Friday, September 26, 2008

A Bit of Optimism Best Expressed Before I Come To My Senses

Ah, our financial meltdown. Could any crisis be better contrived and timed to elicit every unbecoming, cut-off-your-nose, dig-your-own-grave tendency in our national character?

It bodes not well.

However, such crises also seem to produce their own opportunities for redemption. Opportunities like anti-matter in a crap-strewn universe, and every bit as elusive.

We'll get to that in a moment. But first, let's spend some time on the ledge.

Collected in the window frame behind us, quietly chanting "jump, jump, jump," is every negative influence ever isolated in the laboratories of self-help science. Fear. Fury. Bewilderment. Vindictiveness. Selfishness. Hate. All the impulses we should strive to hold at bay when it's time to make life-or-death decisions.

Evidence that our most rash and counterproductive urges threaten to win the day is everywhere.

The blogs are alight with cries of "let them fail!" Never mind that the "they" in question are holding your retirement.

In the recent Senate hearings on the crisis, Senator Sherrod Brown informed Treasury Secretary Paulson that not one of the torrent of calls to the Senator's office was in favor of the bailout plan. I suppose we should be pleased that looming disaster has rekindled America's moribund interest in civic affairs. Thanks to all those who paused their Wii's long enough to contact their representatives. But too bad our idea of constructive criticism is a collective wail of hysteria.

Garbage in, garbage out, says an old rule of thumb, meaning bad information produces faulty conclusions. And in the political sphere, our national hissy-fit ensures that we'll get more fluff than substance from the legislative sausage grinder. For example, capping Wall St. salaries is about as important right now as turning off the bedroom lights before fleeing a house fire.

Anyway, relax, I say. We'll all be taking a pay cut soon enough.

This is the allure of all our worst instincts on display. How do we respond? Do we boldly push them away? Do we resist their corrosive attraction? Of course not. We drink them down like shipwrecked sailors gorging themselves on salt water.

Stupid, stupid us. In penny romances, there is a moment when the protagonist recognizes their mistakes, is filled with regret, and sets out to make all well. They've traveled through a dark tunnel but come out to light.

Life is not like that. In real life, we come not to the tunnel's opening, but to a dead end where we realize we're inhabiting a disaster. But before we can set anything to right, we must first hack our way back through the recent track of our own dysfunction, blaming everyone but ourselves, lashing out indiscriminately, and sowing every bit as much misery and pain on the way out as we did on the way in.

Aren't we delightful?

So the question is, where on this trek are we right now? For several years now, polls have shown that most Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps then it doesn't require rose-tinted glasses to think this economic collapse is more of a final comeuppance than a wake-up call.

One other observation justifies optimism. I believe that there is an almost Newtonian physics to two-party politics. That a period of anomalous extremism can involuntarily generate its own antithesis. That out of the reeking, toxic decay of Republican depravity is coming some kind of exotic, mysterious particle of unsuspected positive potential. And its name is Barack Obama.

Look, I have no illusions about what the reality of an Obama administration is likely to be. In all likelihood he will be beaten to a political pulp by the problems he will inherit and will forever be tethered to Jimmy Carter in the revisionist worldview of the 12 consecutive Republican administrations his disastrous tenure will ensure. And who knows what unexpected failings of character he will display. He's as human as the rest of us, and if you think I have an inflated opinion of humanity, well, you haven't been reading very carefully.

And yet one can hardly deny that he is a very different quantity than any candidate to come to the brink of the Presidency in the last 40-odd years. And that his viability is a product of our 8-year-long national catastrophe. Were it not for the lies, the pointless war, the corruption, the disdain for competence, the indefensible use of torture, the disregard for the rule of law and constitutional democracy, and now this great hundred-year-flood of our financial system, is there any chance we would be on the verge of electing a black man whose middle name is "Hussein" President right now? Any chance?


So I think something different is about to happen. Something special. We are on a cusp that has the potential to be transformational, rather than just a slow, dreary crawl back to mediocrity. And it's happening not in spite of the calamity that envelops us, but because of it.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Viva La Revolución!

I have no talent for admitting I'm wrong. Not because of any surfeit of pride. But rather because it is a skill I have never had occasion to practice.

Until now.

Recently, I wrote about the coming liberal dictatorship. I foresaw a world in which the instruments of power, sharpened by our current leadership to compel absolute submission, would be wielded by a liberal administration for ends every bit as extreme as intended, but far less palatable to people who live in Texas.

