The invisible hand has been writing on our wall of late, and the message is scaring the markets. The markets should be scared; there is real trouble afoot, and the world’s political and economic leaders are terrifyingly out of their depth.
In the Book of Daniel, King Belshazzar of Babylon held a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and as they ate and drank from the vessels captured when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, they praised the false gods of gold and of silver and of brass, iron, wood and stone.
Suddenly when the party was at its height the fingers of an invisible hand appeared and wrote on the wall: MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN. The shocked king called for his sages and soothsayers to interpret the message; none of them could until Daniel, one of the Hebrews brought up in the royal court, appeared. The king promised Daniel any reward he wanted if he would interpret the message. Said Daniel, rather unlike a modern consultant, “Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writings unto the king and make known to him the interpretation.”
MENE: God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.
TEKEL: Thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting.
UPHARSIN: Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and the Persians.
Rembrandt’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” (Wikimedia)
This is the message our markets, and the invisible hand behind them that shapes us like a potter shapes the clay, have for the kings and rulers of this earth, the Davoisie and the bankers, the economic sages and the lords of finance:
You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Now your punishment begins.
The world’s leaders have been on trial these last few months. In Europe, a long running currency crisis has tested the commitment of Europeans to the social ideals they so often speak of, and to the community of nations they have worked to build since the 1940s. TEKEL: weighed in the balance and found wanting.
In China they have been on trial as the accumulating evidence suggests that corruption, incompetence and malfeasance damaged the country’s vaunted high speed rail project and led to the deaths of dozens of passengers. TEKEL.
In Japan they have been on trial since the tsunami last spring. Would Japan’s bureaucracy tell the truth to the public? After a lost generation of stagnation would Japan’s government come up with an effective plan to reconstruct the north and rebuild the country’s economy? TEKEL.
And in the United States we have a stagnant economy, a mounting debt and no real idea of the way forward. Would Washington come up with a constructive, future-oriented program to move the economy forward and start the adjustments necessary to prepare us to live within our means – and to grow our means so it wouldn’t be hard? TEKEL again.
Europe, China, Japan, the United States: the leaders of the world’s four largest economies are nowhere near passing the tests that history has set them. In all four places the instincts of the politicians are the same: to dissemble, to delay, to disguise and to deny.
This is not a partisan message. The left in Spain, the right in Germany and, frankly, both left and right in the United States are getting well-deserved kicks in the teeth. Communist tyrants and European democrats, secular dictators and theocratic goons are getting the same message.
The message — and it is not only for the lords of the feast — is that we aren’t great enough for our times. The challenges are immense and exhilarating; too many of us are shabby and small. We tread the endless circles of our own habits and ideas while around us the world is changed beyond recognition. We accept shabby lies and conventional fictions for solid truths; we build our homes upon the sand, and demand government subsidized insurance in case the floods come.
The challenges to the great industrial powers aren’t petty policy challenges. It is not about not knowing when to move interest rates up or down fifty basis points; it is not about the right size of the budget deficit or the right price for the currency.
The challenges the great powers face today run much deeper. Behind Japan’s economic problems and the pathetic inadequacy of its political leadership is a much deeper question of identity and purpose. What is Japan’s job in the world; what does Japan have to teach and to suffer and to do? What is the special contribution that only Japan and the Japanese can make, and how does the country prepare itself for this? Do thousands of years of Japanese culture and philosophy culminate in a cheap consumer culture and relentless demographic decline?
It is the same thing in Europe. The financial problems, real and dangerous as they are, proceed from a vacuum in the hearts of the European peoples. What is it to be a German, a French person, an Italian, a Greek, a Spaniard or a Swiss? Is it a matter of blood, belief, or of culture? What duties do the Europeans have to one another and to the world? When Europeans talk about their decline in the world – and it is worth talking about, since for 100 years Europe has been steadily and sometimes catastrophically in decline – they too often look at questions of imperial power or relative wealth. But what was extraordinary about Europe 100 and 200 years ago and is largely lost now was never imperial power or economic might. It is the cultural energy and dynamism that once made Europe the greatest font of creativity and ideas since ancient times. The art, the music, the philosophy and the science of Europe captured the world. Now Europe designs very nice shoes, and its Michelin starred restaurants serve quite excellent meals.
Europe’s challenge isn’t to fix the euro or to reform its pensions. And it is not to make clunkier shoes or less appetizing meals. Its challenge is to become Europe once more: to be as adventurous, as profound, as creative and yes as dangerous as it once was. The core European debate should not be over the constitutional provisions of the European Union or the financial arrangements behind the euro, important as those things are. What matters in Europe is that the younger generation wakes from the materialist, conformist affluence – deep wells of listlessness, anomie and despair concealed under whatever ephemeral cultural fads and fashionable causes drift by. They must begin to live, to take risks, to dare, to create and to build – and, among other things, that means they (like the other affluent peoples) must start having children again.
