The world has become a giant debating society. No, correct that: a shouting, spitting, finger-waving, cliché-ridden collection of cranks, kooks, haranguers, polemicists, spinners, demagogues, single-issue monomaniacs, anti-animal vivisectionists and, yes, experts, some of whom will turn out to be correct, others of whom will turn out to be wrong, and most of whom will wander off to the next side show. You awaken: They're talking at you, sotto voce, with a hint of Bach in the background, on the radio. Nationalization. Zombie banks. Kill the bankers. We must. We must. And you shuffle for the newspaper (the last newspaper on earth perhaps), which tells you: Remember Japan. A lost decade. Seize, defenestrate, break up. Our only hope. And you go to work. Jim Cramer is on the computer. Don't nationalize. Death. Destruction. Nuclear winter. No more credit cards. Fascism looming. And you go to a bar, and there's Rick Santelli, Joe the TV Guy, commentary by Maria.
I would offer my tin cup of enlightenment, but I confess: Half this crap escapes me completely. Indeed, this is not about nationalization, or stimulus, or the plumbing required for a hybrid good bank, bad bank, issues that, despite a regular diet of talking points, elude me, at least in the sense that I can rationally make a judgment. My concern is more ephemeral and yet fundamental. What the hell are we doing? This is, after all, a critical moment in the life of the Republic (we'll deal with the world later), with vital issues and nasty consequences. And, clearly, given the tenor of the times, we have swung open the cages and allowed all the B.A.'s in communications, business math and astrology, all the sportscasters and actors, bald-headed traders and congressmen (everybody but bankers), to contribute their wisdom and obsessions as loudly and absolutely as possible. This is America, after all, in the age of cable TV and the Internet. Free to bloviate! They're all taxpayers. Newspapers may be dying, but opinion rises like the liquidity in which we once skinny-dipped.
Now I know: Democracy works this way. Everyone offers a view and deeply held, if occasionally bigoted or dumb as dirt, perspectives. We mash them up and out like toast pops a finely browned consensus, glowing like John Boehner. Ve haf decided! Everybody move on -- that is, until the dog chews up the consensus and we fall upon each other again. Moron. Pantywaist. Nincompoop. Academic. Now there is no doubt that the Zeitgeist at various times may vibrate to one position or another, like tuning a radio. This is taken as a Sign. Nationalization for months was considered a rather outré solution flacked by Paul Krugman (about whom Harvard's Robert Barro declared: Macroeconomics isn't his thing) and a band of worthies that self-promote each other. Then, sometime in the past month or so, and particularly after the Tim Geithner Cash Room debacle, their argument gained traction. And for a few days it seemed as if the ultimate Zeitgeist proxy, the stock market, agreed. In that moment of triumph, nationalization achieved (temporarily) inevitability, and even began morphing a new cutting edge, namely, that the big banks also had to be broken up, with Krugman muttering gloomily, "A decade lost," if we failed to obey. Then the tide shifted. Entrails readers began to argue that the market was actually fearful of nationalization. It fell and fell. Cramer did his nationalization-as-apocalypse act, deriding bloodless thinkers. The White House, Geithner and Ben Bernanke offered resistance. And the nationalization claque lost the Big Mo. Bloodied, not dead. Still talking.
And so we offer a question we have pondered often before about the markets: Do we ever attain true value? Does this process ever produce a final answer, an equilibrium, that we recognize as truth? Because even as we yell at each other, posting our blogs and defending our sagging flanks, the situation is moving away from us, into the unknown, which even Simon Johnson, Adam Posen, Martin Wolf or the loquacious ghosts of John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman can't penetrate. There are few moments in this maelstrom to ponder truths in peace. Nearly every shouter or blogger would argue that there exists a right answer or a wrong answer. But in a marketplace of ideas that is so full of the expert and the inexpert, the informed and the ignorant, the buggy, the venal, the political and, most of all, the I'll-say-anything-if-you-put-me-on-TV crowd, what emerges as truth is as provisional and as relative as yesterday's share prices. What's the damn question, Kenneth? Besides, if this escalator of a crisis tells us anything, it's that we are eternally making judgments about situations that fly past us heading backward, like a dog digging a hole. For all the noise, it does feel like we're going nowhere.