The silver lining in the world’s debt crisis


The developed world is deeply mired in debt, and there is plenty of blame to be shared in how we got here.  U.S. officials, for example, point a finger of blame at China for holding its currency artificially low, thereby fueling exports that keep its factories humming and its people employed.   With increasing stridency, Chinese officials point to the U.S.’s addiction to debt.  There is, of course, truth in both of these points of view.  A mess this big doesn’t happen without a lot of contributors.

Although this leaves the world economy in a very bad way, with untold human suffering as a result, there is some good news in these dreary circumstances.  The world is undergoing a tectonic shift in the underlying conditions shaping  economic transactions at both a micro and macro level.  The debt crisis is the manifestation of such a shift – from an economic focus on unfettered and unsustainable growth, to one focused on creating a more responsible and sustainable world.

Transitioning between these economic realities is painful.  And it is likely to take many years for the new economic reality to fully emerge.  The more individual consumers, corporations, and politicians cling to the view that if we can just get over this rough patch, then we can return to the good old days, the slower and more painful the transition will be.  It’s the equivalent of playing a new game by old rules –almost always a miserable failure.

The more quickly the economic players grasp the new rules and start playing by them, the better off we all will be.  These new rules are remarkably simple:

  • Both consumers and governments in heavily indebted developed nations, such as the U.S. and most of Europe, must consume less and invest more.  Note that I am not advocating a reduction in total spending, which is a formula for a long-lasting economic depression.  I am advocating shifting spending from consumption to investments paving the way for a better future.
  • Developing nations – especially China – relying heavily on exports to keep their people employed and compliant, must create sustainable increases in domestic consumption – increases not fostering or depending on an indebted developed world.

This is the path forward to a more promising future, one where growth occurs responsibly.  It is entirely possible for us to get there.

The antics of Washington over the past weeks, months, and years leave many among us deeply discouraged.  But there is much each of us can do to call forth a new, better, and more sustainable economic reality.  We don’t have to wait for our elected officials to do it for us – although it would certainly be helpful.

If this sounds like a Pollyannaish pipe dream, please consider what you yourself can do to improve both your circumstances and the world’s.  It all starts with each of us using our economic transactions to support good companies – those that are good employers, good sellers, and good stewards of their communities and the planet.  Ultimately, it is these good companies who will marshal in a better economic reality.  And you have a role to play in making that happen.  So get to work!