Like a Rolling Stone

“May you live in interesting times,” is supposedly an old Chinese curse. I doubt it’s really Chinese, but I’m becoming convinced on the curse bit.

I like to keep up with the news, but I’m suffering from sensory overload: a huge economic crisis, what is on the verge of being labeled a global swine flu pandemic (or as the American Pork Producers Council implores, “the H1N1 virus”), a global war on terror (or as the Obama administration corrects, “overseas contingency operations”), an outbreak of euphemisms, the end of the American auto industry as we’ve known it, musical chairs in the US Senate, nuclear Pakistan becoming unstable, nuclear North Korea becoming more unstable, none-too-stable Iran lusting for nuclear capacity.

Hurricane season is just one month away. WooHoo!

In the summer of 2002, I posted a commentary in which I speculated that if I could have accurately predicted 2002’s news (airplanes flying into skyscrapers, shoe bombs) twenty years earlier, I would have been treated for mental illness. By 1989, my mental illness would have been worse that it was in 1982.

It turned out that the bad president, the one who started the unnecessary war, was tapping the phones of American citizens and was ordering people to be tortured. If fact, we used the same torture that we executed Japanese war criminals for using in the 1940s. The new president – who by the way is the first black president – doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about that, but at least he says we won’t torture anymore. And the bad president destroyed the economy and the rednecks are building a wall all along the Mexican border….

Click. The little window on my padded cell snaps shut and the orderly walks away, shaking her head.

In that 2002 post, I noted the publication of a new book, “Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting from the Coming Rise in the Stock Market,” by James Glassman and Kevin Hackett. Where are you today, guys? Living in an improvised hut built of remaindered copies, I’d guess.

In a September 2006 post, I predicted the demise of the American auto industry. I’d just attended a three-day meeting on global warming, during which the auto industry had been assessed with cold-blooded objectivity.

As I drove away from that meeting (in an American car, no less), I couldn’t ignore the lump in my stomach. The automakers were dying of a thousand self-inflicted cuts, but I was witness to the death of one of the central myths of the American century. Every one of the negative predictions made during that meeting has come to pass. (To be fair, a few of the wishes have come true, too. “If only we could oust John Dingell as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee…”)

Another one of those spurious memes relating to the Chinese is that the Chinese character for “crisis” combines the words “danger” and “opportunity” and while it’s poor linguistics, there might be a good idea there.

The opportunity in this convergence of crises is that it offers us a chance to wipe the slate cleaner than we have for half a century. It gives us the opportunity for new beginnings. Maybe the message we’re getting is that incremental solutions won’t work. (I’m looking at you, Tim Geithner.)

For the next several years, times will be hard and things will be weird. So be it. It would be really stupid, I mean like “American auto executive stupid,” for us to try to “solve” our problems by getting back to where we were just before the walls fell in. That’s not a solution; that’s the “rewind” button.

Let’s not wait for more crises to accrue before we listen. Let’s start wiping the slate, start new and do a better job this time.

© Mark Floegel, 2009

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