Obama: A New Age for America?

WASHINGTON – There is something dissonant in the general elation about the election of Barak Obama to the presidency. The obvious temptation is to place this epochal of event –the first ever African-American president—within the context of the evolution of the American democracy and in its ability, albeit slowly and often reluctantly, to be at last true to its affirmed declarations about universal freedoms and thus –finally–racial equality. When a representative of the race that had been brought to America in chains is elected to the highest office of the Nation by all, whites and blacks as well as other ethnic groups, this could be taken as the most powerful sign of the end of a painful struggle.

But, while the temptation to interpret this event so optimistically is strong, we should be careful, as the Obama story is far less linear than it may seem. Looking just beneath the surface, we know that the personal history of president elect Barack Obama does not quite fit within the larger civil rights struggle story. He is an African-American, no question about it. In fact, if anything, he is “the real thing”: his father was actually from Africa, as opposed of being an American of remote African ancestry.

However, precisely because Obama’s father came from Africa and therefore he was not a character within the larger African American history of slavery and post slavery, Barack Obama’s experience is markedly different from that of millions of other African Americans. Beyond this, his Kenyan father played almost no role in his upbringing. Obama was raised by a white mother and white grandparents. Besides, his childhood included years abroad, in Indonesia; and then he lived in Hawaii, not Harlem. So, his early political career in Chicago notwithstanding, he is not a typical product of the larger African American community.

No doubt, as a dark skinned American Barack Obama had to confront, at different times, the various mixes of prejudice and discrimination that have victimized and continue to target non whites. Yet, his experience is quite atypical.

Which is to say that, while old barriers have been broken with this historic election, the optimistic narrative that would construe Obama’s success as the final victory within the long civil rights struggle does not really apply here. At least not in full. Barack Obama is not the inner city black kid who managed to overcome the racial obstacles up to the point of reaching the virtually unreachable: becoming President of the United States. This is not to take anything away from him and from his ability to inspire and create a vast coalition of forces that eventually allowed him to win the elections. His personal talent is reflected in his reamarkable victory.

But this is to say that, while this event is epochal, it is not to be construed as the end of the slavery/segregation/discrimination/prejudice story. Of course, it marks an important change. Politics is in large part about  emotions conveyed through symbolism. And symbolism does matter in this context. The first ever African American as Chief Executive opens a new chapter in the history of this country. But, again, the very fact that the one who breaks this historic barrier is an atypical representative of the African American community is an illustration of how complicated this whole race issue still is.

One of the perceived strengths of Barack Obama is that he could almost magically side step race during the campaign. The magic is in the fact that he is an African American, with a foreign, exotic name added to the mix; and yet he did not run as an African American, that is to say as the standard bearer of a community with a long history of suffering. He has been defined, perhaps accurately, as “post-racial”. He is a politician who represents epochal change but, by not making too big of a deal about the symbolism of his race, he managed to comfort the previously disenfranchised, without troubling the former (and may be not just former) oppressors.

The election of a post-racial man can help change the dynamics of the race debate. Much progress notwithstanding, until now we have been stuck. We may not have formal segregation any more, but we have the reality of racial separation and lingering prejudice. There are those Blacks who, still claiming the role of aggrieved and oppressed, structure their politics on the explicit or implicit assumption that more should be done to redress past (and present) inequities. And then there are those Whites who claim that the past is past and we should move on. Discrimination is illegal in the United States. Landmark civil rights legislation was passed more than forty years ago. As everybody is supposed to be treated equally now, then there should be no special consideration for anybody, whatever their background.

Of course, neither position is correct. We are still mostly in a gray area in which the weight of the past, while perhaps somewhat lighter, is nonetheless very apparent. While open discrimination is illegal, it is still practiced in hundreds of different ways.

And the picture becomes much more complicated when broad statistics are thrown around. On average, Blacks are poorer and less educated. They are under represented in the best jobs and over represented in the prison population. Their health statistics are worse. But can we take these statistics as evidence of the continuing evil of discrimination, or are there other factors? It is hard to be neutral and objective when trying to interpret these facts.

This is a real problem. Where does discrimination end and where does lack of personal responsibility begin? This is complicated and controversial. And for this reason these issues are rarely discussed dispassionately, as the picture is truly mixed. Some of the under achievement of African Americans is due to lingering discriminatory barriers. Some is due to other issues. The point is that even today much of the debate is about blaming someone else, as opposed to be about finding constructive solutions to layered issues that have multiple causes.

