Thursday, February 12, 2009

Okay, now it's official

The Obama Administration is not ready for primetime. Individual members (cough cough State Dept. cough cough) are fully up to their jobs. And the whole Administration, along with its captain, may find its sea legs -- who knows? maybe even by Day 100. But the first leg of its maiden voyage has by now matched the rockiness of Bill Clinton's start, at least.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What Krugman Said - Updated

Our Nobel Prize-winning Cassandra keeps up the drumbeat of truth. Please please please, Mr. President, listen to him.

Update: The "center" holds, and still the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.

As an aside, I am increasingly impressed with the historically extraordinary role Paul Krugman is playing. In a media and blogospheric landscape covered by pygmies, he towers. He has a lifetime's expertise and the authority of his Nobel Prize -- and, in making such powerful use of his bully pulpit, he is bringing both to bear in the most thoughtful, deeply serious way imaginable.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What FDR Means

I want to add one more meta-item to my prior post's list of what’s substantive – and, by extension, the failure of our new president, so far, to rise to his moment in history.

I’m talking about the meta-historical meaning of FDR, what he most fundamentally signified – not just for economics or American politics, but for the human spirit. Yes, he coalesced the idea and the form of the modern welfare state. Yes, he created the model for leadership in the age of mass communications. Yes, he defined the normative political consensus for a generation. And yes, he was correct, in the judgment of history, on the two vast challenges with which the country was confronted in his time.

But deeper than that, FDR represented the capacity of human beings to tackle problems on a societal scale, in an age when “societal” meant huge, diverse, complex (in the complex-adaptive-systems sense), global. He was the modern world’s chief historical embodiment of hope – not just rhetorical hope, but functional hope. Whether you agreed with his place on the left-right spectrum or not, whether you saw him defending your interests or goring your ox, there was no gainsaying that he showed America and the world how to act. Not for action’s sake, but for posterity’s. He was an institution-builder. He acted at a scale that was adequate to the realities of life on Planet Earth in the 20th Century – not in the superficial, stage-set, literally fascistic way of Mussolini in “making the trains run on time,” but in a way that had legs in a democratizing, emergent reality.

A basic understanding of and reaction to that is what made people elect him four times. That’s what made my grandfather and my parents adore him. That’s what cemented his place in history. That’s what makes his accomplishment continue to resonate today – why it is still the model to emulate for any President of the United States.

FDR made it clear that the world had not become too vast and complex for human beings to handle. He understood that this engine the Founding Fathers had built had extra gears in it, that it could run safely at highway speeds. He saw an America and a world that others didn’t yet see – one that was just coming into its prime. And he actually built it – not only through his clear, tight and inspiring words and conceptual frames, but in actual forms and institutions that operationalized it for everyone. He saved capitalism and world-power-level democracy by imagining into existence a fuller, more grown-up America.

That’s what conservatives distrust, at a deep level – this remarkable confidence in the capacity of oneself and one’s fellow humans to get their arms around great big problems and make things better. It’s also what many on the Left distrust – and why they therefore hang onto archaic Marxist frames, with their teleological absolutism. FDR was the real exemplar of the audacity of hope. And that’s what Barack Obama is failing to live up to, so far.

The roadblocks have been cleared away. He’s got a mandate – a consensus (not just in the U.S., but truly global) on the need for massive change. His political opposition is a shadow of its former self, the disembodied spirit of the dying Saruman, hovering above the ground and about to be borne away by a passing breeze. The sheer size and direness of the present emergency clarifies the direction we must go, the nature of the actions we must take.

All that remains is the self-knowledge and the boldness to act. And yet, our new president quails before the prospect of such action. Instead, he dithers around with this silly post-partisan kabuki, instead of stepping up to the plate.

It's the substance, stupid.

Monday, February 2, 2009


Although I sporadically find myself humming “Who’s Sorry Now?” when thinking of Obamabots going through Kool-Aid withdrawal, I have, by and large, lost interest in recriminations, richly deserved though they may be. Schadenfreud has been replaced by worry. I worry that our new president is going to fuck it up. And my worry resides in his persistent preoccupation with style -- and style of a particular type -- over substance.

