The danger of half-truths in a time of crisis

Published in Le Monde – Economie, March 2nd 2009 (transl. Danielle Goodman)

Let’s assume that governments are actively concerned with the interests of the populace at this very moment – an ardent hope of mine. To succeed, their actions have to benefit from a certain surprise effect so as not to be thwarted in advance by those who know how to use the new measures for personal gain.

Authorities therefore explain themselves as little as possible as far as their planned initiatives go, and when they do so, to calm people’s worries, their explanations are formulated in such oracular terms that it is difficult even for experts to know what they are talking about. But in the absence of content, they work on the form: their communiqués exude confidence and repeat with affability that the files are in the right hands.

The task is not easy, since those who explain that everything will soon be back on track are the same ones who repeated at the beginning of the crisis, with a sincerity that it would be hard to doubt today, that it was only of limited scope and would definitely, definitely be over soon.

The capital of confidence held by the authorities is thus eroded day by day. The listening public is pulled between two possible interpretations of their too-long silences and their half-truths: is it incompetence, or evil? Both opinions are being reinforced today, in Europe and perhaps even in Asia.

Incompetence for not having seen it coming, then for having underestimated the crisis as it first manifested itself, and now for holding back from taking the radical measures that no one doubts need to be made. Or else malice: so much incompetence is beyond belief, some would say. Our leaders and those who brought them to power know quite well exactly where they want to end up – that is, increasing their grip on power.

Therefore, the authorities’ stand is untenable: those who give them the benefit of the doubt are obliged to read into the deepening of the crisis the growing signs of incompetence; while those who are programmatically suspicious see mushrooming evidence of deliberate dark designs.

The American economist Nouriel Roubini explained on February 21st in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that it would take six more months for the American authorities to finalize the nationalization of the banking sector. If the measure is indispensable, then why not apply it straight away, asked his interlocutor? Because it will take six months, replied Mr. Roubini, until nobody will dare pretend to be solvent anymore –alluding to recent remarks by Kenneth Lewis, the head of Bank of America, which were meant to be reassuring.

That is only one example, but, given the gravity of the current crisis, six more months of the waiting game amount to an eternity. If those who lead us think that drastic measures have to be applied anyway, be it sooner or later, it becomes more urgent every day that they stop procrastinating. The mitigating circumstances conceded by those who judge them to be simply incompetent will no longer protect them from the anger of those who believe them to be evil.