Barack Obama, precisely because his personal story escapes easy classification, and because of the enormous reservoir of confidence in his good faith and his abilities created by the campaign, can help create a less emotional environment for dealing with these old and present wounds and the perceptions that support negative attitudes.

But, having said that, let us not be naïve and portray his election to the presidency as an indication of the end of the racial drama in America. This is an important and significant evolution –and we should all try and make the most of it– without forgetting however that the problem is still stubbornly with us. Misconceptions about the others are difficult and insidious enemies.

The day in which we will be able to judge a person by “the content of their character”, without being swayed by other considerations such as color, is still distant. Maybe less distant now that so much has happened. But it remains a goal; it is not yet an accomplishment.




If Pakistan Fails

WASHINGTON – Afghanistan is a big problem. But if Pakistan fails we have an even bigger problem. And what can we do to prevent this large, (172 million inhabitants), disfunctional, troubled Muslim country from becoming the major incubator of anti-Western hostility, not to mention the lingering possibility of an escalating confrontation with India, due to large, unresolved territorial issues?

Sadly, probably not very much. The problems are rooted in an immature, essentially anti-democratic political culture in which religious fundamentalism and its violent appendices have found a fertile terrain. We have been told about the thousands of madrassas, the religious schools that have flowered in Pakistan. While it may be simplistic to assume that regious education equals breeding ground for fundamentalists/would be terrorists, at least in some cases this is true. But the problem is not so much religious education as lack of a vibrant, modern education aimed at preparing young Pakistanis to become protagonists in the unfolding global economy. Religious education alone, even if devoid of any hint of radicalism, does not provide the necessary skills/attitudes for enterprise nad wealth creation. On the other hand unimpeded radicalism, not seriously challenged by a weak and disorganized state is a real problem, for Pakistan itself, for the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, for stability in South Asia and, as a growing menace for the rest of the world.

Given all this, what can the West do? Not very much, at least not directly. Still, the West can at least attempt at creating an international environment that may offer more opportunities to those Pakistanis who would like to try peaceful modernization. In other words, the average citizen should be able to believe that there is a realistic way forward founded on peaceful modernization, fostered by constructive links with the international economy. It may not be much; but providing an alternative to millenarian fanaticism is better than doing nothing.

For those who had ignored the progressive radicalization of Pakistan, the recent Mumbay attacks, and their probable Pakistani origin, helped clarify the reading of what role certain groups based within this country play within the broader context of Islamic fundamentalism. As a result, Pakistan has been raised now to the status of source of world instability, as opposed to supporting character.

Now that this is noted, the question is what productive role, if any, the US, the West and others (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Japan, India) should play in order to diminish the intensity of this threat and to create the premises for enhanced stability both within Pakistan and its neighbors and among all of them. Is there anything constructive that can be undertaken?

In Afghanistan the US, with uneven (disappointing may be better said) NATO support, is trying to defeat a stubborn (in fact growing) insurgency featuring the Taliban, plus other assorted elements. Until yesterday the reading was that Pakistan was important as an accessory player in relation to Afghanistan. Our concern about Pakistan was mostly focused on its direct or indirect role in providing sanctuary to the Taliban and al Quaida hiding in the mountainous border areas between the two countries. If only Pakistan would be more forceful in denying access to the insurgents, then our efforts in Afghanistan would have better chances.

But now the focus has shifted. Pakistan is not just a weak, unwitting or maybe partially willing accessory. Pakistan is “the problem”, or, at least “a problem” in its own right. Pakistan, we (perhaps belatedly) realized, has become a new center of jihadi radicalism with groups that have acquired the ability and willingness to engage in international operations in South Asia and elsewhere. The fertile ground for radical violence is provided by various fundamentalist factions that prosper in this large, heavily populated, backward country; affected by the added huge malady of permanent political immaturity. In Pakistan we have armed forces incapable of really leading the country to modernity but at the same time skeptical as to the ability of the civilians to accomplish the same goal. So, either military strong men rule through force or they reluctantly yield power to weak civilian governments incapable of extricating themselves from feudal politics laced with corruption. In this mess Islamic radicalism prospers, as it seems capable to provide guidance and inspiration to significant segments of an otherwise disoriented population.

