Anderson: Time to Adjust for Life in the Age of ‘Leverage’

Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:39am

Prior to 9/11, it looked as if we would be in the “Information Age” for some time, but that essentially scientific-economic label really doesn’t capture the era anymore. Nor do labels such as “Age of Globalization” or “Age of Terrorism.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Indeed, economic and security issues are so fundamental now and so intertwined that no attempt to summarize the age in either economic or security terms would suffice.

Perhaps the key to understanding our times is not to look for the economic or security crisis or condition so much as a theme that cuts across both topics. A number of themes could be identified, but one suggests itself in a compelling way, namely the theme of leverage.

The theme of leverage is prominent in the work and policy development of both Congress and the administration.

Leverage, to be sure, is an old theme in human civilization. It spans the globe from Archimedes, who said that he could balance and then move the entire world if he could find a single point, and David, who determined how to topple a giant with a tiny lever — a single stone well-aimed.

But our age revolves around levers, around the notion of leverage, in some extraordinary ways. Certainly the world-wide financial crisis has been explained by many as a crisis borne of too much leverage. The housing crisis was basically a crisis in leverage.

Freed of the regulation that separated investment from consumer banks — by the repeal of the Depression regulation Glass-Steagall Act passed by Congress in 1932 — dual-purpose banks securitized assets by combining illiquid mortgages into debt instruments, which ultimately lacked the financial foundation to be maintained.

Banks basically overleveraged themselves with mortgage securities, and individuals overleveraged themselves by buying houses that they could not afford. The individuals were sucked into subprime mortgages that required no money down and only interest payments but whose rates could rise dramatically, which they in fact did.

When Wall Street crashed in the fall of 2008, the American and world economy had a leverage breakdown. And most of the major policies adopted by Congress (and the legislatures in most of the major world economies) that were used to repair the American and world economy also revolved around the notion of leverage.

Keynesian fiscal policy itself is basically a leverage philosophy: Invest government money in the private sector in order to promote full employment and economic growth — essentially use government as a lever to pump up the private sector. Both the $787 billion stimulus package and the $700 billion bailout have a Keynesian rationale and revolve around the notion of leverage.

Leverage in itself is morally neutral; it is like industrial or nuclear power or indeed like Alfred Nobel’s dynamite itself. You can use leverage to promote a good end or an evil end, and indeed you can use too much leverage or too little.

But leverage is the blood of the 21st century to date.

Think about the problem of international terrorism and ask yourself to what extent leverage plays a role. The disaster of 9/11 was well-executed leverage — the terrorists managed to kill 3,000 Americans and some foreigners without even exploding a bomb or firing a missile. They used ingenuity and information technology and some brute physical force to knock down the two World Trade Center towers and start an international war.

Leverage, Henry Kissinger and other experts in foreign policy will tell you, is always used in diplomacy. But leverage in the 21st century seems to be used in more ways and by more people and with more creativity and force. Consider the United Nations Security Council votes that enable different countries to influence the nuclear aspirations of Iran. The number of intersecting triangles in U.S.-European-Asian diplomacy today, concerning Iran, the Middle East in general, and China, is startling.

The sanction strategy is in its essence about leverage.

At a more local level, American families are leverage-makers of the first order as the number of traditional nuclear families has declined since the 1950s to the point that the two-parent nuclear family with only one parent working is no longer the norm.

Children and stepchildren, parents and step-parents, brothers and sisters, are pulled into the vortex of leveraging their empathy and their sympathy, their money and their advice, because the direct lines of communication and certainly the traditional lines of authority and hierarchy have been replaced with networks that require careful decisions about what to say to whom and when, and how often and in what precise way.

It is the “Age of Leverage.” We are living in it, and we all have to deal with it.

We need more dialogue about leverage so that the best values prevail and the levers people wield do more good than harm.

David M. Anderson has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan. He taught political ethics at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management for 12 years.