Starting from the bottom, there is TheMan Who Wasn't There: the newly reinaugurated Russian president Vladimir Putin. He didn't even show up, but sent his obedient deputy Medvedev instead, who made positive noises about how wonderful the meeting was. Putin is a lonely man: he's been seen in public with his wife a total of twice over the last two years; his two daughters are living incognito somewhere in Europe, there are mobs of people outside chanting “Russia Without Putin!” over and over again, and even the VIPs present at the inauguration seemed to be half-concealing a message behind their idolatrous smiles: “Wish you weren't here, Vova!”
The situation in the US isn't that much better: even his (once) ardent supporters see Obama as slightly worse than ineffectual, while many others are happy to vilify him for things he had nothing to do with. One thing is certain: the office changed him far more than he has managed to change the office. Even if he gets reelected, it will be four more years of ineffectual waffling, futile attempts to stay the course laid in by his manifestly incompetent predecessor, and frontal assaults on our remaining civil liberties. And if his opponent gets elected, it will much the same, except without the thin plastic veneer of pretending to give a damn.
Germany's Angela Merkel doesn't have much of a reason to be cheerful either. Her political support is eroding with each election. The task of pleasing the Germans while holding Eurozone together is an impossible one: the Germans are fed up with carrying the weaker European countries on their shoulders, but if they don't, then all fall down. The European dynamic is different because there the states that make up the EU negotiate with each other directly rather through the opaque proxy of Washington. If New York and California had a choice as to whether to give Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas an endless series of financial piggyback rides, they would tell them to go ask Jesus for a loan, and then these three states would be worse off than Greece. But eventually something has to give, both here and in Europe.
The new face, the freshly elected socialist François Hollande, hasn't had a chance to do much yet, but, uncharacteristically for an elected official, he seems to want to fulfill his campaign promises: he said that he will withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, as promised. But his hand is weak: financially, France is not far ahead the Eurozone laggards; politically, Marine Le Pen's National Front is breathing down his neck.
And so, all they can do is pray: “In the Name of Austerity, Stimulus and Growth, Amen!” Growth is the holy grail, and austerity and stimulus will help us find it. But how?
Austerity is meant to bring deficit spending under control, curb the uncontrolled expansion of public debt, and avoid national default. But it has the unwelcome effect of triggering a severe recession, shrinking the tax base, and causing budget deficits to increase, not decrease.
Stimulus is meant to provide a way to kick-start economic growth, but the money for stimulus spending has to be borrowed, and this results in the expansion of public debt. And even an economist will tell you that a higher debt-to-GDP ratio results in lower growth.
This brings us to growth. The world is resource-constrained: the supply of most of the essential industrial commodities cannot be increased without triggering a price spike, which, in turn, will trigger another, even deeper, recession. Even with all the deep-water drilling (and spilling), fracking, tar sands and so on, there just isn't much growth potential for the US or the Eurozone, with their already high levels of per capita resource consumption.
Contrary to the ardent prayers of the world's leaders, the three-legged stool of austerity, stimulus and growth is a rickety piece of furniture: no matter which combination of legs they try put their weight on, they will end up sitting on the floor, and we will end up sitting on the floor with them. Now, sitting on the floor does not have to be uncomfortable. Perhaps, instead of praying, they should try some yoga: I am thinking of the lotus position. Repeating the same thing over and over again doesn't seem to be working; let's try meditating instead. Growth is over; now what?