Monday, April 27, 2009

Another wackading county heard from

The NYC subway doesn't take tokens anymore, but the Times does, and its latest, Russ Douthat (fill in the puns yourselves... it's too easy), launches his argosy to nowhere in memorable fashion in tomorrow's edition. He whimsically fantasizes a Dick Cheney campaign for the presidency in '08, claiming that it would have teased out the issue of torture in a serious way in the public forum.

Let me get this straight. Put aside the likelihood that even the lukewarm puddle that is the present-day Republican Party would reward the most hated political figure in modern times with their nomination. Grant that they had that much of a death wish. But just imagine the campaign that ensues. Post-Sept. 15, the global economy is imploding. Barack Obama is addressing this, the only issue that matters (and however fecklessly, he is holding the only card that matters -- the "(D)" after his name). Meanwhile, Dick Cheney is out there... bringing up torture!? Plunking for it?? The American public would have listened for more than 30 seconds to that? Somebody would not have taken him away in a straightjacket?

I didn't think the GOP could get any deader. This "permanent governing majority" is beyond Monty Python. It's an ex-zombie.

Bipartisanship will work out just fine...

... if we can find any to shake hands with. (Maybe they've got some life-size paper cut-outs that can do the trick.)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Not Getting It

To me, the signal disappointment of the Obama presidency is its imperfect understanding of this moment. A proper understanding is widely available, but these guys don’t get it.

We’re at an identifiable moment in the pattern of technology revolutions, as laid out by Cambridge scholar Carlotta Perez. First, the world figures out that a new technology is going to be the real deal, that it will “change everything,” and there is a period of wild speculation in it. In our era, that has been information technology and telecommunications. This period lasts for a couple or three decades. During it, financial capital – that is, the capital controlled by banks and investment firms – funds it, in hopes for rapid, exponential gains.

Instant gazillionaires abound. We hear about the end of history. This force is very seductive on so many levels – including democratization of access to the means of production. In that environment, belief is, to all intents and purposes, irresistible. When half a billion people in India and China alone are entering the middle class in a wave that makes the Industrial Revolution look like a warm-up, who is going to try to stop it? Oligarchies and oligopolies that have heretofore been, in Simon Johnson’s word, “genteel,” now strap on a six-gun and look around for mines to claim. (Johnson’s Atlantic piece is a must-read.)

However, the laws of physics eventually prevail, the bubble bursts and a crash ensues. It’s happened after every major technology revolution since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Lots of people who took unwise risks lose their shirts – as well as millions more who barely had a shirt to their name.

But the thing is, the technology really was revolutionary, and now it’s been built out, just waiting to be exploited in genuinely profitable and socially beneficial ways. The canals don’t get unbuilt, nor do the railroads, nor does the electric grid – and now, the same applies to global broadband and Moore’s Law. These genies are out of the bottle – indeed, we now live on a profoundly different global commons.

What will now ensue is a period of two or three decades in which businesses, communities, governments, nations and individuals leverage that new planetary infrastructure to transform work and life. This is the period when the excesses of the Wild West reign of financial capital are replaced by the more sustainable investments of production capital – coming not from financial services firms, but from companies that actually make something, actually deliver services, actually create value.

Finally, this is also when a new sheriff rides into town. This is when society reasserts its authority, when rules are put in place to ameliorate the gross discrepancies in wealth and power and the carelessness that exploded during the first phase. This is when trusts are busted, when the New Deal is dealt.

The main problem, in other words, isn’t business generally. It’s finance. Not that all other businesses were kosher – but they weren’t the center of the systemic problem.

Now, it must be admitted that even during the Wild West era, financial capital could be said to have performed a salutary function. It dissolved the castle walls of many oligopolies, many ancien regimes. This is the heyday of Gordon Gecko, when “greed is good.” But it’s only good provisionally, not permanently, and not in consistent doses. After the crash, it’s the job of government to come in and rein in those cowboys. This is when investment shifts from regime-dissolution to institution-building. This is when "innovation" stops being used to describe financial instruments, and starts being used to describe useful goods and services – including social goods and community services. This is when we imagine and establish new rules of the road, new ways to ensure sustainability and fairness. This is when the middle class gets expanded. Until the next revolutionary technology comes along, and the cycle begins again.

