The Atlantic Monthly
December 13, 2008
It’s quite unsettling to talk to members of Barack Obama’s transition teams these days, especially those who are helping with the economics portfolio. Without going into details, the sense I get from them is that they are very worried that the economy will get a lot worse before it gets better. Not just worse… a lot worse. As in — double digit unemployment without the wiggle factors. Huge declines in aggregate demand. Significant, persistent deficits. That’s one reason why the Obama administration seems to be open to listening to every economist with an idea and is stocking the staff with the leading lights of the field. In one sense, the general level of concern among Obama advisers and transition staffers is reassuring; they get the magnitude of the problems, and they’re not going to assume that, just because the bottom has never dropped out before — certainly not in the lifetimes of most people doing policy these days, the bottom will never drop out.
Where the discussion isn’t going, at least in public, (or the PR level), is the possibility that the first foreign policy crisis the administration will face will be the complete economic collapse of a large, unstable nation. To be sure, Pakistan is nearly broke, and U.S. policy makers seem to be aware of that; but a worldwide demand crisis could lead to social unrest in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore, the Ukraine, Japan, Turkey or Egypt (which is facing an internal political crisis of epic proportions already). The U.S. won’t have the resources to, say, engineer the rescue of the peso again, or intervene in Asia as in 1997.
The public rhetoric from Team Obama seems to treat history as having ended in early October, which is understandable; the priority right now is on the liquidity crisis, the structure of government and the peopling of the administration and the domestic economy. Most of the administration’s major policy voices don’t have the luxury of time to game out scenarios. Now — it can fairly be said that Treasury nominee Tim Geithner, himself an assistant secretary for international economic affairs during the Clinton administration, is aware of the precarious state demand in certain critical countries, as is Larry Summers. The question: what’s the administration’s policy in this area? Which countries can we afford to let fail? Which unstable states would concern us the most? Is there something the U.S. can do, in advance, should do, in advance, to forestall the collapse of other economies?