As Big Tent Democrat says today – and as Paul Krugman has been arguing all along – that really needs to stop now. To cite President Obama’s own Biblical citation (which, I guess, makes this a recitation), it’s time to put away childish things.

Let me offer a few principles for what is substantive, circa February 2009:

The Republican Party isn’t just irrelevant; it’s dead – for a generation, anyway. The Southern Strategy worked. It’s now a Southern party, period. Look at all the vital signs – the ability to raise money, to field candidates (rather than host retirement parties for ex-officeholders), to frame an agenda and publicize same, to marshal an army of workers, etc. Zippo. The GOP can’t do any of those. And yet, our Post-Partisan President insists on propping up this corpse in hopes of shaking hands with it in a photo op. It’s like Weekend at Bernie's or The Trouble With Harry. Forget it. Zombies don’t exist, and there’s no need to pretend they’re real by continuing to push living humans out the door (i.e., under the bus) as unburnt offerings to them. This is not a trade-off of politics, the art of the possible, for principle. It’s dumb – really, incomprehensible – politically, too.

Tax cuts are bad now. They have flunked. Laffer Curves were always laughable curveballs. Supply side economics was always voodoo. That isn’t to say, of course, that tax hikes per se are the answer, either. It’s to say that a religious reliance on tax policy, one way or the other, is just one of the blind men feeling around the elephant. The Grover Norquist cult that took over the Republican Party (before the other cults moved in – the faith-based cult, the neocon cult, the anti-Constitutional cult – to form the Perfect Storm of Cults that was the W Administration) was always science fiction. (That is, it wasn’t even serious fiction.) And if it never made sense when we were in a boom, it makes even less sense when we’re in a bust.

Government has a vital role to play. Again, this isn’t an assertion of government as the only or dominant player in the game. We know how that works out (see, “The 20th Century: 100 Years of Mishagas” in the Encyclopedia Wackadingia). A serious understanding of the complex adaptive system that is life on Planet Earth requires that one acknowledge the many different forces and perspectives that make up that natural-cum-societal ecosystem, this product of the co-evolution of genes and memes. Its complexity and innovation are integral with its diversity. But obviously, to anyone who isn’t lost in one of the archaic cults described above (i.e., to anyone who isn’t one of the 276 remaining Republicans), it’s evident that serious government action is required now. We may not have an FDR, but we need someone who at least recognizes that basic reality.

Infrastructure investment is good now. And it should be forward-looking rather than backward-looking: fewer potholes and more broadband; more healthcare IT than re-pointing walls. In other words, it should be based on where technology and a globally integrating economy (not to mention a globally warming planet) are headed, rather than simply propping up the dying hulk of industrial capitalism (seeing as how we no longer live in industrial capitalism – sorry, Karl). And all of that argues that both providing lots and lots and lots and lots of jobs immediately and building an infrastructure capable of sustaining the planet and the global economy of the 21st century dictate doubling down on intelligent infrastructure in stimulus packages – in America and around the world.

History matters. Heading toward the future with a decent compass from the past means we sensibly understand (a) the nature and severity of the current crisis, and (b) the right lessons from the past 100 years of American and world economics, science and history. Those include: John Maynard Keynes, good; Milton Friedman, bad… FDR, good; Ronald Reagan, bad… saving capitalism from itself, good; letting power imbalances take us all down, bad. And obscure as it may seem: complexity physics and emergence, good; Newtonian physics, bad. Because a complex-systems understanding of reality is ultimately crucial to making sensible judgments in the here-and-now.

In light of all that substance – and there’s obviously plenty more… libraries full of it… but just to stick with these few principles for the nonce – and of the present emergency… it’s scary that our mandate-stuffed president is post-partisaning around while Rome burns. People keep saying, “Just wait, it’s early.” They say, “Look at those executive orders – see, he signed Lily Ledbetter. He’s gonna be great. He just has to do this political dance now. His political instincts are unmatched. Give him credit for playing chess brilliantly.” Stuff like that.

Well, we’ll see. To me, it looks – so far, yes, just so far – bad on politics and unformed on substance. And to me, the reality doesn’t seem to allow for delay, either for self-education or chess moves.

But that’s just, to paraphrase BTD, me.