That could still happen. But it's like a television program preempted by breaking news: it may be in the can, but it's not what anyone will be watching.

Our constitutional crisis has been supplanted by an economic crisis. We paused momentarily to put our head between our knees and breathe into a paper bag, and when we looked up, we discovered we're having a socialist revolution--engineered by neo-conservatives!

Holy. Fucking. Shit. I'd like to think this is a simple matter of a spectacularly misguided policy coming to a head like an angry, puss-filled carbuncle. But we've been fleeced so many times by the carnies who run this country that we can hardly be faulted for suspecting this catastrophe is just another Republican sleight-of-hand designed to reclaim an initiative that seemed hopelessly lost. Are they once again stealing a march on their political opponents by doing something so unexpected, so out-of-left field, so bat-shit crazy that those who would resist are simply paralyzed with shock?

If so, admiration overwhelms my disgust. I mean... it's just... diabolical! And it's so freakin' BIG that even I never conjured such a thing in my wildest dreams--and I am not in the habit of constraining my imaginings. If you only knew the sick things I am picturing right now...

Just think! In the course of a few days, the people who have for a decade belittled their detractors with the epithet of socialism, who made a sacred mission of kneecapping the mere patina of a welfare state created in the 1930's, who have attempted to demonize Russia in a barely-disguised ploy to reanimate the politically convenient bete noir of world communism--these same people have swarmed to a one trillion dollar takeover of the entire American financial system like sailors on the decks of the battleship Potemkin!

Look! There's Henry Paulson driving the kulak financiers of lower Manhattan into the overcrowded bar cars of the MetroNorth railway. Soon they will disappear into the cavernous conservatories of their Greenwich homes, where they will forevermore consume canapes and cognac in miserable obscurity.

And there! There's Ben Bernake storming the New York stock exchange in a tricolor cockade! It impossible to tell what's happening amidst the cigar smoke and the roar of the press corps, but rumors fly that Goldman Sachs has declared a commune of lower Trinity Place. And who can calculate the human cost? The dry cleaning bill alone will run to six figures!

And now a hush falls on the nation. For returned from his long march to Crawford Texas is Chairman Bush, the Great Leader! For love of him, children expose their parents for shorting T-bills. With a glance and gesture he makes spareribs tender and biscuits moist.

Viva La Revolución! To the barricades! All power to the soviets! Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!


Something feels oh so wrong here. Aren't socialist revolutions supposed to come from below?

That the cries of "Power to the people!" are coming not from the downtrodden peasantry, but from the Tsar and his minions is testimony to the fact that what the people are going to get here is anything but power. It is a whole boatload of grief.

How bad is it? It is all the way bad. The bad, to borrow the idiom of Spinal Tap, will go to 11.

Envision the worthless paper of 10 million home loans that America is buying as the sorriest looking Ford Pinto in the used car lot. It's a colossal lemon. And the problem with lemons is not a philosophical one to be debated by earnest sophomores in bong-hit fueled bull sessions. The problem with lemons is that they break down right on the entrance ramp to the freeway in rush hour while your wife howls in labor on the passenger side and the air conditioning doesn't work and it's 105 degrees and the rest of your little monsters are trying to disembowel each other in the back seat and you feel you have no choice but to do the job for them yourself and that's going to take some explaining if and when the highway patrol ever arrives.

That's the problem with lemons.

For our economy, catastrophe is every bit as imminent as it was before our dear President signed us taxpayers up to bail out his rich friends. More so, perhaps, because those Wall St. wizards--major asshats though they be--actually do know a fair amount about navigating difficult financial straits. But they no longer give a damn what happens. They're off the hook and our fates are now in the hands of a completely different but much less skilled collection of asshats called Congress.

Why do you think there were so many smiling faces on the floor of the stock exchange when the bailout plan was announced and the Dow surged? Because we've been rescued? Of course not. The traders were smiling because they've been rescued.

We'll be sure to write frequently to those former Wall Streeters at their spas in Hawaii and let them know how it's going as the housing market goes from slide to plummet. As credit becomes impossible and business contracts. As pain cascades through the population in the form of sweeping layoffs. As inflation soars because that will make paying back the massive debt we've taken on cheaper.

We've chained ourselves to this falling anvil with the same rash ignorance with which we bought that 10,000 sq.ft. McMansion last year. And now we're living in one of those 1970 conspiracy movies where the hero is killed just before he can save the world, the bad guys get off scot free, and everything is most assuredly not going to be alright.