The perennially unresolved Kashmir dispute with India, with nationalist and religious components, adds a huge element of constant frustration and paranoia against the more powerful and now more economically advanced neighbor. As a way to gain leverage in this dispute, the Pakistani government over time trained and enabled radicals willing to do the fight against the Indians. In so doing, however, Islamabad created violent agents who may now be beyond its direct control.

As a result, we have now the fairly popular paranoid notion of Pakistan as a country under siege, ruled by agents of America, threatened by a vast conspiracy including the West and India. This conspiratorial belief extends to at least some elements of the vast number of Pakistani who have settled in Europe or in the Middle East. This complicates matters, as we have Pakistanis holding British passports, traveling back and forth, receiving military training in Pakistan. We know that some of them have been engaged in violent plots in different continents.

In short, Pakistan is a weak country, close to be ungovernable, to the extent that too many elements within the society do not really recognize the legitimacy of popularly elected leaders. The country is  poisoned by a plethora of radical, violent outfits, capable of mounting international operations. These groups enjoy at least some support; while their prestige cannot be seriously challenged by the authorities.

This country both weak and radicalized has a war on its western border with Afghanistan and believes that India is a perennially hostile stronger neighbor in the east. Add to this mix the nuclear arsenals of both India and Pakistan.

And so, having recognized the magnitude of the problem, what can the west do beyond pious exhortation to all parties to stay calm and find peaceful solutions; while encouraging the now democratically elected government of Pakistan to gain more legitimacy?

Probably not a lot, at least not directly. As we discovered in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the West has few or no credible political or cultural alternatives to offer to troubled Muslim societies. The notion that we can help backward countries become modern by imposing the “democracy therapy” through military force is not a good model. We are not doing well in Afghanistan. We are now faring better in Iraq, but only after having expended an inordinate amount of time and resources. Anybody willing to try the same medicine in Pakistan –a much larger and much more populous country?

The best that can be done –and this may still fail– is to create an international environment that would simplify somewhat the job of the fragile democratic government in Islamabad. Every possible tool should be used to ease the economic crisis, to help Pakistan modernize its economy, to help companies find export markets. While improved economic conditions are not the ultimate answer, increased poverty and more despair certainly would not help.

By the same token, the West plus China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and others should be able to create an international negotiations framework that would help manage the India Pakistan bilateral relationship. While ultimately it is all about creating mutual trust, moves undertaken under the political cover of an umbrella structured by credible international brokers may have a greater chance of succeeding.

In the end, it will be up to Pakistan to find its way to peaceful modernity. But its intrinsic weakness and the virulence of the radical malady within its society should invite actions aimed at creating an international context that may have a chance of helping the forces of modernization. Who knows if we may succeed in this or not. But if we do little or nothing and Pakistan fails the consequences will be horrendous.




What We Can Learn From Mumbay

WASHINGTON – According to reporting in The Wall Street Journal (“Sole Captured Suspect Offers Grims Insights into Massacre“, December 4, 2008), Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the one terrorist captured by the Indian authorities after he and his cohorts managed to kill scores of civilians while creating chaos in Mumbay, acquired “a sense of purpose for the first time in his life” while undergoing intensive training in various facilities managed by the Laskar-e-Taiba organization in Pakistan. And so we get again the somewhat familiar profile of the confused young man, from a poor background, with little or no education and no prospects who is energized, indeeed, who finds a sense of “purpose” and personal direction by embracing an extremist ideology. He enrolls in a radical group. He undergoes serious training, he excels and he ends up being selected as one of few specialized commandos sent over to disseminate destruction aimed at bringing down Mumbay, the economic capital of India.

This narrative tends to reinforce the conventional wisdom whereby fanaticism and its terrorist methods, for lack of other credible alternatives, become the only beacons of hope for those who suffer because of poverty and injustice. The young Pakistani acquired “a sense of purpose” after his conversion to fundamentalism made him feel that, at last, he had found “the” just cause to fight for. Prior to this awakening, his life could have no “purpose”, because of the backwardness and injustice of a society that offered him no prospects. If this is the almost inevitable path that almost “forces” dispirited young men to embrace fanaticism, here is the only remedy: “eliminate the causes –poverty and injustice—and you will eliminate the appeal of fundamentalism and its ability to recruit lost youth like Kasab”.

