Sunday, December 2, 2012

'Fiscal' Cliff or Crushing Rocks and the Treaty of Westphalia

On October 24, 1648 a Christian, Universal, Perpetual, True and Sincere Peace settled across the conflict-torn map of Europe insuring placement of all previous Trouble into "perpetual Oblivion".  In a mere 128 Articles, the Treaty of Westphalia set forth the conditions under which the future of Occidental humanity would operate.  While today's post (written 364 years from the condemnation of the Treaty by Pope Innocent X who declared it "null and void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, condemned, rejected, frivolous, without force and effect") will address a few of the legacies of this momentous agreement, I would like to remind us all of the fact that today's headlines portend the conclusion of what Westphalia sought to promulgate.  The dogmatic aspiration of the nation state - an organization of humanity where sovereigns lord over their citizens in exchange for certain illusions of stability, peace and protection - has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  Looming 'fiscal cliffs' facing the U.S. economy and the federated interests of Europe invite a comparison of historical cliffs: the Symplegades and Wile E. Coyote (yes, look it up so you get the comparison).

Sequestration is not a crisis; neither is it new.  So for those of you who are inclined to fear (or masochistically revel in) the wistful apocalypse now upon us, here's a bit of a spoiler.  The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985 which used sequestration as a fulcrum to impose federal spending constraints, was not only survived but, many would argue, contributed to the Clinton-era economic health illusion.  We'll have a sunrise on December 22, 2012 so that Quetzalcoatl can warm his newly minted feathers, and we'll have a Congress and Executive rife with dysfunction and enmity on January 2, 2013.  For most of us, gravity will still mysteriously hold us to the spinning globe; we'll still eat, drink, and by and large get along.  But the reset of the Mayan Long Count may actually inaugurate a change - one that will introduce subtle shifts that, in the long view of history, may be of profound consequence.  And, the $1 trillion belt-tightening exercise, if experienced, will be a tiny blip on this larger scope of human evolution kind of like the declaration of Pope Innocent X:  full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The Treaty of Westphalia is a fascinating read.  Trying to make it through the grandiose titles bestowed upon the exalted egos is a feat of endurance.  However if you do, you might find the shortest Articles to be some of the most interesting and relevant in our present condition.  Articles 38 - 40 set forth the fiscal preconditions of the fledgling nation states.  Article 38, the shortest of all, is the codification of financial contract law.  This simple Article states that, "… if Debtors have by force got some Bonds from their Creditors, the same shall be restor'd, but not with prejudice to their Rights."  Article 39 sets forth revenue claims (a proxy for taxes) which shall be clearly articulated within two years or, failing to do so, be "condemn'd to perpetual Silence".  How many of us would benefit from financial rules which are either clearly articulated or perpetually silenced?  Ah, for the good old days! 

While lazy historians teach their students that the Treaty of Westphalia is the basis of the modern nation state, this uninformed apology masks its more pragmatic substance.  To end tyranny, social unrest and economic exploitation, the Treaty actually:
  • Set forth principles of religious and cultural tolerance and co-existence (the reason why the Pope hated it);
  • Set forth a model of pragmatic, pay-as-you-go economic accountability; and,
  • Set forth a clear statement that the regent and sovereign, at the end of the day, seeks self-preservation and wealth accretion over the interests of the citizenry.
While we may rail against the undesirability of any of these (notably the last intention), there is a certain elegance in the prima facie transparency of self-interest that does not hide this third intention behind the fa├žade of public benefit.  The fiscal cliff we've been asked to fear allegedly threatens our national security illusion with defense cuts.  However, last time I checked, our multi-billion dollar bloodlust has more to do with ideological imposition than it does with defense.  Oh, and how can I forget that we'll also have discretionary reductions which will deflate the bloated corpses of bureaucracies that have inefficiently preserved their own existence rather than becoming sacrosanct by virtue of self-evident competence?

So which rocky metaphor is apropos:  the crashing rocks of Jason and the Argonauts that will crush the illusion of our failed systems of organization and governance or an animated cartoon created for entertainment and distraction from which we will recoil in fear only to realize that it wasn't real in the first place?  Well, that's where it becomes a bit more complicated… and interesting.  

When one considers these two contrasting themes, a few observations are noteworthy.  The Symplegades served as an invitation to courage and navigational precision.  To survive the crushing rocks, a skillful navigator had to understand the rhythm of the rocks and enlist the full compliment of crew.  Jason, according to the story, sent a dove to fly ahead of the ship.  The bird, flying between the colliding boulders, lost only a tail feather.  Observing this foul, Jason could time his own transit.  And thus informed, he encouraged his men to lean into the oars mightily and, in so doing, they too made it through losing tail ornamentation but not the rudder thus allowing further navigation.  Wile E. Coyote, in contrast, runs off the cliff in complete ignorance to his surroundings and devoid of any appreciation for gravity.  His splat coefficient is a function of his neglect for his environmental conditions times the singular myopia animating his frenetic pace.  The greater his ignorant frenzy, the more debilitating the injury.

We have an opportunity to consider our modern heirs of the Treaty of Westphalia.  At present, there's more Wile E. Coyote than Jason being evidenced in what passes as leadership.  In light of this, we may be well-served to realize that the celluloid passing before our eyes should be seen for what it is.  It is a cartoon derived from a series of crude drawings moving in rapid succession creating the illusion of animation and life.  The animators of today, like their Westphalian ancestors, have neither your interest nor mine in mind.  And this is not bad.  It simply is the present condition.  So in this moment, we would be well advised to step back from the cliff illusion and see the movement of the rocks.  We do have challenges ahead and we need to understand when to apply our backs to the oars.  The fiscal cliff is NOT that time.  But the time is now!  It's time for We The People to realize that a More Perfect Union is derived from tolerance, transparency and trade.  For this, we do not need divine right claimants but rather need to fearlessly engage in productive ventures.


  1. Dear David:
    Here in Europe, at least in the mainstream media, are all the time with the fiscal cliff in EE.UU. and how bad it will be if it is not fixed. In my modest opinion, this is not but the clearest example of the denial, be it by ignorance or by spurious interests, of the current situation we are in. Denial of the predicament we are living, not just the economic one, and denial of the inherent creativity of us, human beings. Blinded by ignorance or by outmoded and failing mindsets it seems that they don' t get it. When do they start applying once and for all the so often quoted Einstein saying about not being able to solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them in the first place? When do they start using the human creativity to THINK and IMAGINE new worlds, new ways of living and act from that world in the world of today? I understand that it is a paradox but for those people who are in denial by ignorance, the first step is coming out of ignorance instead blaming governments, the system,etc. For those in denial by self-interest,I can't the see a "solution".
    Warm regards.

  2. Greetings, Mr. Martin.

    Once I heard you say that if everyone is looking in one direction, we should look elsewhere to see what it's really all about.

    With all eyes trained on Syria, should we be looking at the stock market?

    Thanks in advance,



Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave