The calm before the storm? | Slag Heap

The calm before the storm?

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So here we are. The general consensus is that if there's going to be chaos in the streets during G-20, it's going to happen today, thanks to an unpermitted march kicking off from Arsenal Park this afternoon.

Lots of people are expecting the worst, but I gotta tell you: Right now, I feel like there's a real chance that Pittsburgh becomes the Anti-Seattle. For every person I looked at and thought "this guy might be one of those anarchists I've been hearing so much about," I've seen at least a dozen police.

We'll know soon enough how this is going to shake out. When it does, there will be recriminations and accusations pointed in one direction or the other. And THAT will become the story of the G-20 for most of us.

The drama on the streets will be the only thing we take away from this whole event, because what's going on in the convention center itself is utterly detached from us -- totally over our heads. Last night, for example, I had a beer with a woman who works at the convention center, and who didn't even know what the G-20 is. Probably more of us are like that than we want to admit. 

So before that happens -- while we still have a few minutes to talk about something of substance -- I wanted to get in a few words about Joseph Stiglitz, a world-renowned economist who came to the Hill District yesterday. 

Stiglitz is the author of Globalization and its Discontents, and as the Wall Street Journal notes, "the academic face of the anti-globalization crowd." Suffice it to say that when Stiglitz was introduced to the crowd packed into the pews of Monumental Baptist Church, there was the kind of cheering -- including some ululation -- that economists rarely get. 

Stiglitz actually had several good things to say about the G-20. If nothing else, he said, it was more inclusive than the G-8, a much more select group of elite economic powers. He also lauded the fact that delegates would at least consider an issue dear to Stiglitz's own heart: establishing a more holistic approach to measuring key economic indicators.

(Sounds wonky, I know. But there is something deeply askew with the numbers we use to judge our economic health, like Gross Domestic Product. Such measurements regard every dollar spent as an economic boon  -- even if the dollar was spent for something socially damaging. I've heard it said that an ideal citizen, from an economic standpoint, is a person going through a lengthy divorce and suffering from cancer -- because addressing both those lamentable conditions requires spending a lot of money. Anyway, as Stiglitz points out -- how good can our economic measurements be if they showed the U.S. economy surging right up until the moment it collapsed?)

But there's still plenty of work to be done, Stiglitz said. There are in fact 192 countries in the world, meaning that the G-20 doesn't represent the vast majority of nations. For example, the only G-20 country in sub-Saharan Africa -- one of the most populous areas in the world -- is the country of South Africa. And they are hardly representative of other countries in that region. 

Again, sounds abstract. But consider an issue like global climate change. If predictions of rising sea levels pan out, small countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives will be swamped, losing countless acres of land and God knows how many people. As Stiglitz put it, "Even if we [waged] war on these countries, we couldn't do more damage" than global warming might do. The people with the most at stake in environmental decisions, then, are the farthest away from the table with the big-shot countries who create most of the problems. 

And in that sense, we are all Bangladesh. We're all being victimized by a group utterly detached from our concerns.

For example, Stiglitz warns that in many ways, our financial system is even more precarious than it was this time a year ago. Granted, the danger of bank collapse seems remote. But the bailout has reward "too-big-to-fail" Wall Street firms ... at a cost to the smaller banks that issue loans and mortgages that actually fuel the economy the rest of us live in. 

"We didn't focus on lending," Stiglitz said. "We focused on ... gambling. We've given money in the wrong direction." And as a result, we have only encouraged those same banks to take risks down the road. 

Meanwhile, even if the recession is officially "over," don't expect your own life to improve much. (Unless you work at Goldman Sachs, of course.) Stiglitz points out that for years, our own lifestyles were propped up by dubious financial practices as well. American wages have been stagnant or declining in recent years, Stiglitz noted, but American consumers were glutted with easy create, and got the message: "Don't let it bother you that your income is going down -- consume as if your income is going up."

"Most Americans have to realize that their standings of living are going down" in the years to come, Stiglitz added. 

This is just a cursory take on Stiglitz's talk -- and the guy talks a lot. I hope to post some video footage in the near future. And like I say, Stiglitz wasn't completely pessimistic. It's still possible that government could truly overhaul the financial system, he allowed: The French and Germans, he noted, are pushing a reform agenda very hard. But in the end, he concluded, "The best we can hope from a meeting like this is that it sets the agenda for the next meeting." 

Is that worth all the bullshit Pittsburghers are currently being subjected to? I don't know. But we get so consumed with traffic disruptions and unruly protesters, I think, that we often forget the actual substance of what's going on here. 

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