Financial institutions and activity dominate many economies.
The official policy is “extend and pretend”, whereby everybody conspires to ignore the underlying problem, cover it up, or devise deferral strategies to kick the can down the road.
The assumption was that government spending, lower interest rates and supplying abundant cash to the money markets would create growth. While the measures did stabilise the economy, they did not lead to a full recovery. Instead, they set off dangerous asset price bubbles in shares, bonds, real estate and even fine arts and collectibles.
Economic problems are now compounded by lower population growth and ageing populations; slower increases in productivity and innovation; looming shortages of critical resources, such as water, food and energy; and man-made climate change and extreme weather conditions. Slower growth in international trade and capital flows is another retardant. Emerging markets, such as China, that have benefited from and recently supported growth are slowing. Rising inequality affects economic activity.
For most people, the effect of these problems is unemployment, reduced job security, the deskilling of many professions and stagnant incomes. Home ownership is increasingly out of reach for many. Retirement may become a luxury for all but a few, reflecting increasing difficulty in building sufficient savings. In effect, living standards will decline. Future generations will bear the bulk of the cost as they are left to tackle the unresolved problems of their forebears.
Governments are unwilling to tell the truth about the magnitude of the economic problems, the lack of solutions and cost of possible corrective actions to the electorate. Politicians have taken regard of historian Simon Schama’s comment that no one ever won an election by telling voters it had come to the end of its “providential allotment of inexhaustible plenty”. The official policy articulated, in a moment of unusual candour, by Jean-Claude Juncker, the current head of the European Commission, was that when the situation becomes serious it is simply necessary to lie.
Ordinary people are complicit; refusing to acknowledge that maybe you cannot have it all. They sense that the ultimate cost of the inevitable adjustments will be large. It is not simply the threat of economic hardship; it is fear of a loss of dignity and pride. It is a pervasive sense of powerlessness.
The political and social response is likely to be volatile. It was the fear and disaffection of the middle class who had lost their savings in the events of Great Depression that gave rise to totalitarianism.
For the moment, to paraphrase Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the “permanent lie [has become] the only safe form of existence”. But the world cannot postpone, indefinitely, dealing decisively with the economic, resource management, social and political challenges we face.