Photo by Burgess Milner on Unsplash

Too big to fail

Given the present insanity the world is plunged in, does anyone recall the financial crisis of 2008 which plunged the world economy into a tailspin it never really recovered from (all this obviously long before the pandemic)? Among other things, states printed money in mass quantitative easing programs to shore up banks and other institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’ but never addressed the fundamental problems that created the crisis.

Without going into the details, and not being an economist, merely an observer, you can see that the wealth that was ‘created’ by its very souffle nature rose upwards to an increasingly smaller group of owners. Stock buybacks whereby a corporation can repurchase its own stock by distributing cash to existing shareholders in exchange for a fraction of the company’s outstanding equity has been a common and legitimate corporate wealth aggregator since the financial crisis.

Meanwhile, rulers of extractor economies, principally those governed by oil and gas have continued to hold other energy hungry economies to ransom with their commodity while withholding their profits from their own people and funding wars.

The war in Yemen is a good case in point which started in 2015 but unlike Ukraine hardly made the news but was described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world with 24.1 million people — 80% of the population — needing humanitarian aid and protection.

The UN predicts 19 million Yemenis will go hungry in the coming months, with more than 160,000 of them facing famine-like conditions. And just to emphasize the very interconnected world we live in and its vulnerabilities, now reduced supplies of wheat from Ukraine, caused by the current war there, are likely to push hunger levels in Yemen even higher.

In the West, the rich afford themselves another tax break and the poor, typically the recipients of tax funded safety nets, get even less. In kleptocracies, they steal with impunity leaving the poor to fend for themselves since might is right. Everywhere, however, wealth continues to defy gravity and concentrates in fewer hands while the state looks the other way. This kind of asymmetry has consequences, the likes of which we are seeing today.

I thought about the term ‘too big to fail’ and realized that it shouldn’t be a given that any institution, even a state, could be too big to fail, particularly so, when it is governed by people who fail ‘the mandate of heaven’ as the Chinese in history defined it. Long periods of stability and growth in the oldest civilization in the world characterized by dynasties with the mandate of heaven enabled civilization to flourish and recreate itself.

One of the greatest in Chinese dynasties were the Zhou who created the term but lived up to its high bar by creating conditions for stability and prosperity for nearly eight centuries; science, agriculture, literature philosophy, state craft and more — all flourished in this dynasty. Confucianism and Daoism in particular stand as philosophical cornerstones of peace, prosperity and order even to this day.

Without delving deeper into history, we can see that human civilization has risen and collapsed multiply across the earth. In this century in Europe, for all our prosperity, we have been blindsided by the illusion that there could never be a conflict of the order seen in the last. Yet all the pre-conditions were there and remain.

Putin’s misguided and brutal invasion of Ukraine put war back on a continent that was the focal point for two world wars and endless suffering. Some are saying that we are now already living the third world war but whether that escalates to a full-on nuclear conflict is still debatable, all the while lines of communication are kept open.

Nevertheless, Ukraine is a war fought for the soul of humanity in the next decades of the 21st century and that is a war of autocracy against democracies. Autocracies looks to powerful stories and national myths and figureheads to legitimize their actions as we can see in China and in Russia. Lies compounded by myths and repeated often enough can become truth in the minds of the masses. But in those countries where critical thinking is denied and wealth is concentrated through coercion and violence, corruption, like cancer spreads and weakens the state.

This is evident in the failure of the Russian army to defeat a far smaller army — despite their power, the grift at all levels has diminished their capacity to operate effectively. The Chinese undoubtedly see the Russians as useful idiots, a cat’s paw to destabilize the West while they build up their own resources but fractures in their unlimited cooperation may yet show. Each day that the valiant Ukrainians resist buys the West valuable time to galvanize their response to this existential threat.

Boots on the ground is a disastrous and zero sum response to modern day problems. Sanctions are less bloody but both responses lead to widespread suffering across our interconnected world while the richest insulate themselves against the worst shocks. Can there be a resolution without a major conflict? The stakes in the third world war are too catastrophic to contemplate but they have always been so ever since the creation of states with nuclear weapons.

It would be the final act of insanity for any combatant in such a war.

In the smoking ruins of besieged Ukrainian cities, the future of Europe and indeed the world is being created. The cancer in the Kremlin may yet consume itself but the question of what may come after may be even more catastrophic. China may be emboldened, or it may choose a wiser path of integration over conflict, at least for now…

Are we powerless as ordinary citizens of the world? Are we spectators to a great game being played by nihilistic war mongers? Arguably, we are not because collective action, whether it be visible protest, clear and resolute state and bloc-directed tilts away from the fossil fuel economy, the rejection of grift at all levels, and a humanitarian response to the refugee crisis are very much in our power.

Paradoxically, at such a moment of crisis for the world, we are all offered a personal inflection point, a chance to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of sacrifices we must make to ensure that world. The humanitarian response both at a national, community and individual level to help have proven that action, not thoughts and prayers (although these too can reinforce action and intent) are the only way to counter the misery.

I spoke with a co-worker today who explained how her feelings of helplessness at the start of the war spurred her into action. She now hosts an older Ukrainian couple with their dog in her home, is actively coordinating with another Ukrainian family to get to an Airbnb in Helsinki en route to Germany and helping another to get from Russia to Estonia with 30 rescue dogs. In these actions, this is the tragedy of displaced people and the triumph of the human compassion in times of war.

There is no time left for illusions. The term ‘Never Again’ has proven itself to be an empty slogan governing the peace of a ravaged continent since 1945. Too big to fail could be a term to describe not just a bank, not just a state or an economic bloc, but regrettably the whole human race. But all the while there are people with the will to fight in Ukraine and to stand for what is right and human everywhere else in the world, including Russia, there is a chance for a better world. All wars are an abomination — the fact that it took one in Europe to awaken the majority is itself a tragedy. Let us all hope that the momentum of compassion is greater than the inertia of indifference and the illusion of propaganda.

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Inkwell

Inkwell

Making piece with absurdity and cognitive dissonance