Looking for a bright spot in all this is like looking for the bright spot in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The only brightness comes from the roaring flames, which serve to silhouette the doomed figures in the window frames just before they leap.

But let's indulge in a brief bit of Panglossian self-delusion anyhoo, yes?

One upside is that the crackers of middle America, stunned by sudden crisis, will probably not come to their senses until just after they've elected a colored fella President. Boy, will they be grumpy once they realize.

And this: It's true that America will be vomiting and watching our hair fall out for years as a result of the radioactive fallout from this disaster. But can you imagine how this would have been packaged if the Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac / Lehman brothers / AIG mushroom cloud had come even one hour after Barack Obama locked down the election in the predawn of November 5th?

Our present storyline sure wouldn't be about the apocalyptic comeuppance of mindless deregulation. Or the destruction of the myth that the mindless Darwinian churning of free markets is somehow tempered by an inherent goodness. Or about the essential hollowness of a society built on the corrosive notion that wealth is the same thing as virtue.

No sir. If this atomic blast had been delayed, there would be only one storyline trumpeted by the tools of conservatism and a p-whipped (c-whipped?) media: Barack Obama as pilot of the Enola Gay. That's right. We'd be told that an otherwise vibrant economy had collapsed at the mere thought of the prosperity-hating policies he would inevitably implement.

So we can breathe a big sigh of relief that the world is ending sooner rather than later.

This economic convulsion also alters the landscape of political possibility in intriguing ways. Free marketers talk reverently of creative destruction--the rise of new mercantile opportunity from the decaying matter of endeavors that have failed and fallen. But they never considered what might grow from the steaming corpse of their entire beloved system.

For example, though the words "universal health insurance" were spoken in the campaign, only a fool could have believed the idea more than a political pipe dream. But the shattering mental impact of seeing the establishment dissolve, combined with the soon-to-be-palpable effects of unemployment and the credit crunch on our already tenuous access to the proctologist we desperately need may yet give unexpected substance to that dream.

Not all political pigs will fly. But don't be surprised if some sprout wings and, like turkeys, make a whole lot of unforeseen commotion.

And finally this: Conservatives are ever fulminating that Obama---contrary to his voting record or his public statements--harbors secret intentions of outfitting America in Mao jackets and handing out Little Red Books. But now they've been compelled by the deformed product of their own extremism to lurch leftward in advance of his arrival. Will they therefore restrain their urge to tag his administration as the enemy of all that is American? As the undoer of freedom? Will they exhibit that most minimal degree of decency that shames us from accusing others of our own failures?

Don't be ridiculous. Of course they won't. And their misrepresentations will be swallowed hook, line and sinker by a culture whose worldview is shaped and reshaped by no experiences more distant than those of the previous two weeks. By February, Barack Obama will be solely responsible for our metasticizing economy, the plight of Katrina victims, the terrorist attacks of 2001, and the burning of the capital by British regulars in the War of 1812.

Yet some small weight has undeniably been lifted from Obama's shoulders. Centering economic governance will no longer require a massive heave to the left certain to provoke opposition from formidable conservative constituencies. And in the continuing chaos to come he'll find more freedom of action than he could have hoped for six months ago. It's a lot easier to be a builder when the demolition's already done.

And let's be fair (even if it isn't much fun), the real villain here isn't conservatism, any more than the savior is liberalism. The villain is absolutism. It's extremism. It's the absurd idea that if less regulation is good, no regulation is even better. Would any rational person argue that commerce is possible without the regulation of contract law, accounting rules, and the like? And if that's true, shouldn't we just scotch all the scorched-earth, anti-regulatory ranting and start a measured discussion on how to do it right?

So here's to hoping we can get back on track for balance and moderation. That we can enact the kind of regulation that let's us maximize the benefits of the free market while minimizing the risks. That we can stop chasing the chimera of perfecting our system, and settle in to the hard, never-ending, and unavoidably messy task of optimizing it.

Until then, Viva La Revolución, baby!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Dear Mr. Vice-President - May I Call You Dick?

Dear Mr. Vice-President

Regarding the proposal I submitted for your review entitled “How to Solve the Climate Crisis: Must I Do Everything Myself?” Thank you for a your prompt response. It was most gratifying that your representatives contacted me even before I had fully withdrawn my hand from the postal box into which I was placing the completed dossier for delivery to you office. Given the astonishingly swift reaction my query elicited, I can only conclude that the media has created a false impression of your disposition on this matter in the public mind.

