Never in history has the world been as economically linked as it is today. "Linked," in fact, may be too weak a term to convey the nature of the connections. "Wired" seems a more apt metaphor, for it takes into account the near-instantaneous connections and feedback loops between the constituent elements.
As with electric currents in a circuit, or, better yet, a lab mouse keyed up on the latest sugar substitute and dropped in a maze, fear of impending calamity darts madly through the entire system, plunging stock markets ever downward from New York to Moscow, London to Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo to Paris -- even, most ominously, after the $700 billion bailout passed the Senate and the House.
For a very good reason the metaphorical rodent of the laboratory scrambles helter-skelter: the American economy teeters and groans amid shifting sands of evaporated credit pools; runaway war expenses charged to an ever-expanding tab; ballooning health care, fuel, and food costs; absurdly risky lending decisions here and abroad; and bad borrowing decisions (even much-venerated Joe Six-Pack need only consider the maxed-out credit cards and too pricey house to realize his own halo shows signs of tarnish).
What happens next?
If confidence in the world and American economies, increasingly all but one and the same, registers a modest but real uptick among investors, consumers, and producers, coupled with a deepening of the available credit pool, we should see a leveling out and a space emerge for the necessary sorting, reforming, and rebuilding.
Trouble is, there are no tried-and-true models available to show how all this will play itself out, no platinum-plated ideological road maps for us to follow diligently, considering the unprecedented globalization of financial markets and the extent to which debt has fueled the Clinton-Bush economy. Unlike television, history never repeats itself. Variables of people, resources, climate, and ideologies, among others, never align exactly the same way twice. Mark Twain put it best: history never repeats; it rhymes. The past can provide guidance on themes and trends, never the details, and we know where, as the old saying has it, resides the devil.
How bad will things get?
If, on top of other mounting economic challenges and problems, ever-growing numbers of employers find themselves unable to meet payroll, we will know bad times have come. If bad times come and spread across the land, if unpaid truckers no longer crisscross the highways to deliver foodstuffs to our shelves, if, seeing an opening in our weakened state, an adversary (China, Russia, al Qaeda) slips a knife into our side and gives it a twist, I fear for the future of the republic. The United States -- need I say it? -- is neither by its very nature, nor by the workings of Providence, somehow impervious to the slings and arrows of history.
Come a meltdown, sections of the country may swing to authoritarian extremes of right and left while others devolve into no-man's lands of violence and chaos, where only government checks not worth the paper they are printed upon and government troops not sure as to why they risk their lives make sporadic forays. Our political-social life may not reach such depths. I suspect (I hope) it won't. But the possibility of a terrible sifting is very real.
I hope few have deluded themselves into thinking revolution ushering in utopia, or Jesus heralding the new age, will result because we royally screw up America. Deep-sixing the republic's future is unlikely to expedite either.
Can prudence, principle, and pragmatism -- not hate, vengeance, and fanaticism -- guide us? Entombing ourselves in ideologically pristine blankies will not stop the advancing cold. The years ahead will necessitate capable leaders, leaders to ignite the dying embers of hope and to sound the call for unity, leaders who appeal to our better angels, not our demons of division and despair that churn and whirl in the darkness, ever waiting the moment of release.