While there is some truth in this narrative, we should be cautious in establishing clear cause and effect relationships between poverty and radicalism. It is true that it is easier for the fundamentalists to find pliable young men among the hordes of the disaffected, illiterate and hopeless. But poverty is a contributing factor, not the cause of fanaticism. Poverty is not at the root of fundamentalist ideologies. While hopelessness, a consequence of poverty, may be a strong factor facilitating recruitment for radical causes, poverty in and as of itself cannot explain why people are converted to extreme ideologies. 

Broadly speaking, the appeal of millenarian fundamentalism, religious (Christian at the time of Europe’s bloody religious wars, Islamist today), or non religious (Leninism, Fascism, Nazism), is primarily rooted in a perverted interpretation of history contrived by those who do not want to accept responsibility for societal and economic failures and thus “invent” historic interpretations whereby the current plight is all due to enemies, domestic and foreign. Hence the imperative to engage in radical action, including terrorism, against them, so that the good order of things can be restored or created, as the case may be. The most basic common denominator of many radical ideologies is the belief that a glorious past came to an end because of treason and evil plots concocted by enemies, external and internal. And the message is often the same: “The path to reinstate glory or to get us into the promised land has to begin with the destruction of the enemies”.

Being totally flawed, these ideas cannot have real staying power in the long run. The problem is, however, that in the short run (and even in the medium term) they can find enough converts and muster enough resources to cause intolerable damage. We know that the recent attacks in Mumbay, caused by only a handful of trained operatives, would be a trifle if compared to damage inflicted by a rudimentary nuclear weapon that sooner or later may fall into the hands of motivated radicals.

All this is generally well known. We know that crackpot ideologies have flourished in societies unable to constructively embrace modernity –be it Italy at the end of WWI or Iran in the late 1970s. But we have no real long term strategy or remedy capable of disabling the powerful attraction of fundamentalism for those seeking guidance to a clear path out of backwardness.

The Bush administration, trying to craft a policy after the 9/11 attacks, defined the problem of radical militancy both too widely and too superficially. Too widely, in as much as it declared that we are in a worldwide war with “terror”, without making distinctions as to the motives and objectives of various groups that use terrorism as a modality to pursue their goals. Indeed, let us remember that terror is a means to accomplish political ends. While we should be concerned with the means and the damage that they can cause, the real issue is the political end of those who use terror. Too superficially, in as much as the affirmation of the need to fight “terror” focuses primarily on the actual acts of terror and thus on the individual perpetrators, the deployed manpower. This approach revealed a lack of a strategy aimed at stopping the real problem: that is the continuous inflow of new would be fundamentalists/terrorists joining the ranks of various radical outfits, because of the continuing appeal of radical ideologies. (While a few things were said at the beginning of the “War on Terror” about the goal of “draining the swamp”, that is about depriving the terror cells of their preferred habitat, the swamp has not been drained).

At the beginning of the “War on Terror”, the focus wa on old fashioned attrition. We were told that effective countermeasures had led to the killing or capture of a large chunk of al Qaeda’s high command. But we soon discovered that, while significant, these were only tactical successes. Indeed, we know now that new recruits replaced those killed or captured. Thus, operationally, we are not confronting a finite number of terrorists to be neutralized. We have organizations shaped by ideologies that have the power to generate an ongoing stream of recruits to be utilized as manpower trained to use terrorism as a modality to inflict maximum damage. 

Which is to say that the “terror problem” will continue until there will be people willing to join the cause. Again, as the Mumbay case demonstrates, relatively few determined terrorists can cause an enormous amount of disruption. And the public relations success resulting from this “asymmetric” advantage whereby few can hurt many can will continue to be a powerful tool to get more recruits. To the extent that it is possible to use the publicity generated by the attacks to sustain the myth that a few determined believers can knock out powerful giants like India’s economic powerhouse through strategic blows, the cause will continue to appear viable and thus appealing, at least to some.  

While it is appropriate to devise practical countermeasures to prevent or fight the enemy, the Mumbay case proves that it is almost impossible to adequately protect large metropolitan areas, with thousands of soft targets like hotels and restaurants, from even a handful of determined, well trained attackers. Sure, a more effective police and/or special forces reaction could have limited the death toll in Mumbay; but it could not have prevented well trained attackers from beginning the shooting rampage.

Closer to home, many examples tell us that even here in the US, police forces and Homeland Security apparatus notwithstanding, we cannot provide real protection even in cases of violent actions perpetrated by deranged, isolated individuals going on improvised shooting expeditions. If isolated individuals, certainly lacking the rigorous training of the Mumbay attackers, can inflict huge damage, let us imagine the potential death toll caused by planned attacks against mostly unprotected civilian soft targets.

