After the meltdown
25/09/2008
The management consultancy columnist, Mick James, this week takes a philosophical look at the events of the past weeks, trying to understand what they all mean for consultancy and society.

You take a week off and all hell breaks loose. It's been the story of my life: I leave a terminally placid office alone for a couple of days and come back to lurid tales of fistfights and overnight sackings. I go to Greece for a week, and the whole financial system collapses. Plus, it rains. This might not seem like such a disaster in the great scheme of things, but I still need some sun this year. If you're as superstitious as I am, you might want to consider bribing me to stay in the country to avoid further catastrophe.

Peering through the little window on the world that is my mobile phone screen, it's hard to get a handle on the tectonic scale of recent events. Banks are disappearing like contestants on a reality show. US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has promised to stop the rot by pouring "hundreds of millions of dollars" into the bottomless pit of debt that is the US housing market.

That's a sum that's worth mulling over. It's not even one of those annoyingly precise "$112.7bn" figures where the rounding error represents more money than you and all your friends and family will see in a lifetime. We're not even getting to the nearest hundred billion dollars here, and a hundred billion dollars is a serious amount of money—a Dr Evil ransom demand.

I'm not normally a fan of assessing public spending in terms of how many nurses you could hire or children's hospitals you could build, but with a hundred billion at your disposal you might face a shortage of sick children. Forget building the odd AIDS clinic in Africa, you could pay for all the medication for everybody there who was ill with anything at all. You could send everyone in Britain on a proper holiday. One where it doesn’t rain.

And yet Hank doesn't know exactly how many of these fabulous banknotes he's going to need to print. And to get what? A moon shot? A Manhattan project for climate change? No, a pile of dodgy mortgages held against worthless houses occupied by people with no money. Honest businesses go bust, but the dodgiest money-lending scam in history is propped up by what may be the last hurrah of the golden age of Western capitalism. It's not exactly the New Deal, is it? One wonders how the ideological taunting of "left-leaning liberals" will play out in the coming US election, once the incumbent administration embarks on the biggest socialist project in the West since the Welfare State.

This being the age of the Internet, the columnists and analysts have instantly rushed to print, to tell us "what this all means." I'm happy to admit I have no idea. Can I have a couple of days to think it through, to at least find my A-level economics notes? I suspect it would take the platoons of PhD students months to work out the possible ramifications of this, and legions more in a few years time to discover what did actually happen.

What is clear is that we are entering a period of unprecedented change, and I say that knowing what a cliché that phrase has been for years now. But people often use change as a lazy synonym for progress, and what we are talking about is being overwhelmed, not by the speed of technology but by the rapid unravelling of familiar structures, of whole ways of life even.

Change is the lifeblood of consultancy, so we are inclined to focus on the positive side of it. It's like life: we eagerly anticipate the new qualification, the promotion, the new baby, and the changes they will bring. We're much less willing to dwell on retirement, the empty nest, the loss of income and faculties. As a result, we tend to approach these kinds of change with much less creativity and involvement than we do the "progressive" ones, and are the poorer for it.

While there's going to be an awful lot to do in the coming years, much of it may seem retrograde or tedious. For a start there's going to be a lot of grunt work, welding together "new" financial institutions, where the old ones weren't that well integrated in the first place. New regulation will require the unpicking of years of careful work to cope with regimes that, ultimately, failed to deliver or even to achieve maturity. The new realities of financial life will probably be simpler, certainly starker. Much of the work might seem a bit like attaching a carthorse to a Porsche. It could all get a bit depressing.

I don't want to get overly apocalyptic; the end of the world has been coming in various forms ever since I was a child. But you can't be complacent—drive an hour from where I'm currently sitting and you can take your pick of the ruins of a dozen mighty empires destroyed by fire, earthquake and conquest. Our current nemesis seems a bit dull by comparison. We didn't have a war or even run out of oil, just that largely imaginary and abstract commodity—money.

It doesn't have to be depressing. Adapting to a new paradigm, like aging gracefully, can be a source of great pride and achievement. Our monument can be the appalling mess we got ourselves into—or the way we get out of it.