Something truly terrible happened in Hamelin, Germany in the early Middle Ages, something so dire it has become embedded in western consciousness as the fairy tale “The Pied Piper.” Whether the town experienced a severe case of the Black Death, a rush of emigration to Eastern Europe, suffered through the Children’s Crusade, or was the early victim of a particularly virulent mass murderer is open to argument. What is not is that the youth of Hamelin suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Indeed, the first written entry in the Hamelin town chronicles of 1384 sorrowfully records, “It is 100 years since our children left”.
The Pied Piper fairy tale has always fascinated, given its unflinching moral that you can pay to solve a problem now, or ignore it and have a much larger problem later. Frugal and ungrateful town worthies – having hired a mysterious foreigner to rid Hamelin of a plague of rats – decided not to pay him what he was owed, now that the crisis had passed. But they were merely storing up trouble, as the vengeful piper used his mesmeric lute to lure the town’s children away. It is the ultimate medieval commentary on the very modern problem of the price to be paid if people fail to deal with immediate difficulties.
For as we grapple with the apparently insoluble crises of the Ebola virus, Vladimir Putin’s continued aggression in Ukraine, and the yawning fault lines in the global economy revealed over the past week, our failures in the face of such challenges can be understood quite simply. “Take what you want… and pay for it”, an aphorism attributed variously to the Arabs and the Spanish, sounds menacing. But looked at another way, it simply amounts to good old fashioned realist pragmatism: do what you want, but know that it, like everything else, has a price tag. And the bill always comes due.
Psychologically, what happens if you try to skip out on the tab? Havoc in an individual’s life, and pain and destruction in its wake, usually for bystanders first. Numbness through alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, food, and life’s other distractions provide temporary relief from the emotional tension of ignoring problems in front of you, but the pain always comes around again the minute the anaesthesia wears off. Accruing debt without a plan for paying it back, taking without giving, or imagining that people will sacrifice for you without expecting anything in return – all are ways of trying to duck one’s creditors. Yet manageable crises are almost certain to assume gargantuan proportions, if they are left untreated long enough.
There is simply no holiday from history, either for individuals or nations. Three seemingly unrelated crises presently bedeviling the West make this clear. The Ebola crisis – one that has been brewing for quite a time, as the West has helped too little and too late in apparently far-off west Africa – now predictably sits on the cusp of pandemic proportions that could affect the entire world directly. Rather than dealing with a small if difficult problem, the West’s gormlessness has led to a much larger mess. Indeed, while warning that Ebola is now out of control, Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Friday that western governments have been consistently behind the curve in dealing with the threat.
Likewise, lessons have yet to be learned from the Ukraine crisis. Despite all the talk, an economically preoccupied Europe exhibits almost no political will to create a common energy policy, which is the only way to master Putin. Unless Europe grasps the energy nettle, developing Dutch petrochemicals, working with oil-rich Norway, and allowing shale exploration and fracking across the continent, the predictable, doleful result will remain a Russia largely able to do as it pleases.
This past week has also made it abundantly clear that oblivious countries across the world have not used the respite from doom provided by US QE and Chinese debt-fuelled growth to embark upon the painful structural reforms necessary to make their economies fit for purpose in the post-Lehman era. Now with Chinese growth slowing and the Fed’s massive expansion of its balance sheet ending, the party is over.
In each case, and in many others, the tragedy is that no one has thought to pay the piper.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., and president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and author most recently of Lawrence Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again. Lara Palay, MSW, is a psychotherapist who consults on clinical issues and social welfare policy. She lectures on clinical social work at Ohio State University, and is a managing partner at the Aldridge Palay Group.