The Death Of Our Illusions

When we are very young, we are certain that adults know all the rules and will protect us from harm.  Sometimes this illusion is shattered at too early an age, but we need this false sense of security to envelope us as we begin our first, tentative forays into a world that we dimly suspect might be more hostile than we imagine.  Adulthood is a process of making the dismaying discovery that the grownups are often surprisingly clueless regarding the consequences of their actions—and we are bound to eventually join their daft ranks.

However, simply as a matter of  self-preservation, we still need to find the least flawed among us to provide the leadership necessary to manage a nation of flawed humans making loads of flawed decisions based on a flawed understanding of the flawed world we all struggle to inhabit.  It is foolish to expect perfection—we are, after all, nowhere near divine beings—but we hope that our herd will produce a few who are clever enough to recognize trouble before it comes around the corner and smacks us square in the face.  Disappointments are inevitable, but we must recognize and appreciate those willing to lead our unruly and fractious flocks.

Unfortunately, the sheer complexity of our modern world—one that now seems to change in the wink of an eye—creates leadership challenges that are historically unprecedented.  Locating the best fishing spots or deciding when to plant the year’s crop of root vegetables are no longer the core tasks for those who shepherd us.  Worse still, due to the stupendous and frightening powers now granted us through the wizardry of science and technology, even the smallest mistakes can lead to catastrophic consequences.  As our planet’s people have become more dependent upon one another for safety and sustenance because of the stunning ease with which we can annihilate ourselves, we are ensnared in an endless process of negotiations, trade-offs, and compromises that are certain to distribute benefits and problems in a manner some will deem deeply unfair.

This, however, is only the start of the problems facing us today.

This incredible—and incomprehensible—global complexity creates endless financial opportunities for the sneakier of our species.  Those who figure out new ways to play a peculiar economic angle to their advantage (or simply to create one with the assistance of incompetent or corrupt government officials) can now accumulate personal wealth and power that would make a Pharaoh blush.  

Moreover, entrepreneurship can quickly become piracy when the power of the state can be harnessed in a manner that guarantees both profitability and market share through monopolistic practices.  This is, of course, not a new story—it just used to be that Kings and Queens granted these crown franchises to favored nobility—but we are far less willing than we once were to live with feudal levels of income inequality.  Yesterday’s divine right of royalty is today’s fetid swamp of corruption and bribery—and we modern day serfs are far less servile than our ancestors.

We like to think we are debating about ideals of freedom and justice when we vote for one candidate or another, but the grim reality of our broken and stupendously unequal global economy is that we are typically deciding how to best distribute the meager goodies government now passes out to buy a bit more societal peace from an increasingly restive populace.

This is a game that is now racing toward an inevitable, painful conclusion.

Our nation and every nation around us are now engaged in a Covid-driven money printing experiment that is both terrifying in its scope and abundantly necessary to forestall an epidemic of hunger and homelessness.  However, our worldwide economic catastrophe is the very definition of being caught between a rock and a hard place: Those you feed today might be papering their walls with your grotesquely devalued currency tomorrow.

The main question facing us now is this: What will happen when the debt-induced illusion of financial security evaporates?  When it becomes impossible to write checks because no one believes in the government’s magic money tree any longer, we might quickly find out just how far we have actually advanced beyond the often brutal norms of our medieval ancestors.

Should Joe Biden survive the electoral challenges currently wending their ways through state and federal courts, I suspect his Presidency will be a crushing disappointment for desperate Democrats yearning to spend, spend, spend on behalf of their core constituencies.  His campaign’s many wildly expensive promises—funding the Green New Deal, free college, a Universal Basic Income, free medical care, student debt forgiveness, massive blue state bailouts, and so many more—are about to run into a harsh reality: There is simply no more money.  

Whether his Democratic coalition can survive the shock of having their fiscal fantasies swiftly deflated is anyone’s guess, but the “dark winter” that we are being promised might become an even darker spring and summer as our current mania for shutdowns and lockdowns continues to shutter businesses, balloon bankruptcies, drive evictions, and feed a lot of anger that will send Americans hunting (we hope not literally) for those government officials who are responsible for our national misery.  This same process will play out in similarly afflicted countries around the globe as the ability to spray cash to buy peace becomes a fiscal impossibility, so we will at least not be the only nation reckoning with monumental failures of government leadership and possible mob violence.

No one can predict the outcome when we sail into uncharted waters with a crew contemplating mutiny, but we can be absolutely certain that a lot of previously unassailable Premiers, Presidents, and Prime Ministers will be tossed overboard to feed the very hungry sharks before this is all over.  The only question is who will be left aboard to try to steer us back toward a safe but very distant harbor that exists on none of the available maps—and may itself be merely an illusion.

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