Here’s what we should’ve learned from the events of the past decade: Murphy was right. What can go wrong, will go wrong — and we need to plan accordingly. Because terrorist attacks? They happen. Credit bubbles? They burst. Underregulated Wall Street banks? They fail. Poorly designed offshore drilling platforms? They explode. Overleveraged European economies? They can’t pay their debts. Broken-down levees in hurricane country? They breach.
But we haven’t learned our lesson. Forget preparing for the “black swans,” investor Nassim Taleb’s name for the unpredictable crises that disrupt and damage our lives. We’ve stopped preparing for what economist Nouriel Roubini calls the “white swans”: the crises we can predict, and could even prevent.
It’s been less than three years since the fall of Lehman. The financial crisis remains lodged in our minds, and in our jobless rate. And yet the Federal Reserve lacks a vice chairman for banking supervision. There’s no one officially in charge of the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research. The seat marked “insurance” on Financial Stability Oversight Council is empty. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a leader but not a director. No one has been confirmed to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. And Republicans are still saying Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond is underqualified to serve on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.
Meanwhile, the House GOP is fighting to starve financial regulators of the resources they need to do their work. Both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission needed extra money to scale up to their expanded roles under the Dodd-Frank law, but the Republicans’ 2011 budget proposal whacked them with sharp cuts — and then their 2012 proposal repealed most of Dodd-Frank, with no vision for what should go in its place. The irony? All this is being pursued under the guise of deficit reduction. And why do we have such a gaping deficit? The . . . financial crisis.
Last spring, we watched a drilling platform explode in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil prices are gyrating violently, causing pain for consumers and heartburn for economists. And, most important, nine of the 10 hottest years on record were in the past decade. So the Earth is warming and our energy status quo is, quite literally, blowing up in our faces. But are we doing anything about it? Quite the opposite.
Most of the Republicans vying for the 2012 presidential nomination once supported a cap-and-trade plan to curb carbon emissions and move us past fossil fuels. It was part of the McCain-Palin platform in 2008, part of the Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney governorships, part of Newt Gingrich’s speeches. Today? They’ve all recanted. And Congress is not seriously considering alternatives, such as real infusions of money into research and development. We’re just watching temperatures climb and prices spike and hoping against all the evidence that this turns out well.
Then there’s the whitest of white swans: the debt ceiling. We know that an actual default would have catastrophic consequences — Ronald Reagan called it “unthinkable,” former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder said it “could lead us back into recession,” and Moody’s warned that it would trigger an immediate downgrade in the nation’s credit rating. We know exactly what we need to do to avoid those consequences. But we’re . . . not doing it.
Instead, Republicans are trying to convince themselves that perhaps default wouldn’t be that bad, and that thus it’s worth risking to scare the Obama administration into caving to the GOP’s agenda. So Rep. Paul Ryan is telling CNBC that the markets will accept default “for a day or two or three or four.” And Rep. Devin Nunes is telling Politico that “by defaulting on the debt, in the short and long term, it could benefit us to go through a period of crisis that forces politicians to make decisions.”
And let’s say we do dodge a debt-ceiling crisis this time. What about the next time? Or the one after that? It’s a bomb sitting at the base of the economy, and we need to get it wrong only once for things to get very, very bad very, very fast. Worse, it’s an entirely unnecessary risk: If Congress wants to change policy going forward, that’s what the budget is for. Paying our bills, however, is not optional. But in our system — unique among developed countries — it is optional, albeit with terrible consequences. One day, a few political leaders will make the wrong decision, the polarization will be too much to overcome, and the bomb will go off.
When a crisis comes, the people who were charged with preventing it like to say that it could not have been predicted. Who could’ve imagined that housing markets would crash all around the country or that terrorists would fly planes into buildings or a that a hurricane would breach the levees in New Orleans? Sometimes there’s truth to those claims. But not in these cases. These crises are predictable. These crises are preventable. These are the white swans, and they’re swooping and honking right in front of us.