Friday, January 16, 2009

Getting To The 'Deeper Why'

A friend of mine said to me today that if Wall Street bankers were surgeons he wouldn't want any of them to operate on him. Yet almost no-one has been seriously taken to task and the banking system and the bankers who helped create the disaster look like they are about to get another 350 billion dollars - apparently with slightly more oversight this time.

I find all this quite mind-boggling. The amounts of money are staggering and the amount of planning and oversight seems to be absolutely minimal. I don't have any special access to Wall Street or Washington DC but I do know from former lives that what you read in the media is the acceptable face of some of the truth. The blogosphere helps, and things leak out onto the web that can shed more light on what is going on. But the thing that is missing - and which is so vital - is that so often we don't know really know why something is happening.

The 'deeper why' is hard to get at for all kinds of reasons. One might take the example of the Russia-Ukraine natural gas dispute. I am not favouring one side or the other, but on the one hand, the Ukraine has been paying a really low price for the gas that it takes - or rather, it has not even been paying a low price, because it is badly in debt to Russia for what it has used. On the other hand, why did Russia wait till a viciously cold winter period to shut off gas, since the debt had been building up for a long time.

The matter is not just about natural gas and being a bad payer. Although Ukraine has few energy resources compared to its huge neighbour, it has one thing that Russia really needs - well located ice-free access to the sea. The Ukraine is also an important transit route from Russia to Europe for many things besides energy. Russia is therefore very alarmed by Ukraine's moves into western arms - if such a move were completed, it would have serious security implications for Russia, not least because the home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is at Sevastopol on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The above analysis is all gleaned from public sources. I hope it gives a slightly better and more balanced picture than some media reports, but the 'deeper why', the real motivations and machinations will likely be hidden for decades or eternity. And so it goes for almost every other important issue in every nation on the planet.

Does not knowing the deeper why matter? For the serious historian, the answer is surely yes, but if one asks the question in a different way, I think the answer would be yes for all of us, at least in the future: does all of this covert manoeuvring lead to an efficient use of resources - especially money and energy - and good macro planning?

Surely the answer is no. What we need is a lot more transparency and the ability to ask more and deeper why questions. The next question is how to do this in such a complex society with so much at stake, and thus so much to hide. It would be so much easier if the surgeons of Wall Street were genuinely interested in the wider economy and society and would use their diagnostic skills to help the body politic. Since that is not the case, we need some new surgeons and some new approaches to anatomy that actually treat the body as precious instead of disposable.

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