After a pleasant lull over the past six months, panic over the fate of Europe has flared once again. Just weeks ago the elites of Davos exuded confidence that the crisis had passed; the events of the past weeks showed how ephemeral such certainty can be.
The Edgy Optimist
As the U.S. jobs market continues its slow, not-very-impressive-but-nonetheless-forward march, one area of the economy still lags. Banks have only very recently begun to lend. Both individuals and small businesses have faced tight credit standards enforced by risk-averse banks; mortgages have been hard to obtain, and small business credit has been tighter yet. From 2008 to 2011, loans to small businesses fell 20 percent. The net effect has been to mute an already muted recovery.
This week the National Climate Data Center confirmed what most had long believed: 2012 was the warmest year on record for the United States. Ever. And not just a bit warmer: a full Fahrenheit degree warmer than in 1998, the previous high. In the land of climatology statistics, that is immense. In the understatement of one climate scientist, these findings are “a big deal.”
So we did not fall off the cliff. But the reaction to the news of the deal suggests that we’ve become a culture addicted to crisis, because barely had the vote been taken when the spin from politicians, from the mainstream media, and from the cacophonous web was angry, sullen, and negative.
As the fiscal cliff talks evolve and devolve, the latest spat has been whether the arc of federal spending should be curtailed by changing the way that we assess costs. The proposal from the White House is to switch the way cost-of-living adjustments are made for Social Security benefits. Rather than pegging those to the Consumer Price Index as currently calculated, these would be pegged to a “chain-weighted” Consumer Price Index, which would save as much as $125 billion in additional benefits over the next decade.
The Federal Reserve just announced a new round of measures designed to keep the money flowing. Central bankers – not to be confused with the heads of private banks that have received so much opprobrium for their role in the financial crises of the past years – are not noted for their charisma or their communication skills, but their role in shaping today’s world, shadowy at times, could hardly be greater. The question is: Are they helping or harming?
Consumers are feeling optimistic; sales are up; employment hasn’t much improved but neither is it getting worse; Washington is as dysfunctional as ever; and housing is showing significant life. Not the best of times, by any means, but not the worst. Yet, for some, that very calm says a storm is brewing, one of epic and perhaps even biblical proportions. Their opinion may not be a dominant chord, but it is prominent. And it may explain in part why our public debate about fiscal cliffs, taxes and the economic future can verge so quickly into dark, deep and destructive passions.