The year of hubris

If there has been a theme to 2008 it must be hubris, or a lack of humility and respect for one another.

From Washington to Ottawa, from Wall Street to Main Street, from Detroit to Iceland, it’s been a year stunningly lacking in trust and accountability. The level of greed, arrogance and entitlement that has been exposed as previously sound parts of society have collapsed is as historic as the collapses themselves. The term “billion” — as in billions of dollars — is now tossed around like the number was spare change weighing down a pocket.

These are historic times that will be studied for generations.

It’s been a year when critical issues have rocketed to the top of the news and then been forgotten like pop songs. In the spring, following riots in several countries, no less an authority than the International Monetary Fund declared that the rising price of food was the greatest threat to global stability. A few months later oil was at $147 a barrel and the price of everything that had to be transported was climbing at mach speed. Buying local was no longer just the green thing to do, it was the financially responsible thing to do.

And then Wall Street began to be exposed for the giant fraud that so much of it has become. At first it was only a financial crisis, affecting banks and other financial institutions. The sub-prime mortgage boondoggle, which for much of the year looked like a problem for Americans who bought homes they couldn’t afford and the institutions that gave them mortgages, began to unravel, revealing the interconnectedness of the financial world through credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and derivatives.

Down went Lehman Brothers, down went the stock market, down went retirement savings, down went Iceland…

Three months later, the world beyond Wall Street is starting to grasp the way “toxic” mortgages and loans were bundled up and sold off, to someone else who re-bundled them and sold them again. At each step money was made and responsibility was passed along to someone else. Regulations, a quaint notion from earlier times, were nonexistent. The credit ratings agencies were oblivious, or complicit.

While financial “managers” were paid millions of dollars in bonuses, the funds they were managing were actually worthless. And the mess quickly unraveled from Wall Street to pension funds, municipalities and retirees.

While there’s been little help for individuals, the banks themselves couldn’t be allowed to fail. And after the banks were bailed out, the CEOs of the U.S. car makers, flew to Washington in their corporate jets to ask for financial assistance from taxpayers.

While the world has been fixated on the Wall Street mess we’ve hardly noticed as corporate giant Siemens was fined $1.34 billion for a series of bribery charges around the world.

Of course hubris is always present in politics. The folly of the invasion of Iraq was evident to much of the world even prior to the launch of the war in 2003. But last week the New York Times and other media reported on a draft 513-page official history of the American-led reconstruction effort that calls it a $100 billion failure. The history concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.

“The bitterest message of all for the reconstruction program may be the way the history ends,” Times reporters James Glanz and T. Christian Miller wrote. “… for all the money spent and promises made, the rebuilding effort never did much more than restore what was destroyed during the invasion and the convulsive looting that followed.”

Canada, too, had its own political meltdown this year. While campaigning on Sept. 25 Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned Canadians about voting for the other parties. “Now is not the time to do anything new, wild or stupid,” he said. Two months later, having won another minority, he did all three himself, needlessly provoking the three opposition parties by announcing plans to eliminate the taxpayer subsidy to political parties and limiting government workers’ right to strike.

The inclusion of these proposals in an economic update showed a dark side of the prime minister that many had suspected but which had never before been so evident.

Of course, the plan by Stephane Dion and Jack Layton to form a coalition, supported by the Bloc Quebecois, showed hubris is not limited to those in power.

The coming year will be a time of rebuilding for many. The foundation for that building starts with respect for others and little more humility.

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