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Published: Monday, 10/12/2009

Economic crisis pulls the world a little closer

If my widowed mother had not already died, the week that just ended would have killed her.

Thirty-plus years ago, she worried herself to the point of insomnia. How should she manage her finances in such a stomach-churning economic downturn? It was a staggeringly bad timing for my no-financial-aid entry into a small and pricey liberal-arts college.

Fast forward to this past week, when I fielded a one-sentence e-mail from my own daughter, now a first-year college student, who phrased her question bluntly:

Are we doing well in light of the current economic situation?

I told her not to worry, and, really, who knows?

Maybe we are doing well, or will, when it's all over - whenever that might be, and whatever that may end up to mean.

The truth is, far more intelligent and better educated people than I - people whose job titles require them to worry (possibly to the point of insomnia) about managing America's stake in a stomach-churning economic downturn - well, none of these people can answer the question, either.

Not for our curious children, not for our too-afraid-to-breathe nation.

When my oldest and dearest friend from college phoned me from California earlier in the week (let's see, that would have been shortly before the Dow dipped below 8,000), he didn't even bother saying hello.

He just broke into song, an old REM tune suddenly sounded fresh again: "It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fiiiine."

On Thursday, I filled up my gas tank for $2.89 a gallon at Costco and left the pump feeling ridiculously pleased - yes, even as the worldwide economy swooned and lowered itself toward the fainting couch.

Everything's so topsy-turvy now, isn't it?

"People are scared," Howard Silverblatt, a senior index analyst at Standard & Poor's, was quoted as saying in Friday's New York Times. "Nobody believes what is coming out of the mouths of politicians, chief executives."

Mark Twain once made much the same observation, albeit centuries ago.

"Sometimes I wonder," said this most American of writers, "whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it."

Our economic crisis - and by "our," I'm speaking of the whole wide world - comes at a key moment in American political history.

This doesn't seem as if we're simply choosing between two candidates anymore. It seems more as if we're choosing between two distinct paths for America's future conduct throughout the world.

Will we continue to coerce, to be a hyperpower? Or is there a concept of wider cooperation (on so many levels) in America's future? Can we proceed with a better understanding of our place in such an inter-connected world?

Whether the unusual weekend Washington gathering of G7 finance ministers can smooth out the head-snapping market gyrations we've witnessed, there is one thing we now know for certain about this world.

We're all in this together - like it or not.



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