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A World of Burdens

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

By morning of that first day, even before he awoke, the overseas markets -- the Nikkei, the DAX, the FTSE 100 -- had moved, and the world had changed. He kissed his wife and headed for the shower. While the water was running, the situation at Citigroup remained frightening, and when he did the math in his head, he realized that one of the biggest banks in America was broke.

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He reached for a towel.

As he was dressing, tribes in the far reaches of Afghanistan started to move toward the Pakistani border. In the Korengal Valley of Konar province, a U.S. helicopter had been downed, and the Taliban were taking credit. In Pakistan, a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda was recruiting scientists to infiltrate the country's top-secret nuclear weapons program.

His two daughters burst gleefully into the bedroom.

During the customary church service, more children died of cholera in Zimbabwe, and Darfur sank further into misery. There were riots in Estonia, Latvia and Bulgaria, and some people suspected Russian instigation. Pakistan. Afghanistan. Failing state. Failed state. Nuclear weapons.

The minister was wrapping up his sermon.

Back at Blair House, he looked across the street at the White House. In New York, the markets had opened and nothing was as it once had been. As he looked out the window, 2,031 Americans were informed they had been laid off, more bankruptcies were declared, homes were foreclosed on, charities galore went bust, and, on the cold streets, the number of homeless increased one by one.

He decided to change his tie.

Too many kids were not in school, and too many were reading below grade level. The Chinese were not buying American debt. The Indians were about to follow. Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany would not enrich her economic stimulus plan, and, without it, Europe's largest economy was not pulling its weight. The Russians had turned on the gas to Ukraine, but they could turn it off again. U.S. troops were still dying in Iraq, and troop levels were doubling in Afghanistan. This war would no longer be George Bush's.

Time for the customary coffee with the outgoing president and the first lady.

While he passed on the muffin, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was continuing to set her own agenda, unaccustomed, probably, to following the lead of a president. She was altering the mix of spending and tax cuts. The bank bailout was not succeeding, but it was not failing, either, and the incoming Treasury secretary had not paid all his taxes. The country was sinking into a debt so profound that it was the monetary version of a black hole. You could throw the entire banking system into it and it would disappear.

He thanked the Bushes for the coffee.


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