Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Endgame 2: The Injury Analogy

The endgame of the global financial meltdown is the complete repudiation of existing debt, policies and financial structures. This week's series will examine various parts of the endgame in more detail.

While the nation rightly celebrates the peaceful transfer of Executive power today, I propose the coming endgame will be akin to being seriously injured.

For whatever reason (fate plus carelessness?) I have suffered quite a few injuries in my working life, as well as several serious auto accidents in childhood as a passenger. So I think it is fair to say I know the experience of injury rather well.

I think the U.S. as a nation is entering an endgame which will result in the loss of much of what currently passes for the American Dream/American lifestyle. I consider myself an optimist because I believe we will still retain the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; others with a darker view of the future are less confident we'll even hang onto these rights.

We all know about the financial meltdown and the collapse of assets, and the coming demographic crisis; but we also face a global population/consumption crisis which correspondent Michael S. summarized very succinctly:

"If everyone consumes like the rural Chinese, we'd need (theoretically) 0.9 earths to survive; if everyone consumes like the U.S., we'd need 5 earths to survive. "

In other words, there are plenty of geopolitical and environmental conditions which are outside the control of any one nation which could greatly increase the injury to many nations.
In my early 20s, I was driving a small tractor alongside a grassy shoulder of a busy two-lane highway. Somehow I missed seeing a guywire to a power pole and the tractor wheel rode right up the wire, throwing my off. Amazingly, the tractor skidded off the wire and righted itself; picking myself up, I got back on and drove the tractor to the farm supply rental. When I got home, I slumped against a wall, very sore and very glad to have been lucky, as it could have ended much, much worse.

In my late 20s I was working on the metal roof of a three-story house in a light misting rain. I was trying to finish the last bits of steel roofing (a standing-seam type) by the farthest edge when I lost my footing. The drop was about 35 feet and though I'd tied myself off with a rope it was nothing fancy--just a rope around my waist. I hit the end of the rope at about 30 feet, at which point it snapped, breaking my fall.

That I wasn't killed outright or crippled for life is a miracle; lots of people get killed by such falls. There's an unfinished house in my brother's village in France, a sad structure to be sure, as the owner was killed when he fell from its roof.

Just a few years ago I was replacing a composition shingle roof on a two-story building, and the ladder had somehow edged from secure to insecure--a matter of a few inches. The ladder skidded off the gutter and I fell. The details of exactly how are lost to me, as I was knocked out when I hit the ground; I think my head slammed aginst the foundation wall, but this is just a guess. I came to with the worried faces of the residents gazing anxiously down at me.

A sharp foundation block was only a foot or so away from my head; if I'd fallen a bit differently, I might have hit that and it would have been all over. As it was, I was so sore it felt better to hobble around my living room for a few hours every night than lay down.

I won't bore you with the motorcycle and bicycle accidents, or how I was blinded in one eye in another onsite accident; you get the picture. I'm reckless, careless, unlucky or accident-prone, and yet also lucky to still be among the living.

Once you regain consciousness that's already a good sign, of course; but you don't know how badly injured you are at first because you're in shock and a bit hazy. So you move your limbs--hey, they still move, good sign--can you still see?--and then you try to get up. Depending on how that goes, then you slowly add information on what might be seriously damaged. Internal injuries are the most worrisome because you can't assess that easily; you really need to get to a hospital to see if your spleen is still whole, etc.

All of which is to say that nobody knows how the endgame will go. We only know the damage is severe and a "win" (i.e. a return to 2006 or 1996) is impossible. As with all injuries, luck, fate and God's will play decisive roles, and no one can foresee how all the moving parts will interact.

Maybe new energy technologies and a settlement of geopolitical tensions will enable us, if we move our last pieces very carefully and cleverly, with an eye on history, to end the endgame with a draw--that is, no massive civil unrest, no loss of liberties, no food shortages, etc.

The worst thing to do when injured is to stagger to your feet and act like you're absolutely fine. This greatly increases the chances of making your injuries much, much worse. I classify promouncements that the U.S. economy will "only" lose 2 million jobs in 2009 and that all this is just a rough patch we can fix with a couple trillion dollars of public spending on infrastructure, etc. as leaping to our feet, saying, "No, really, I'm fine, it only hurts a little," etc.

But we would be extending our recklessness not to see that we've been reckless: reckless with unpayable promises, reckless with regulations (lax on the super-wealthy, stranglingly tight on small business, M.I.A. on imported food safety, etc.), reckless with borrowing, reckless with the lives of our Armed Forces' servicepeople and so much more.

So the first step is to admit to our recklessness and make sure we understand just how badly we've been injured.

Secondly, we have to be careful with whatever assets/"health"/strength we still retain; trying to fix the internal injuries with band-aids and bed rest isn't going to cut it.

Third, we also need to be alive to the risks that our luck may not hold. A nuclear device could go off somewhere, or Saudi oil could stop flowing for any number of reasons; a multi-year drought somewhere could trigger a global food shortage, or a deadly SARS-type virus could escape quarantine. Just because we survived the first fall doesn't mean we're now immune to further injuries.

Fourth, we need to be careful not to confuse swallowing a handful of painkillers to ease the immediate pain (i.e. "fiscal stimulis") with actually getting better. Real healing takes time, and care; just masking reality with painkillers can make matters much worse by instilling an entirely false confidence that "I'm all better now."

When you wake up the next morning, you are sore--maybe more than sore. But if you've experienced other injuries before, then you know one key to a speedy recovery is to relax and focus on the fact that your body has been selected by millions of years of evolution to heal itself if given a chance.

When you're in pain, your muscles tend to tighten up, which only makes the pain worse. So step one in recovery is to relax. That's harder than you might think when you're really hurting, but it does help.

The U.S. economy, like an organism, is selected to heal itself, if given the chance. But right now it looks like the "cure" being prepared is to strap the patient down and load them up with one medication after another, without regard to the potentially dangerous interactions and the dazed and confused state of the patient.

Most dangerously, many seem wedded to the fantasy that the injury is modest in scope, and that we can still "win" the endgame with our King, Queen, one Knight and a single pawn. Playing to "win" when a draw is your only shot will doom you to a total loss.

What's for dinner at your house? has been updated with four new recipes.

New chapter in Operation SERF: Chris Sullins' "Strategic Action Thriller" is fiction, and contains graphic combat scenes.
Operation SERF, Part 7

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