headless chicken

Our economy, the headless chicken

January 21, 2009: 10:30 AM ET

180px-miketheheadlesschickenWhen I was a lad, my summer camp took us to a farm. We were mostly city kids with a few suburban nerds like me thrown in. We petted the goats. We took a look at the cows being milked by huge machines. Some of us even got to ride on a pony. And then, for the piece the resistance, they took us all back behind the barn to watch a chicken get its head cut off. Why? You tell me.

The farmer explained to us that even after its head was cut off, the chicken wouldn't know its basic status, and would continue to run around for a while. He seemed to feel this was interesting, if not amusing. So he lined the chicken up on a very scary, very scarred block, and chopped its head off.

Boom! There was a mighty fountain of blood and, as foretold, the surprised chicken hopped to its feet and began to run around the yard. Some people laughed to see such sport. Others simply watched in amazement. After a while the erstwhile chicken stopped running, stood still for a while, then simply tipped over onto one side and, after twitching for a couple of seconds, lay still. Its body had finally recognized its true condition. An organism can live without a brain for only so long.

Which brings me to our economy. About 18 months ago, it seems to have lost its head. Who chopped it off is a matter of conjecture, although all those sharp financial instruments invented by Wall Street were certainly on the scene. One thing is for sure, though. The poor thing is still running around the farmyard without one.

Every day I get to work and see a bunch of news stories from august business magazines, Web sites and papers, tracking various developments, and several dozen chattering analysts reports, all of this activity attesting to the fact that the bloody victim is still racing around as if its head were still on its shoulders. Right now, at this writing, I believe it may be possible that we're in the phase where the thing is just standing there in shocked stasis, preparing to keel over. It certainly feels that way.

On the bright side, history shows us that it is possible for a chicken to live a long time without its head, as long as a tiny portion of its autonomic system remains intact. It's never really healthy again, but it can hang around a long time in that condition. So maybe all is not lost.

There is no record, however, of a chicken in this extreme state having its head actually replaced. Who knows, though? If some of our best minds put their heads to the task, maybe it can be done.

We can always, I suppose, enjoy the audacity of hope.

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