So, as it is next impossible to finally capture and defeat all the terrorists or to erect adequate security against all of them, how can we devise a workable long term strategy aimed at deflating the recruiting power of radicalism, something akin to inflicting on it a death by asphyxiation?

Well, the only way to take oxygen away from fundamentalism is in creating credible political alternatives to extremism within those societies thus far incapable of charting a constructive path towards modernization that would appear believable by the population. When  backward societies will acquire confidence in their own ability to shape a decent future, a future in which most, if not all, people will have a dignified, meaningful, productive role, then the siren song of millenarian dreams, based on ideas of necessary destruction as a prelude to final redemption, will increasingly fall on deaf ears.

The fact that devising a credible and viable strategy out of backwardness and into modernity is a monumental task should not be a deterrent. Of course, some may argue that we do not need to do any of this. It is quite possible, indeed highly probable, that at some point the appeal of fundamentalism, everything else staying the same, will wane on its own accord because people will see that jihad (or whatever its functional equivalent may be) does not produce the intended results. However, even though this may indeed happen, for the time being, the lack of appealing, credible spiritual and cultural alternatives leaves the field open to radicalism. 

And we may not have the luxury of confidently waiting for the time in which flawed ideas will collapse because of their own inherent weaknesses. (Soviet style communism was also flawed; and thus doomed to failure. Yet, it took decades for these flaws to be finally exposed. In the meantime the West, confronted with an enormous existential threat, spent immense resources in protecting itself against the power of this ideology, however flawed.)

The West is not in a position to offer its own ideas as credible ideological alternatives to fundamentalism. As the recent checkered history of nation building strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrates, western style representative democracy cannot be easily introduced in societies historically not accustomed to our notion of liberalism. While there may be some truth to the belief proclained by the Bush administration that ultimately all human beings want to be free, there is no univerally accepted interpretation as to how freedom should be established and exercised. Thus a prerequisite of credibility and viability is that the new ideas that will lead developing countries out of backwardness have to be genuinely home grown and promoted by people who cannot be deemed to be agents of foreign interests. We cannot ascertain the intensity of the will to create such home grown alternatives. However, the West could and should do something aimed at improving their chances of success.

Indeed, the one thing that the West can do is to create a more open and more equitable international environment that will substantially increase opportunity and thus hope and optimism on a basis of fairness for many developing countries that today see themselves excluded, marginalized or victimized by the new global economy.

From this vantage point, international trade agreements that create real markets for local enterprise, meaningful development programs that increase the chances of capitalizing new enterprises, real support for education so that it may increase the quality and the quantity of human capital –all this could change the fundamentals and thus help reorient the focus of the national debates: away from radicalism that thrives in hopelessness, creating instead the ground for something more constructive.

Of course, there is nothing new in any of this.

But what could be new is the level of the effort and the amount of resources allocated. Clearly, helping to build new forward looking societies is a monumental task. But this is no justification for devoting literally pennies to this effort; while we are perfectly capable of allocating hundreds of billions of dollars to deal with the consequences of radicalism after it has infected entire countries. This is not about juxtaposing “soft power” versus “hard power.” In order to be credible and effective we need both. However, in the case of radicalism, while this may sound piously quaint, attacking a disease at its sources, by providing meaningful alternatives to its appeal, thus decreasing its ability to find new converts, is more cost effective than fighting a full blown epidemic.

And, just in case we forgot, with or without the threat of radical ideologies, building a more equitable international environment aimed at increasing the chances of active participation of many societies, now relegated to the role of weak onlookers, is a worthwhile goal in and as of itself. The international community does better when most of its actors are healthy.




America: Terminally Addicted to Debt?

WASHINGTON – In the midst of this unprecedented maelstrom caused mainly by overleveraging on the part of everybody, financial institutions and consumers who collectively piled up a mountain of debt, we are now being warned that: “Spending beyond one’s means is [no kidding] a bad habit that should be corrected”. OK, let’s try and get this straight. Stephen Roach, eminent economist and currently chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia just wrote an op-piece for The New York Times (“Dying of Consumption“, November 28, 2008) in which, after providing a vivid short summary of the over consumption history of the last few years and how it led to the current financial crisis, he admonishes Americans to stop overspending and to embrace instead a life style in which they would save more and stop consuming beyond their means.

