Saturday, September 20, 2008

In the Shadow of the Archduke

Last week we experienced a sickening reality of modern life: the chain reaction, house of cards, dominoes-falling impact of intertwined financial institutions. The most frightening aspect was the feeling that no one understands the big picture—no one really knows what’s happening or how to turn things around. The second most frightening aspect is the lack of responsibility on so many levels. Powerful people have been bilking the greater system for a long time, as we average people struggle for the basics of a house or apartment and a mortgage.

I don’t have a financial brain—just like I don’t have a political brain-—so I can barely follow the variables or the underlying premises.

I can only find some understanding in metaphor. As the week enfolded, a lesson from history swirled in my mind as I tried to understand what I was reading about trillion dollar bailouts.

It was how the assassination of an obscure archduke plunged the world into war and led to the death of civilization as the world knew it. Who could have thought, on June 27, 1914, that the next day when a Bosnian-Serb citizen killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that the retaliation by Austria-Hungary against the Kingdom of Serbia would set off alliances that pulled the world into death. The world was never the same after the trenches of the Great War. The people of 1914, of course, didn’t have the perspective of what was really happening to them-—they could only react to each specific event or death of a family member on the battlefield or rationing, and keep going. Only history gets to have the tidy little stories that makes sense of the actual chaos.

A hundred years from now someone will be reading the latter-day version of Wikipedia about the financial collapse of 2008. What will the entry say? What’s the larger picture that we can’t see? Where is this leading us?

Maybe I’m focusing on that question to keep my mind off looking at my 403 (b) plan [I work for a nonprofit], where so much money has evaporated that I could weep for a week.