The Expectations Game in the Age of Crisis
Today I heard an interesting number: some 67 percent of Americans are optimistic that our incoming president will be able to fix our flailing economy. I haven’t heard the numbers on other important issues, such as national security and the wars, healthcare, education, etc. I would bet the numbers are similar. Two thirds of Americans probably think the President Elect can fix all of those things also. And why not? He seems capable enough, and anyone who was not moved by the historical nature of his victory last week has to have a heart of stone (after all—slaves largely built the White House beginning in 1792). However, I am beginning to think that our expectations as an electorate are running way too high.
While our incoming president will have democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the problems facing this nation are simply too daunting for any quick fix, no matter who is minding the store. Let’s set aside two wars (and one getting more dire in Afghanistan by the day), the health care crisis, and education. Let’s stick with the economy—the fourth leg to the stool that Barack Obama has named as his four greatest priorities.
Here is what plagues this country—and what faces lawmakers and the executive branch in the current lame duck session (there is still well over two months before the new administration takes over):
* The biggest crisis in confidence in our economy in many decades, that has caused the second huge problem that follows below.
* A complex, global financial crisis that has shaved well over 5,000 points off the Dow, shredding millions of people’s 401k plans, individual, and other retirement accounts. And this problem is unprecedented in its size and scope.
* The big three automakers are all facing possible bankruptcy with millions of jobs on the line, directly and indirectly (incredibly, a cup of Venti Starbucks now costs more than one share of General Motors, as shares of the world’s largest automaker have plummeted to under $3 per share today, a 65-year low).
* A housing crisis that continues to this day, one so powerful that it helped to ignite much of what has been outlined above—with no signs of things getting better anytime soon.
* An unemployment rate that has increased to 6.5 percent, and could go much higher if a few more things go wrong (like one or more of the U.S. car makers declare Chapter 11).
* A trillion dollars already pledged to bail out Wall Street—and that number could easily skyrocket as more and more bad commercial paper is discovered.
Because of the complexity of the global financial system—which has never before been dependent on such a fragile foundation of confidence, there are no simple fixes to be found anywhere. According to David Smick in his groundbreaking book, The World is Curved (Portfolio, 2008), “for the financial markets, the world is curved. We can’t see over the horizon. As a result, our sight lines are limited. It is as if we are forced to travel down an endless, dangerously twisting and turning road with abrupt steep valleys and risky mountainous climbs. We can’t see ahead. We are always being surprised, and that is why the world has become such a dangerous place.”
No wonder we are all so hungry for change—we have never been in in such need of it, not to mention a little stability! So consider this post as a request for both patience and confidence. We in America want things when we want them. Which is now, yesterday, immediately, pronto, stat. But at this time, facing these circumstances, change and improvement will not happen overnight. I believe things will get better, as so many smart people are focused on lifting us up from the bowels of what plagues us. But only if we don’t panic when change doesn’t arrive with the morning paper.