Monday, April 6, 2009

The Big Picture: "Spotting dimes, eating onions, I don't know what to believe!"

I am finding myself in the unusual position of truly not knowing how to feel or what to think about the current political situation. I am torn between a more pessimistic, skeptical, radical perspective, and a more optimistic, confident, moderate-liberal perspective. I can't convince myself one way or the other. Every time I look in despair at the enormous challenges presented the financial crisis, by the specter of impending doom from energy-climate change-unsustainable development, by the prejudices and selfishness and small-mindedness that makes politics so frustrating, I remember how much the political situation has improved in 2 1/2 years.I remind myself that the Democrats took over all levers of government, and Barack Obama is President, and how truly incredible that is. On the other hand, every time I am excited by Obama's achievements so far, excited by his budget, excited by the inspiring image of America he and Michelle project, I remember the enormity of the challenges he, and we, face. I think about the deeply rooted obstacles to the kind of fundamental change we need, obstacles that weren't uprooted by one or two elections. Each side has a compelling argument, but neither is convincing.

The first and most pressing example is the financial crisis. I attended this panel discussion of historians last week, who were going over previous financial crises and their relation to the current one. The most striking impression was of how long previous crises had lasted, that in almost every case leaders did not take the appropriate action, tried to muddle through without upsetting the status quo, without toppling the elites who had created the crisis. The general public was angry, but not as much as they should have been, and instead were bewildered, surprisingly and disturbingly quiet and complacent. Meanwhile, elites engaged in a combination of phony happy talk, diverting distractions, and basically doing everything in their power to stand in the way of necessary reform in order to protect their privileged position. Needless to say, that sounds familiar. As the very distinguished economists - men with no political stake and a deserved reputation for perceptively diagnosing the reality beneath the spin - Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, and Simon Johnson, have been saying, the Obama team's response to the financial crisis has followed this same pattern. The deep implicit assumptions of Wall Street - unregulated flow of capital, massive salaries, crazy schemes, all rooted in the unconscionably arrogant and self-serving belief that there's only one way the world works, and that's to have Wall Street hot shots get everything they want, even in the face of a crisis that showed how destructively wrong that belief is - seem to be playing far too large a role in Obama's policy. The New York Times article today about Larry Summers earning millions from 2006 through 2008 working for a hedge fund, soaking in not only the money but the arrogance that hedge funds should be in charge, and then playing a key role in promoting a "rescue" policy that just so happens to be extremely lucrative for hedge funds, it seemed almost made-up, so perfectly did it confirm every conspiracy theory.

Another point often made by Krugman is that, evocative of previous crises, is that our leaders aren't taking this crisis nearly serious enough. Clearly the Republican Party fits that description - their House Minority whip and prominent spokesman, Eric Cantor, unambiguously declared that he doesn't take the worst crisis in 75 years seriously by saying "The Democrats are overreacting to the financial crisis." It's hard to tell whether he and his ilk are clowns who actually believe that nothing is wrong, nihilists who don't care one way or the other and simply say such things to out-radical each other and thereby advance in the Bizarro World, or traitors who legitimately would prefer an America where economic ruin brings down Obama and hands them power than an America where economic recovery buoys Obama and undermines their own shot at returning to power. Regardless of their intentions,one of our two political parties is committed to failure and economic ruin. This party still controls 41 votes in the Senate, not only allowing them to filibuster almost every serious attempt to address the crisis, but also to place all kinds of holds and general obstructive tactics to stymie Obama. More importantly, they keep the political spectrum in a far too right-wing position. The media, destructively, is obsessed with bipartisanship and with giving each side an equal say, and that determines the spectrum of debate and of acceptable solutions.