What is truly remarkable about this otherwise competently written piece, is that it has actually been written and published. I imagine for a moment another hypothetical piece in which the author would explain why theft is a bad thing and that it should be stopped by all those who got involved in this activity as a way to make a living. Totally unobjectionable, right? Yes, but also redundant; in as much as this position stating that “robbery is a bad thing” is supposedly well understood by the majority of the people. And this is probably why op-ed pieces admonishing against the perils of a life style founded on robbery do not appear. But, if this logic about avoiding stating the obvious would apply as a general editorial rule, what would be the point of an op-ed piece stating the obvious about the danger of overleveraging, especially now, as we contemplate the disastrous consequences of a period of overspending? Indeed….

Well, someone thought that there is a point, hence the publication of this piece. In truth, the very fact that America, as a society, embraced a life style founded on excessive leverage is an indication that the obvious is not obvious at all. What is even more remarkable is that this basic wisdom about not overextending oneself may not have been properly understood even now, as we are all suffering the consequences of this collective insanity. 

And so, the once upon a time unobjectionable, worn platitude whereby “You are not supposed to have a life style in which you consistently spend beyond your income; thus getting deeper and deeper into debt” is presented to us as some kind of new thinking, as the “new paradigm”, the new way of looking at things.

All this is truly remarkable. If what once was deemed to be obvious is presented today as new and fresh and forward looking, well, then it probably means that for a large chunk of public opinion it was not obvious at all. It means that they truly believed that runaway private consumption financed via (supposedly) ever growing real estate equity was actually a good long term strategy, based on solid foundations. In this light, if people really believed in the soundness of that model, what we are experiencing now is not a collapse due to the consequences of flawed thinking; but some kind of rough patch, to be quickly forgotten as soon as it is over.

And so, this article is published now, even as more bad news caused by the crisis piles on bad news; with the attendant commentary that all this is due to overleveraging.  So, as you are watching your house destroyed by the flames, someone comes along and feels obliged to tell you wisely that you should not have allowed your kids to play with matches. Just in case you had failed to make the connection between fire and matches in the hands of children. 

In the same fashion, here a distinguished economist has to come along and state, in plain English, after you know you are broke, having just spent your last borrowed penny, that from now on you should save more and spend less. Just in case you missed the connection between spending too much and being now in debt.

If The New York Times provides space for this wisdom, at this very time in which we are witnessing the collapse of spending because people have run out of money, it is because it was probably felt that this warning about the dangers of unsustainable debt had not been made before or perhaps not with the necessary strength. Plainly stated: “Whatever may have happened thus far, our hunch is that the American people still do not get it”.

If this is so, may be this small episode is an illustration of the astonishing depth of this crisis. This is not a financial crisis. This is a crisis of values that created the premise of a financial crsis. Stephen Roach goes as far as writing in his piece that in this environment in which people are already deeply in debt because of excessive consumption, a tax break that would allow people to have more cash in hand would be a bad idea. Indeed, I add that it would be the same as giving the habitual drunk more cash so that he can go to a bar and get some more of the same. In the context of the consumption addicted average American: “Hey: If you let them have more cash, they’ll run out and by another flat screen TV. So, take the money away from them”.

Again, the fact that we need to spell out this notion that a new administration should be careful about avoiding policies that would encourage more spending should be taken as an indication of the seriousness of the disease. It would appear that the pursuit of clever ways of extracting spending money from……whatever… is now so deeply ingrained in the ethos of the society that it has supplanted the old fashioned idea that first you need to produce some wealth through activities that create value and then you should manage it prudently. If, serious recession and all this financial chaos notwithstanding, there is the perception that many people are just waiting for things to calm down a bit so that they can concoct some other scheme to feel rich and start all over to spend at will, then Stephen Roach is right about issuing warnings.

But, if this is so, then we should also appreciate that the underlying causes of this mess we are in go much deeper than the reckless financial wizardry that produced all these instruments that now most “experts” meekly admit that they themselves did not understand. It means that the values of the society on which we built the largest capitalist economy have evaporated.

If the rather quaint idea that the consumers should watch their budget and be careful not to spend more than their income, while making sure that some of their earnings are socked away for retirement or emergencies, is being presented as some kind of new deep truth, worth pondering upon, this gives us the measure of how messed up we really are. If this is indeed so, then it will take a lot more than one sharp op-ed piece to change the mood and the values that sustain it.