Forgingmagazine 313 87245rebpng00000059886

Youd better be ready

April 21, 2011
Individuals, not institutions, will define the future. We have to be ready to live with the standards available to us.
Robert E. Brooks

The financial news, of course, is frightening. As I write, the headlines are filled with anxiety about the Standard & Poor’s credit-rating service lowering its outlook for the United States’ economic future as the federal debt approaches $15 trillion, which casts fresh doubt over the government’s ability to maintain the sort of rating it will need to finance its present and future obligations. Specifically, S&P declared that there is no prospect of a political commitment to address the expanding federal debt, and that this factor will stall progress for the nation’s arduous economic recovery.

If that were the real problem, we could relax: We are a republic. We shouldn’t expect harmony in our governing class. We should appreciate, and require, well-informed discussions and encourage spirited arguments over the issues like this that affect us in the most consequential ways. So recently, when our elected officials were forced by their own obstinacy to have a high-profile debate about the worsening debt, their failure was not that they didn’t resolve the issue but that they engaged it in such an unserious way.

The crisis ginned up against the prospect of a government shutdown showed the real problem is that our elected officials 1) think they understand the fiscal problem better than their constituents, and 2) continue to believe that merely by turning the debate into an ordeal they can earn a passing grade from voters — even as the debt continues to rise.

Worse, by handling this problem with so much self-preserving caution, our elected officials have demonstrated that they do not deserve their elevated status. They flinch from the responsibilities they sought and that are defined for them. They are the equivalent of corporate executives shifting messages to deflect attention from continued poor performance. And, if that’s so then we can add the U.S. political class to the list of institutional failures in our time.

Think about it: churches, charities, schools and universities; newspapers and TV networks; executives, physicians, clergymen, researchers, teachers, and coaches … Nothing and no one is above suspicion in our age. Every allegation deepens our doubts, and frequently leads to a public rebuke or a humiliating apology. Is there any “institution” remaining in which an ordinary woman or man can place faith, without fear of disappointment or disillusionment?

But institutions don’t merely fail: they are replaced. Because the United States won’t address its financial weakness, new contenders are emerging and a new economic landscape is developing to replace the U.S. as the standard for global security. Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and South African (BRICS) leaders met this month to strategize their demand for “a broad-based international reserve currency system providing stability and certainty,” obviously impugning the reliability of the U.S. dollar as an anchor for prosperity.

It’s an opportunistic bid by those nations, and it may work. The future may demand wider assignment of risk, if only to balance the strain brought on a global economy by billions of consumers fueled by information and powered by technology. Even in that eventuality, individuals, not institutions, will define the future. We have to be ready to live with standards available to us — or to fight for the ones we desire.

This is the global economy we’ve been hearing about for a decade or more. It’s a social evolution with acutely personal implications. And it’s a daunting prospect. Most of us like and appreciate institutions like governments and corporations for the assurance and stability they provide, but they have to earn and preserve that trust. Recent history shows what a rare commodity trust has become, and the only alternative is for each of us to rebuild it on our own.