Clearly, you care very much about the environment after all.

My thanks to your staff. In these past several weeks they have been unfailingly attentive towards me. I am ashamed to tax your hospitality even further by respectfully requesting some additional luxuries. A little natural light, perhaps? And some clothes. And if someone would be so kind as to phone my wife and let her know when she might expect my return.

By the way… When exactly might my wife expect my return?

But your time is valuable...

Sir, I am not one who pays much attention to contemporary politics, but I am an unerring judge of character. I see the torment that is in your heart. You want desperately to alert the world to the dangers of global warming, to light the great beacon of public peril. But, like a Hamlet, all your urge to action is swamped by the erratic tides of an internal equivocation you cannot suppress.

Why, you wonder, why can't you ever just make a decision?!

Do not be ashamed that I have read your innermost thoughts so clearly.

And even if you were to speak up, how can one quiet-voiced, soft-hearted man hope to convince the sour Brahmins of conservatism to cease their obstructionism? To date, they have parried every approach. We have engaged in dialogue, but perpetual political dueling has poisoned the soil where compromise would sprout. We have pleaded for modest restraint of industries that pollute, but reluctance to regulate is their central imperative. We have offered facts, but the pronouncements of scientists they slough off as the naval-gazing of an effeminate academia.

So let us speak to them in terms they understand. Let us sell them insurance.

Conservatives love insurance. It provides a means by which they may hedge against the mischief of death, the fires soon to be set by their estranged children, and the divorce that must ensue when they at last acknowledge their own homosexuality. Insurance lets them profit each time the world proves to be as dark and menacing as they secretly wish it to be. And though they may witness one of their children tragically sucked into a wood chipper, they find satisfaction via the miracle of remuneration, and more still in the validation of their negative outlook.

Like you, I can only pity their wretchedness.

But let us take the opportunity presented by our opponents' spiritual deformity. Let us address the issue of climate change not as one political or scientific, but as one actuarial. Let us eschew the patchouli-scented, flower-powered argument of harmonious planetary stewardship that conservatives find repellent and propose the horse-sense of a fiscal hedge.

What would they offer in refutation?

Perhaps they would be reluctant to insure against an event they believe to be without precedent. They might note that insurers have audited history's track of eyeballs gouged, limbs severed, homes devoured in flame and luxury yachts drunkenly grounded. Actuarial odds makers can offhandedly calculate precisely the chance that you will regain full use of your fingers after fishing around in an airplane lavatory for the meth pipe you dropped. But we have yet to lose a planet. Come back after that happens, they will say. Then we'll talk.

Others on the right will know that the planet has indeed been lost before. Paleogeology shows that life on earth has been ravaged to its barest foundations by climatic reversals on several occasions in its deep past. But those who grasp earth's history can be no less stubborn. They seem to believe that the fact that disaster can strike even without cars or coal-fueled power plants means we should adopt a fatalistic passivity. As they watch their grandchildren scraping the baked clay for grubs to eat, they will take comfort in the fact that it might not be completely their fault.

But the masters of industry will open themselves to the message if it comes from you whom they blindly believe to be one of their own. Tell them! Tell them how data from ice cores and fossil samples, from ocean temperatures and atmospheric analysis, from studies of forestation patterns and species extinction all add up to the most tragic thing they can envision.

Reduced growth.

Paint the horrors of this future for them in all its sickening detail. The consumer products collecting dust on store shelves because a malnourished populace has not the energy for shopping. Sales of jet-ski's drying up as fast as the rivers and lakes upon which they once frolicked. Thousands of Mediterranean cruises refunded because the fleet is being used as temporary housing for 200 million African refugees.

"No!" They will cry, "Not refunds!"

Compel them to confront the monstrous horror of commerce impaired, the piteous site of profits reduced, and the soul-crushing purposelessness of life when quarterly revenue targets are not achieved. Then they will ante up. They will beg you to take their money to build windmills. To install solar panels. To convert cars to run on fryer oil.

For you, Dick--may I call you Dick?--the sacrifice required may be total. You must never allow the forces of evil to know the real you. You must be to all observers unfeeling, bitter, selfish, and cruel, even if the strain causes the true light of your spirit to flicker and go out.

But you can do it. Just be yourself.