In a crisis, people either turn to their institutions or they turn to their leaders to provide a path forward through the emergency. This is especially true when the path forward is waiting out the emergency. People respect action, so they have to have faith in their leaders if the right course is patience. Alternatively, if the leaders and institutions are not up to the task, then the people turn on each other.The French Revolution is the perfect example of what happens when leaders and institutions fail in a crisis.
It has been a long time since American faced a real crisis. The closest we came to anything major was the financial crisis a decade ago. For people foolish enough to take on the crazy mortgages, it was a very real emergency, but for most people it was more of an abstraction than a real crisis. Unemployment ticked up and the stock market took a header, but it was not the Great Depression. There was a concern, for sure, that the wheels were about to come off the cart, but it never materialized.
Of course, one could say that the leaders and institutions stepped in and guided the country through the crisis. People tend not to think of the Federal Reserve as an essential institution, but it is probably the most important part of government now. The head of the central bank is every bit as important as the President. In fact, he may be more important, as we saw with Greenspan and George Bush. An overly tight monetary policy led to a slight downturn in the economy at just the right time to sink the Bush election bid.
In 2008, the world was lucky to have a Fed chairman, who had prepared his whole life for such an event, and a very weak political class. Bush was near the end of his reign and no one thought much of him anyway. Congress has not had much credibility in decades, so they could not cause too much trouble. Bernake was given the room to do what had to be done to stabilize the financial system. People can argue about the solution and various alternatives, but the Fed did provide a peaceful path forward.
The world was lucky in another way. The public was still confident in the system, even though they may not have liked many of the people in it. George Bush was down in the polls, because of the Iraq war, but people still trusted he was a good guy. The restoration of public trust during the Reagan years still cast a shadow over the Bush years. Even though Clinton had been a degenerate and Bush was an incompetent, people still thought the system was fine. They could trust the system.
That brings us to the present. Half the country voted for Trump and increasingly blames the system for blocking his efforts. The other half voted against him and increasingly suspects he is punishment for a broken system. The political class is at war with itself, as it grapples with the fact it no longer commands respect. Then there is the hidden war between the semi-permanent administrative state and the reformers in the White House and Congress. Right now, the people and institutions are not very stable.
That’s what makes the rumblings from the financial system ominous. Wall Street is not Main Street, so a year long bear market should not be overstated. The old line about the markets being predictive is nonsense. If people could see the future, there would be no stock market. The US markets went on a crazy upward run and may simply be going through a correction. Still, the housing market is heading into a recession and the economy is showing signs of a slow down, if not a recession.
None of this is cause for alarm, but what if the long prophesied collapse of the credit system is a lot closer than we know? A lot of smart people said that 2008 was one of those tremors that precedes a major earthquake. Maybe what we have been experiencing is something like the Long Depression, which ran in fits and starts for two decades. The last few years have simply been a respite and we’re about to have another serious downturn or even a panic. Will the leaders and institutions hold up?
In other words, the economic pendulum swings back and forth. That is the lesson of economic history. The salient question is whether or not the political institutions and the leaders are able to hold up as the pendulum swings. In the 19th century, Europe was convulsed with civil unrest and war as the Industrial revolution blasted through traditional institutions. In the US, the post Civil War period was relatively calm, even though the same forces were at work. The institutions and leaders held up.
Again, we really don’t know if the current system and the people in it could hold up under a real crisis. Maybe the 2008 crisis can be read as proof that the system is better than the people in it. Maybe the lessons learned from it have made the system even stronger. On the other hand, maybe the system held up up because of residual stability that has now dissipated. That’s increasingly obvious with regards to public trust. It is much lower today than it was a decade ago. Maybe the same is true of the internal stability.
The thing is though, there are a lot of signs that the people at the very top of the global system are slowly rearranging the board. For a long time, America could count on the dollar as the world reserve currency and, more important, a hungry market for US Treasuries. The system built by the American empire relies on credit to operate and the reserve credit of the world is US debt. If there is even a hint of that changing, the great crisis will be upon us. Will those institutions and people hold up?