2009 – the year of papering over cracks


The Ice Bear ProjectMost people I speak to can't wait for 2009 to be put to bed.  People suddenly awoke to the realization that everything they have grafted so hard to achieve in their lives could be seized from them, because their economy had failed them. 

Like everything else in this world, we always wait until its too late before taking drastic action, and 2009 epitomized this reactionary mindset that dominates so much of our society.

However, I did want to sign off from 2009 with a dose of realism… fancy phrases such as "New Normal", or "Preparing for the Recovery" only wash when they attempt to address the question: "How the blimming heck can we radically change our attitudes and actions to save our children from economic and environmental disaster".

But what really gets my goat is that we keep on making the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.  One can only hope that the lessons of this year will have broader ramifications than simply learning how to bail out banks and save our stock market from total collapse.  Somehow I doubt it; 2009 was just the beginning of the realization that our short-term mentality has to change, but we will – alas – likely need to endure another bout of pain and hardship before we'll eventually do something about it.  We got off too easy this time and somehow managed to paper over some pretty cavernous cracks.

For example, the same "boom/bust" cycle seems to be kicking back in.  Wall St. realized it was too important to fail, and the taxpayer footed the bill.  Now it's starting all over again… the stock market is rising despite uncertain economic conditions and continual rising unemployment.  The environment continues to be destroyed and our governments can only (again) paper over the cracks.  We've never seen a global response to saving our wealth like this, so why can't we do something to save our world for our children?  It seems that as soon as we stabilize our stock market and our house valuations, all is well in the world again.

Many of you will recall the emotional rhetoric from earlier in the year when there were calls for fundamental change.  There was a sudden realization that this time it was too late… the cracks were too wide to cover… they were becoming as wide as the growing distances polar bears need to swim to find food.  Like the polar bear, many of us thought that this time we would start drowning without sight of dry land. 

However, our children's' tax burden has saved the day - they have paid for the excesses of today, while we can go on doing things as we were before. All this talk of a New Economy.  All sounds good, but without a real change in attitude and a focus on curing long-term ills, we won't really change.  We just keep papering over the cracks.

However, some good did come out of all this.  For the first time, world leaders came together and acted quickly to salvage a potential disaster.  They now know our collective fates, both economically and environmentally, are intertwined.  And they should now have worked out better ways to get things done in the future. 

While it's likely going to entail more pain, at least we've made some progress at dealing with global issues.  Our businesses are now global, our economies international, so now at least our problems are global too… let's cling to the hope that 2009 marked a turning-point in how we stop papering over cracks and start rebuilding a more robust infrastructure where cracks won't keep appearing and getting wider and wider…

The picture above represents an ice sculpture from the Ice Bear Project - a polar bear sculpted out of ice, with a bronze skeleton inside.  This was created in Kongens Nytorv Square, Copenhagen, Denmark, close to where nearly 20,000 people attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during December.

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  1. Phil,

    Completely agree with your argument here. My biggest fear is we’re walking headlong into a new “boom bust” cycle, and the next one won’t be so easy to escape from. We can’t dip into a few more trillion next time around. We need to see governments be far more proactive at protecting us from future disasters, whether economic or environmental. What happened to all the calls for “change” we had a few months ago? You’re dead right that as soon as stock markets recover, most people (business executives and politicians) have just reverted to the old way of conducting business, with little thought on what we should do differently to avoid a future recurrence.

    “Papering over cracks?” Most definitely. Someone needs to fundamentally change the rules of the game.

    Josh Weintraub

  2. Phil, we reached into the future, took the money out of our kids and grandkids wallets, and used it to paper over the cracks. We only “got off easy this time” because we handed the bill to future generations, stole from them, and bankrupted them.

    We doubled down on the profligate spending of the last administration and are intent on borrowing our way out of a debt crisis.

    Until this generation realizes that WE are the ones who ought to pay for our own economic stupidity and not kick the can down the road we will have learned nothing and we will continue to be a danger to America’s future. I believe we will rightfully be damned by history for generations to come for what we are doing to America. Sadly, we won’t be alive to realize the full measure of our guilt and our shame.

    Andy Avery

  3. The paper comes in many colors and the starry eyed version is still the most popular wall paper.

    Michael Gardner

  4. Yes!

    It was good to miss a major depression but I fear it is just pushed down the road a bit. I am very concerned about the long-term fiscal vivability of the US Federal Government. I have read the US Financial Statements and the US Fiscal Outlook. Anyone that has and can do simple math will join in my concern. I reject passing the buck to our Grandkids!

    Please see my article on the Convergence of US Federal Government, Medicare and Healthcare Prices:


    David Crump

  5. phil

    humans were made imperfect. we will continue to make mistakes as long as mankind exists.

    actually i feel that compared to 2008, this year was a lot nicer. we are ending it on a much better note than 2008. businesses seem to be doing better, job losses are down and the stock market has not revived but has at least stabilized a bit.

    crude prices are down (although not at $ 35/barrel), obama has replaced george bush. obama has been awarded the nobel prize. he will need to live up to the nobel so we can safely expect some good from his side.

    as regards doing something good for the world. yes we are polluting too much, consuming too much, fighting too much…….. can somthing be done. nothing substantial but we must at least start with our polluting and consumption patterns. soon this could become a movement.

    however the only way humans will learn is by shock treatment. something on an international level is the only way that something substantial can be expected. even the tsunami which killed hundreds of thousand in asia has now been forgotten and is a distant memory.

    as i said at the beginning, we humans will continue to make mistakes. however we continue to survive and even prosper thank god for that.


  6. I am hopeful. What I am seeing is the government putting the brakes on a freefalling market; preparing systemic changes at least as serious as those created in the 1930s; embarking on an initiative as important as social security; and banks paying back TARP money with a return on the government’s investment. I’m also moderately hopeful that, internationally, we are regaining some of the trust and respect previously lost.

    Savings are up. Use of credit cards is down. These are both good things.

    I’m in no rush for the year to end because each day that’s gone is a day that I won’t get to live through again, but it’s been an extraordinarily tough year.

    I am hopeful.

    Susan Shwartz

  7. @Sayeed @Susan:

    Completely agree that some progress was made in 2009, and moving into 2010 is certainly a brighter prospect than we had moving into 2009.

    We did a very good job stabilizing a potentially free-fall situation and creating some short-term fixes – no doubt about that. Our next challenge is to lay down real groundwork for long-term fixes.

    As you point out, Sayeed, we only ever seem to respond effectively to situations that shock us. While I share optimism and hope, I also fear we need more “shock therapy” down the road to make progress.

    “One step back, two forward. please”… as opposed to one forward and two back…


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