes in the earth’s biosphere which are already locked in.  This crisis more than any other will impose irreversible long-term social and economic consequences.  Any success at limiting the damage will not return us to where we started, but will necessitate adjustment and accommodation to altered physical conditions in an unimaginable future.

A Different Kind of Crisis

Unfortunately, as I suggested above, there is a greater crisis overshadowing all the others.  This is a crisis of nerve, of vision, an unwillingness to engage meaningfully with one another as citizens.  Bitter divisiveness and disunity current among Americans have severely impaired our ability to govern ourselves.

We find ourselves trapped in a paralyzing refusal to engage with civility, to fight clean, to collaborate constructively.  This has left the nation nearly helpless in the face of serious threats, both internal and external.  The deterioration of civil order, characterized by crippling resentments, divisiveness and deceit, has neutralized our ability to defend ourselves against all other threats.  Problem-solving has been rendered all but impossible.

A steady loss of confidence and trust in government among the American people was documented by polls throughout the second half of the 20th century.  We are now facing the consequences.  The degradation of the social order has also been apparent for a long time.  Few have been afforded the luxury of wearing blinders.  I remind the reader that while the deterioration of the economy has been obvious to working class Americans for decades, it only became obvious to the middle class after 2008.  Since then the consumer economy has been decimated.

These are not disconnected problems and they did not develop overnight.  The process of degradation has been well-documented for more than a generation.  Root causes can be discerned for more than a century.  Clearly our challenges are far more than economic, and at this writing the downward spiral of advancing societal dysfunction is accelerating.  The most profound consequences, which will be discussed later on these pages, have been the loss of community, of extended family, and to a large extent the professional, cultural, religious, and interest associations Americans once depended upon for personal identity, stability, and rootedness in society.

We must as citizens seriously question the root causes of such pervasive and overwhelming social deterioration over an extended period of time.  We must look beyond social and economic consequences to understand ultimate and comprehensive causation.

I speak here of the loss of moral compass and grounding in the ethics of responsibility – the need for which is critical in the management of any crisis.  The absence of moral responsibility and personal accountability hobbles problem-solving and devastates morale.  This is of devastating consequence.  The foundations of civil order and governance depend on collaborative problem-solving.  Yet, contrary to the popular imagination, the efficacy of reason and rationality is neutralized in a moral vacuum.

This is the most dangerous challenge before us, simply because it limits our ability to respond effectively to any danger and the complexity of any risk.  Indeed, it undermines the integral order of human civilization.

Whatever our particular religious tradition or philosophical thinking, the difficult years ahead will demand a steadfast commitment to the highest ethical standards, to the recognition of conscious personal responsibility, and a determination to assist our fellows, however difficult this might be.  The ability to engage constructively with our neighbors is essential.  While there is much we will not agree on and little respite from aggravation, we must learn to work together.  Learning to listen respectfully and to transform differences into effective problem-solving are signs of maturity and adulthood.

A special kind of leadership is needed.  We must encourage one another to believe in ourselves, to be patient, trustworthy, dependable, and steadfast.  Such leaders will be ordinary Americans like yourselves, who work with friends and neighbors to meet local needs, resolve local problems and mediate conflict – regardless of personal differences and without need for recognition.  When the best leaders have completed their work, those around them will think and say: “We did this ourselves!”

Dangers will persist.  As Americans pass through a chaotic transition some will be tempted by the rigidities of inflexible ideology or the pernicious influence of violent rhetoric.  We must be vigilant: Extremist demagoguery will subvert the future of the United States as a constitutional republic.  The wreckage of sedition, whatever its sources, will threaten everything we believe in.  Leadership that is true to its American roots will stand firmly against such mental weakening.

Whether it is the natural order that is in question or the shock of a failing social and economic order, clearly the cherished expectations of human prosperity feel threatened. This is a painful thought.  Yet, we find ourselves at a turning point where the humankind has become aware of itself as a single interrelated whole.  It is a moment of historic significance.  We are forced by circumstances to come to terms with both difficult physical realities and the perplexing truth of uniquely human qualities and limitations.

Such a broad range of converging systemic threats, each intertwined with a constellation of others, has untold implications.  How are we to manage such a diverse range of threats, much less comprehend their interrelated repercussions and systemic implications, unless we are able to solve problems, to cooperate and collaborate?  The dynamic constellation of forces confronting Americans in the coming century will embody complexities that are beyond the human capacity to foresee or comprehend.  Inevitable disruptions will force a transformation in human thinking, perspective and knowledge.  We have entered a period when new shocks and surprises will seem endless.  We must prepare ourselves both inwardly and outwardly.

These hard times call for a spirited confidence in a future we can value, believe in and trust.  I end this chapter by drawing your attention to a strange truth: That within the approaching confluence of crises there hides a hidden blessing.  In these precipitating conditions, awash with arrogance, short tempers, intolerable confusion and pain, we will be forced finally to re-order and discipline our lives as responsible, trustworthy people.

As we review ideas, principles, and social forces that have influenced America on the coming pages, I wish the reader to consider the idea that we have entered a vortex of time that presents us with the need for new eyes and a new mind.  It will be in this terrible crucible that our sense of identity as Americans will come into focus.