Why is the world of Washington suddenly hysterical about the looting of Russia? That question may seem disingenuous, coming from a columnist who has worked hard in recent weeks to stoke the hysteria, but bear with me.
Aside from the still-murky Bank of New York scandal, we don't really know any new facts about Russia. The truth is, the basic information about Yeltsin-era corruption has been evident for at least four years. But until recently, nobody felt the problem was serious enough to demand decisive action. Why did it take so long for the facts to produce a "crisis"?
Why, for that matter, was the world of Washington suddenly hysterical earlier this year over Chinese espionage? China's mission to spy on the United States -- and steal every technological secret it can get its hands on -- has been obvious for years. And it turns out that the "fact" that triggered the most extreme episode of recent hysteria -- the allegation that a Chinese-American scientist named Wen Ho Lee stole nuclear-bomb secrets at the Los Alamos laboratories -- may not even be true.
Why, one might add, are reasonable people in Washington only now getting hysterical over the brutal FBI assault against the Branch Davidians at Waco? The event took place six years ago, and anyone who looked at the facts knew that the FBI assault had been a cascade of errors. Yet only crazies seemed to care about the problem, until the FBI admitted it had suppressed a piece of videotaped evidence. Then Waco vaulted into the meta-news.
A visitor to our fair city would observe that we are governed by what might be called "sequential hysteria." Nothing is done about a problem until it reaches this critical "meltdown" state -- and then, for a few brief days or weeks, too much is done. Then it's back to normal inattention.
It's like a dinner party where there's only one conversation going on at any given time -- a screaming, hysterical conversation at that. Remember the North Korean nuclear threat? For a few days, people actually talked about going to war against this starving Asian pauper. Recall the genocide in Rwanda? For a few weeks, the world took this tragedy seriously. Remember the Ebola virus, which for an instant looked as if it might destroy the planet? All these now seem distant events, difficult even to recall.
Today the nation's hysterical focus will be Hurricane Floyd. That will be the conversation around the table for the next few days, and then it will be on to something else. The movement is so rapid and volatile it becomes disorienting. Is it really possible that we were fighting a war over Kosovo just three months ago?
The striking thing about most of these incendiary crises is that we already know the relevant facts -- have known them for months or years, but decide not to do anything. Then, for mysterious reasons, it becomes necessary to do everything -- urgently, instantly, right now.
That will surely be the case when we have the next full-blown financial crisis. The danger posed by wildly overvalued stocks will suddenly be obvious, in retrospect. Congressional committees will demand to know why the nation wasn't warned.
The news media are obviously partly to blame for this syndrome. Only one story can lead the evening news each night, and given limited reporting resources, editors do like to take the world one crisis at a time. But it's deeper than that. The attention span of news consumers is even more limited than the budgets of newspapers and television.
As someone who follows the world of business, I can't help wishing that the realm of public policy could be more "business-like." And by that, I don't simply mean that it should be more orderly.
A well-run business must be visionary. It cannot lurch from crisis to crisis. Managers get regular feedback from the stock market, quarter to quarter, and they have to take action quickly to correct obvious problems. But show me a company that gets jerked around by short-term problems and I'll show you a loser.
The great event of our time is the technology revolution. The corporate executives who are driving this revolution are risk-takers, yes. But they're also steady people -- engineers, many of them -- who have prospered by analyzing problems carefully and then solving them. And they're working on many problems at once -- never sure which strategy or technology will prove to be the one that ultimately matters.
That's why great companies such as Microsoft or Cisco Systems or Sun Microsystems are able to adapt when the curve of technology changes. They're flexible because there's more than one conversation tolerated around their dinner table.
Washington can learn many things from the business world. But chief among them is how to avoid the trap of sequential hysteria. It would be nice if our political leaders learned to act when facts become known -- when it becomes obvious, for example, that Russia is mired in corruption -- and not when these facts reach the hysteria threshold.