China too has bigger fish to fry than high-speed trains. The convulsive transformation of the biggest society in the history of the world, the sudden rise of enormous wealth cheek by jowl with poverty made worse by the alienation and dangers of urban life: all taking place in a moral vacuum where neither tradition, reason nor culture softens the harshness of oppression and injustice. This cannot endure; the people of China are struggling blindly for some better way. Unless China becomes great it cannot live, but by great I do not mean building a blue water navy and winning the fearful awe of its neighbors. I mean the interior greatness that comes from disciplined talent, ambition harnessed to service, creativity addressed to the task of healing, and strengthening a people still scarred by a century of war, revolution and soul-crushing oppression at the hand of foreigners and fellow countrymen alike. China has within it the seeds of an excellence and greatness that the world has never seen. It can become a garden in which all the beauties and aspirations of past millennia can be fulfilled – but that requires a deeper kind of leadership than one fixed on keeping the growth pot boiling lest popular revolt overthrow the regime.
I have written before of the challenges that face us in the United States and will not say more here except that stale quibbling over expense cutbacks that will not significantly reduce the deficits, and reforms that will change very little, is not what we need. Americans have the opportunity and the duty and the urgent pressing need to move into the future, to do and be more than ever. The thin rhetoric of a backward looking president, the obstreperous negativism of an opposition better at rejecting what it hates than building or even conceiving what it needs, the lotus-eating educational formation that cuts us off from our past, and the incessant noise of a superficial pop culture: none of this is worthy of America at its best and none of it will help us now.
Thomas Carlyle (Wikimedia)
We are not at the end of the road, but we are close enough now that the specter of national bankruptcy is becoming discernible through the mist. The frantic twisting and turning in both America and Europe as our societies come to realize just how we have overpromised and underpaid is only the start. We will blame the politicians as much as we can, but we the people have also lied to ourselves. We accepted promises that sounded too good to be true, we accepted counterfeit promises and passed them along as good money.
Denial has been our closest companion and our best friend. Unfortunately it will betray us in the end; following the news from Europe and Washington these days I keep thinking of Carlyle’s meditations on the looming bankruptcy of the French monarchy as that country’s revolution approached:
Great is Bankruptcy: the great bottomless gulf into which all Falsehoods, public and private, do sink, disappearing; whither, from the first origin of them, they were all doomed. For Nature is true and not a lie. No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature’s Reality, and be presented there for payment, — with the answer, No effects. Pity only that it often had so long a circulation: that the original forger were so seldom he who bore the final smart of it! Lies, and the burden of evil they bring, are passed on; shifted from back to back, and from rank to rank; and so land ultimately on the dumb lowest rank, who with spade and mattock, with sore heart and empty wallet, daily come in contact with reality, and can pass the cheat no further.
To say that Greece is the same as Germany is a lie. To say that the pensions and health care benefits promised to state and local employees in much of this country will be paid in full is a lie. Nature does not honor lies; false promises cannot be paid. Carlyle’s great prose poem in honor of Bankruptcy continues:
Honour to Bankruptcy; ever righteous on the great scale, though in detail it is so cruel! Under all Falsehoods it works, unweariedly mining. No Falsehood, did it rise heaven-high and cover the world, but Bankruptcy, one day, will sweep it down, and make us free of it.
Lehman Brothers was once a great name; Bernie Madoff once had friends and a place in the world. Mr. Ponzi was a very popular guy until the music stopped.
Of what does this looming bankruptcy consist? In our case it is the looming inability to pay the trillions in unfunded liabilities of all levels of government, but behind it lies a deeper failure and a poverty of soul. Spiritual near-bankruptcy is the common condition that binds China, Japan, Europe, the US and much of the rest of the world together.
The extraordinary pettiness and superficiality of what passes for social thought among the Davoisie of all cultures is rooted in a spiritual condition that Carlyle diagnoses with his customary mercilessness and clarity. The Davoisie who try to steer the world’s various ships through the reefs and storms of our day have chosen for their core values what Thomas Carlyle rightly called the meanest and most despicable set of goals that the human race has ever found: we have made ease and wealth the goals of our policies, our governments, and our cultures. This is Carlyle on the worship of wealth.
Moneybag of Mammon (for that, in these times, is what the respectable Republic for the Middle Classes will signify) is a still worse [ideal], while it lasts. Properly, indeed, it is the worst and basest of all banners, and symbols of dominion among men; and indeed is possible only in a time of general Atheism, and Unbelief in anything save in brute Force and Sensualism; pride of birth, pride of office, any known kind of pride being a degree better than purse-pride…
But the rule of Mammon cannot last; the greatness that cannot be torn out of human nature must ultimately revolt at the staleness, the meanness of a Mammon-centered world.
The Heavens cease not their bounty: they send us generous hearts into every generation. And now what generous heart can pretend to itself, or be hoodwinked into believing, that Loyalty to the Moneybag is a noble Loyalty? Mammon, cries the generous heart out of all ages and countries, is the basest of known Gods, even of known Devils. In him what glory is there, that ye should worship him? No glory discernable, not even terror: at best, detestability, ill-matched with despicability!
China, Europe, America, Japan: each of in its own way is moving toward comprehensive bankruptcy: financial, spiritual, social. Recent tremors in world financial markets are a warning from the invisible hand that we are skirting dangerously close to that final frontier, but we will miss the point if we do nothing more than put our financial affairs in slightly better order.
The great crime of Belshazzar and his cronies was to become disconnected from real values and real events. They used the sacred vessels of the Temple for an unholy palace banquet; at a time of great danger to the realm they distracted themselves with good food and good wine. They ignored the great source of meaning that enlightens and guides the world to focus their attention on shiny objects: gold, silver, brass.
All this and more describes our global leadership today.
MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN