Tired of Y2K?

The problem itself isn't what you should fear

Issue: "The tolerance police," Dec. 19, 1998

I'm looking hard for some distraction from Y2K. But I'm not a regular reader of spy novels, stories of international intrigue, or futuristic war thrillers. So when I picked up a copy of Balance of Power last week for a little leisure reading, it wasn't because I'm addicted to that kind of book. Instead, I happened to have enjoyed a dinner party a couple of years ago in the home of the author James Huston, who was a top-gun pilot with the U.S. Navy, flying F-14s off the USS Nimitz. Mr. Huston is now a lawyer and an elder in his church near San Diego. The story in Balance of Power pits a liberal pacifistic president against a hard-line conservative speaker of the House-both against the backdrop of a terrorist attack against an American commercial vessel in the Indian Ocean. The ship is sunk and the crew murdered. Yet even so, the super-cautious president opposes any military counterstrike. But the House speaker, using an obscure but plausible reading of the U.S. Constitution, gets Congress to authorize a military response of its own against the terrorists in spite of the president's opposition. That's all I'll tell you about the story-other than that the deeper I got into the tale, the more compelling it became. Mr. Huston wrote his book far enough into the Clinton presidency to be able to let the foibles of this administration show through fairly often in his story. But he also wrote it long enough before last January so that none of this year's tussles between Mr. Clinton and the Congress-including the possibility of an impeachment-were yet in view. In that sense, some of the tale is prescient indeed. Specifically, if the story's big action was among the islands of Indonesia, the real drama was still back in Washington. Could the U.S. government survive a direct congressional challenge to the authority of a sitting president? Or would the result be disillusionment by the nation's people with the whole idea of government-or maybe even cynicism and revolt? Author Huston makes a point of political philosophy in his book, although he does it deftly and fairly enough not to spoil the story. Yet I came to the end of his work with almost the same dark mood that characterizes the end of 1998 for so many of us. There were in the book, as there have been in real life this year, both good guys and bad guys. But even the good guys were so sullied and diminished in the battle that your motivation to stand up and cheer had pretty much vanished when the end came. All the way through the book, and all the way through the year, even the heroes disappoint. So who will be surprised if 1999 turns out to be a year when disillusionment with political power structures sinks deeper than ever? We now have a presidency people trust only because times seem economically good. We have a legislative branch so tentative on almost every issue you wonder whether they know what a principle is. And we have a judiciary so delicately split that a single death or resignation could lead to a new appointment that might completely recast the court's complexion for years to come. If terrorist attacks of the sort portrayed in Balance of Power don't challenge the durability of our weakened government this coming year-and they certainly could-two other factors might well do the job. The first is the continuing collapse of the global economy. Whatever happens to the real economy over the next few months, it could all be better if people had genuine confidence in their political leaders. And it will probably be much worse because they don't. The other factor challenging the stability of government in 1999 brings us back to Y2K. Most of us are weary of reading and hearing about this ironic glitch that threatens to bring a highly developed society to its knees. And I hesitate even to mention it here again for the very reasons I now explain. If ever there were a crisis that is not ultimately dangerous in and of itself-but that has potential for becoming dangerous because of people's loss of confidence-it is the Y2K crisis. The technical issues are real, but relatively minor, but only if we keep our heads about us. Planes will not fall out of the skies, utilities will find ways to keep electricity flowing, and elevators will not plummet to the bottoms of their respective shafts. The Y2K crisis will not come at 11:59 p.m. on Friday night, Dec. 31, a year from now. The crisis will come during the last three or four months of the year. During that period people will be tempted to withdraw their money from the banks, sell off their stock portfolios, and otherwise liquefy their assets. They will do it "just to be sure," but the effect will be just the opposite. It will be a time, perhaps more than ever in our lifetimes, when we will need steady and unthreatened hands at the high levels of government-and when we will also need words from the White House and the Capitol we can trust. The very fact that we won't have those qualities in 1999 is perhaps the biggest danger of all.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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