Sometime in the warm Spring of 2000 — I’d have to look up when exactly — I was riding a cab into downtown DC from the airport the night before massive protests against the World Bank. It was just months after the bloody “Battle of Seattle,” and so both sides of this new war were rearing for a fight: it was this inexplicable roving army of anarcho-hippies vs. the combined DC metro-area police, Capital police, Secret Service and who knows who else. All respectable citizens interested in minding their own business had fled to friends’ places out of town or the Delaware beach, leaving their city in the hands of a rag-tag mob of anarchist teenagers and cops banking overtime and hazard pay.
The cab passed a teenage white girl with long dreadlocks who wore a homemade t-shirt proclaiming:
WE NEED A NEW SYSTEM
“Huh!” I muttered aloud accidentally. Was it a sign that these protests weren’t just about counter-parental rage, but actually, maybe, about changing the world. “Yes,” the cab driver agreed, “something good is happening here. I did not think I’d see this in America.” It turned out he was a former revolutionary student leader from Ethiopia who had spent most of his 20’s in jail. Because I had come for the revolution, he wouldn’t let me pay my fare.
Amid the evening’s chaotic festivities, I ran into Doug Henwood, a left-wing economics writer who is read by investment bankers because he is always so right. He invited me to come along to a party at, of all places, the home of the Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers.
It was like a scene transplanted from right before the French Revolution: this ornate room full of ambassadors, politicians, esteemed professors and what seemed like the entire combined senior economist staff of the IMF, World Bank and Treasury — the topic of discussion everywhere in the room was the collapsing world economy, and these people were finding a million new ways to say, “Let them eat cake!” It was a Friday night at the close of a week in which the stock market had collapsed, the NASDAQ and the DOW both losing 1/3 of their value. Asia was in a shambles. Whole countries’ currencies went to zero and hundreds of millions of people were spit back out after only their first few years inside capitalism — it all happened in a single planetary heart beat.
A lot of serious economists were actually thinking that this might be the Big One. On my lunch breaks I read them fretting about it on the editorial page of the Financial Times. I was working temporarily as a computer programmer in a boutique money management firm in Boston. The CEO of this small firm, with billions under management, had a giant corner office on the very top floor of the building with floor to 30-foot-ceiling windows — an office from which he could literally keep an eye on his yacht in Boston harbor. I started there right before the crash. The firm specialized in emerging market investments. A 24 year old Harvard grad ran a giant excel spreadsheet model with hundreds of variables to weigh the relative strengths of every national currency and market. When the Thai Baht collapsed, his model started to go haywire. He tried to patch it up with Scotch tape and Elmers, but I could hear him getting chewed out in the morning meetings. And then went Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Argentina, Russia. Would Hong Kong hold? Would Hong Hong hold!?! They were thanking God for China, who’s currency was not effected because it was not traded on the free market. It was a very uncomfortable time for capitalists. The senior money managers at the firm even stopped leaving in the middle of the day for golf.
So that teenager in dreads must have been an angel, because Larry Summers had seen her too. He was blow harding in his famed style:
“And so I asked the girl: ‘What is this new system that you want? Tell me about it!’ And the girl had nothing. Nothing! She had no fucking clue what this magical new system was supposed to be. No one is saying that there aren’t problems with the world economy the way it is today. But these kids out there — they don’t know what they want!”
From this massive living room, above the civil chatter and clinking of glasses and distributing of hors’ dourves, you could actually hear the milling about of those confused kids outside. You could also hear the sound of dozens of helicopters buzzing low above the city with flood lights pointed downward. Garrisons of police and national guard lay in wait on alert, holed up in parking lots right next door and all around the city. Riding to the party I had caught glimpses of them down short drive ways behind buildings. Because of Seattle, which had broken into open urban warfare, there was anticipation that something astonishing was about to happen this weekend.
“Mr. Secretary,” I said, not sure if my formality counted as pretentiousness in this setting, “You’ve got 50 economics PhDs in this room who pretty much run the world economy. And you’re asking that girl for a better system? Aren’t the solutions your job? You admit billions are living in hell, but it’s up to that girl to fix it?”
I got only a chuckle and then the conversation turned to something else.
The next day, the World Bank meetings took place without a hitch because the anarchists didn’t wake up early enough to carry out their planned sabotage of the delegate buses. Ten thousand kids formed an almost impenetrable ring around the facilities, but the meetings were already taking place inside — and there were plenty of gaps where stragglers could walk between the kids who had locked their arms into homemade iron links and thrown away the keys. There were a couple more of those big convergence-style protests in 2000, and then that movement died away as fast as it had risen. And I haven’t seen a “NEW SYSTEM” t-shirt since.
So, after my post earlier this week, “The Revolution Misses You“, I got a ton of responses saying, “Fine! But what the hell are you suggesting as an alternative? What’s your new system?”
I’m going to write about that in my next post. But it really shouldn’t be our job, should it? If we had a functional world, then it wouldn’t be up to random guys on the Internet to fix the world economy, would it?
But Summers kind of proved his own point, didn’t he? In this world, the solutions aren’t going to come from the current batch of people in charge. (Or the people in charge under a Democratic administration either, like Larry and his crew.)
We, the ordinary people without economics PhDs, have to stand up to the task of demanding progress and rationality in this world. We should feel confident in that role. But to actually implement that demand in reality, we’re going to need economists, business leaders, industrial engineers, experienced policy wonks, and so on.
None of them seem very willing right now, do they? So, if you’re in college now and want to be part of this revolution, then here’s one really valuable thing you can do: major in engineering. Go to business school. Go work for a corporation and learn how the system works from the inside. Become a good manager — a good and skillful leader. If you’re already in the system, and are miraculously thinking about the big picture, then let’s hear from you.
But right now, without econ PhDs, without industrial leaders, without scientist sages, we’ll just have to get this process started ourselves. Come back for the next post and we will.