Monday night on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart described the collapse in the stock market investment in favor of U.S. Treasury bonds as akin to a guy torching your house and then asking if he can store his cash in your basement.
There’s also something of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to these days’ events. The more closely that people around the world watch the rise and fall of the Dow Jones and listen to the reports on the situations in Europe, the more unpredictable the situation becomes.
While the recent Standard & Poor’s downgrading of the U.S. might have triggered this new financial plunge, the real crisis for the moment is the wide-snaking chain of dominoes falling in Europe.
But is it really true that people should be worrying about the banks of France? Or that a country like Italy’s ability to pay back its debt should be in doubt? In many cases it’s hard to say, as fearful lenders are themselves destabilizing state banks by increasing the rates of interests they must pay on their debts. Europe is in trouble more and more literally because we fear it is in trouble.
“Panic”, as one might guess, derives from the Greek god Pan, who beyond a gallon of a nice chianti enjoyed nothing more than whipping crowds into frenzies. Emphasis on crowds: it is no coincidence that lemmings leap to their deaths in groups. The pack mentality obscures reason so easily.
Which is why, in our own situation what is needed more than anything is the discipline to step back from the urgency of the herd and catch our breath. Panic spurs only miserly, myopic self-protectiveness. And yet all fall if everyone continues to go it alone. “Blessed the one who is gracious and lends to those in need,” went the psalm response Wednesday. If there were ever a need for Wall Street and the banks of the world to hear those words, it is now.
Jim McDermott, S.J.