As will be discussed soon, I feel Obama's policies have been insufficiently bold, and yet more than half of what is seen in the media says it's way too bold, way too "socialist". I say "more than half" because the most destructive influence of the Republican Party is on the "centrist" Democrats, who as many analysts have pointed out have no coherent policy program, and instead hold as their goal positioning themselves between the two parties - no matter what the parties stand for. Centrist Democrats hold an enormous amount of symbolic and actual power. Their symbolic power comes from being media darlings, constantly portrayed as the most "objective" and "serious" figures, beloved because they are between the parties no matter what the parties stand for. One party takes the crisis seriously and the other is proud that they don't; one party is invested in recovery, the other is invested in ruin. And the media and the "centrists" are proudly between those two camps, smug and self-righteous, certain that they're the most serious figures out there. (This calls to mind one of the most retrospectively embarassing moments in the lives of both The Strike and I: in fourth grade the two of us - who did journal entries with made-up schedules for our made-up baseball team, and who got into huge fights about playing time on our made-up football team - were so delusional about our status that I confidently said to the Strike, in front of our shocked teacher, "We're clearly the two most mature people in our grade". I am confident that in 10 years we'll look at the behavior of the "serious" centrists on Capitol Hill and in the media the same way the Strike and I view that 4th grade Embarassment with a capital E.)

As we said a couple months ago, the only way Obama can overcome the combination of economic crisis and political clownishness is through embodying the full measure of "Change we can believe in": bold new policies and political strategies that overwhelm the forces of the status quo. But as I read Krugman and Stiglitz and Johnson, I worry that the response to the financial crisis is far too caught up in the same Wall Street mythology that caused the crisis in the first place. You should read their analyses, but to summarize my perspective, I am concerned because: a) one of the most accurate ways to cut through the spin is to ask, "Who benefits?", and it seems clear that the only certain beneficiaries are the hedge fund types, b) I don't want to completely write people off because of their pasts, but the complicity of Geithner and Summers in the crisis leaves the impression that even if they sincerely want to fix the problem, they can't because they're embedded in it, and c) I have less faith in Obama on this issue than almost any other, because it's far from his area of expertise or passion, his personnel and policy choices to date have been questionable, and this issue brings to the fore the most conservative tendencies in him, the technocratic, non-populist, University of Chicago side. And even if Obama is at his core more anti-Wall Street than it appears right now, the awesome power of Wall Street influence and Wall Street mythology is an opponent more formidable than Hillary Clinton or John McCain. The important issues are so technical - making them so easy to spin and distort their true nature - that it is especially challenging to mobilize a popular movement to ensure that we're doing the right thing and solving the problems, rather than papering them over and creating some new scheme to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

Finally, even if we do solve the financial crisis, we would hardly be out of the woods. Obama has shown great farsightedness and wisdom in his statements that we need to transform America from the current bubble-and-bust, borrow and spend frivolously, widening inequalities, inadequate educational and physical infrastructure society we have now toward one of sustainable growth, equality of opportunity, sound long-term investments, and green energy. But that is an enormous task. It's not just elite politicians and businesses standing in the way, either. Fundamental change will require what seem to be big sacrifices from our current way of life, and both history and life experience tell us that it is so difficult to get people to trade the comfort of the known for unknown risky change that demands more from each individual. As great a politician as Obama is, as impressive was his campaign army, are they, are we, up to that existential challenge? But this skepticism is still leavened by optimism. Some of it comes from history: in the New Deal and especially in World War II, America's people and institutions rose to the existential challenge of Depression and World War.

I firmly believe that only a repeat of the World War II spirit and policies - universal involvement and service, everyone pulling their weight, rationing and sacrifice - especially from the rich - for the greater good, and (centrist Democrats and media know-it-alls) massive deficit spending to stimulate and invest - will be sufficient to solve our problems. Those people weren't more moral than us, but they were spurred by a severe threat, and that to some degree is the condition now. They also had a great and wise leader, one who made mistakes to be sure but was able to not only to overcome institutional inertia to enact policies bold enough to meet the challenge, but who articulated and inspired an ethos, helping people take the necessary steps of fundamentally changing their beliefs and their behavior. Obama has made mistakes and will make more, but I think that he is that kind of leader. One quote that has always stirred me is this one from the New York Times, in FDR's obituary in April 1945: "Men will thank God from their knees one hundred years from now that Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House." 64 years later, that rings as true as ever. Despite all the challenges we face, I have a good deal of confidence that, as an 95-year-old walking my grandkids to his monument on the Washington Mall, we will be saying the same thing of Barack Obama.

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