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Society’s Ability to Weather Crisis Largely Depends on Leaders’ Positions

February 13, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Nations with leaders who are keenly affected by their own decisions may weather crises better than those whose leaders are further removed, according to author Jared Diamond. Diamond discusses his new book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" with NewsHour Business correspondent Paul Solman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, at the end of this big week in Washington, some historical perspective on the financial crisis.

Congress appears poised to pass the giant stimulus bill later tonight. Earlier this week, the Obama administration rolled out its big financial rescue plan that may cost more than $1 trillion.

Our economics correspondent Paul Solman sat down with a well-known writer who studies how nations respond to crises.

JARED DIAMOND, Author: I’ve wondered a lot, when I look at past societies confronted with crises, why do some of these societies come out of a crisis stronger? And why do other societies tear themselves apart and collapse?

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: UCLA geographer Jared Diamond, author of an economic crisis book for the ages, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”

NARRATOR: One of the most original thinkers of our age, Diamond has traveled the world looking for clues.

PAUL SOLMAN: He also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winner “Guns, Germs and Steel,” made into a National Geographic documentary for PBS.

JARED DIAMOND: My years in New Guinea have convinced me that people around the world are fundamentally similar.

U.S. has 'fundamental' problems

PAUL SOLMAN: In his far-flung field work, Diamond has found societies that overcame economic crises, others that crashed and burned. So what does he think about our prospects?

JARED DIAMOND: I would be cautiously optimistic about the United States. We have professional mobility; we have geographic mobility. Fifty-one percent, I like our chances; forty-nine percent, I don't like them.

PAUL SOLMAN: So why don't you like them to the extent you don't, given our flexibility?

JARED DIAMOND: Well, even before this dislocation, the United States has well-known fundamental problems. We have fundamental problems with our energy policy. We have issues with our environmental problems. There are elements in American society that are resistant to making basic changes. There are other elements that are willing to explore changes.

Much hinges on decision-makers

PAUL SOLMAN: Of all the cultures you've studied that have tried to deal with severe economic dislocations, what's the marker of resiliency?

JARED DIAMOND: It seems to me that one of the predictors of a happy versus an unhappy outcome has to do with the role of the elite or the decision-makers or the politicians or the rich people within the society.

If the society is structured so that the decision-makers themselves suffer from the consequences of their decisions, then they're motivated to make decisions that are good for the whole society, whereas if the decision-makers can make decisions that insulate themselves from the rest of society, then they're likely to make decisions that are bad for the rest of society.

PAUL SOLMAN: Case in point, says Diamond, the place they call the city of New Orleans.

JARED DIAMOND: One could ask, why is it that, for 10 years, people around New Orleans dithered and they wouldn't adopt these plans for a few hundred million dollars to build the dikes? And part of the reason is that there's geographic segregation in New Orleans, where the rich people live on the higher ground and knew perfectly well that they were less exposed to problems from flooding.

PAUL SOLMAN: Compare that to the Netherlands, he says, where the system of dikes is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

JARED DIAMOND: There aren't any mansions on top of the dikes. Everybody is living down below in the polders. And they know -- the politicians and rich people know that, if the dikes failed, they would drown.

Future depends on choices

PAUL SOLMAN: But to the extent that this economic dislocation affects the wealthy, that's good?

JARED DIAMOND: I think I would like to see the rich suffer even more and -- and the politicians suffer even more.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because it would be good for us?

JARED DIAMOND: Yes, because they would then be motivated to solve all of our problems, and they wouldn't have the sense that, "It'll be OK for us."

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you have your own economic forecast of what's going to happen?

JARED DIAMOND: No, I don't, because it depends so heavily on peoples' choices. And I don't know what people are going to choose to do. I don't know, for example, whether Obama is going to be able to pull the country with him or whether quickly we're going to revert to infighting and a stalemate.

People often ask me to make predictions, and my usual answer is that it depends upon the choices we make, and I don't know what choices we will make.

PAUL SOLMAN: And we might add unnecessarily, neither do we.