President Obama and his economic team, for all their impressive brain cells, clearly don’t understand this moment. They’re stuck inside the wrong paradigm, on the wrong side of history (or, at least, of its current cycle). This is paradigmatically clear in the president’s answer to critics of his financial policies (emphasis mine):

[T]here have been some who don’t dispute that we need to shore up the banking system, but suggest that we have been too timid in how we go about it. They say that the federal government should have already preemptively stepped in and taken over major financial institutions the way that the FDIC currently intervenes in smaller banks, and that our failure to do so is yet another example of Washington coddling Wall Street. So let me be clear – the reason we have not taken this step has nothing to do with any ideological or political judgment we’ve made about government involvement in banks, and it’s certainly not because of any concern we have for the management and shareholders whose actions have helped cause this mess.

Rather, it is because we believe that preemptive government takeovers are likely to end up costing taxpayers even more in the end, and because it is more likely to undermine than to create confidence. Governments should practice the same principle as doctors: first do no harm. So rest assured – we will do whatever is necessary to get credit flowing again, but we will do so in ways that minimize risks to taxpayers and to the broader economy. To that end, in addition to the program to provide capital to the banks, we have launched a plan that will pair government resources with private investment in order to clear away the old loans and securities – the so-called toxic assets – that are also preventing our banks from lending money.

As Big Tent Democrat put it, “that is one of the worst answers I have ever heard. It makes me question if Obama even understands what the problem is.”

Indeed, I'd say it's beyond question. I'd say it's dispositive. It would be hard to be more wrong than this. Taking a Hippocratic approach when a paradigm shift is underway is 180 degrees off. As everybody with an ounce of sense understands, if you are going to err in a moment like this, you should err on the side of doing too much, not too little. We’re at a moment of tectonic shift, not of rearranging deck chairs -- much less surveying those chairs and deciding that they're in a rather nice arrangement already. The economy needs massive stimulus, the infrastructure needs to be used for profit and for progress, and the rules of the road need to be rewritten to favor those who build things, and rein in those who ride waves.

To put it very simply: The financial services industry needs to and will become a regulated utility. It’ll be like Con-Ed, a ward of the state. Salaries will be regulated, stability will be the primary value, transparency will be mandated and “innovation” will be frowned upon. Innovation, in the next couple of decades, will shift to other sectors – primarily IT, biotech, nanotech and services – where actual value is being created. It will also be found in the so-called “public sector,” though that will be far more diverse than simply government agencies. (The world of what have been called NGOs is about to get a whole lot larger and more interesting.)

Now, a proper understanding of these basic realities would not make the job at hand a cinch – but it would make it a hell of a lot clearer and easier. In trying to hold onto the fantasy that the financial services industry of the 1980s and ‘90s can continue in approximately its present form, Geithner, Summers and Obama himself are like adherents of Ptolemaic cosmologies after Copernicus. They’re furiously adding epicycles to their heavenly map, making things more complicated, not less… and adding huge, unnecessary costs and pain for millions. As Matt Taibi put it in his J’accuse, “The Big Takeover,” which appeared in Rolling Stone, Geithner seems bent on creating a “so-called ‘bad bank’ that would systemically relieve private lenders of bad assets — the kind of massive, opaque, quasi-private bureaucratic nightmare that Paulson specialized in.”

Massive… opaque… bureaucratic. Sounds like those medieval epicycles Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, doesn’t it? This is what all dying paradigms look like. They degenerate through Baroque to Rococo until they die under the weight of their own complication and inelegance.

We needed a president who understands this paradigm shift, and who could lead it. That’s not what we’ve got. We were told that his own lack of decisiveness or expertise wouldn’t matter, because he would surround himself with great advisors. Well, we’ve seen how that’s worked out. Joseph Stiglitz gets it. Nouriel Roubini gets it. Jeffrey Sachs gets it. Simon Johnson gets it. Bill Black gets it. William Greider gets it. Martin Wolf gets it. Robert Reich (belatedly) gets it. Kevin Phillips gets it. And of course Paul Krugman gets it (too many columns and blog posts to pick one). The list goes on and on. But it does not, quel dommage, include our actual leaders.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

On being a liberal

I am a liberal. I don’t mean that I am a leftist. That’s a separate question. The “left-right” frame was an artifact of industrial capitalism, which is dying. Neither am I using the “classic” sense of an economic liberal – i.e., libertarian. This isn't a matter of whether or to what degree one favors state involvement in the economy.

I’m talking about basic disposition. Saying that one is a liberal or a conservative is, most fundamentally, I think, a statement about which end of the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty spectrum one finds oneself.

If you’re a liberal, you tend toward glass-half-full. You’re inclined to take risks, because you have an underlying, unconscious expectation that things will work out, will get better. You’re more excited about than fearful of the future. You think our species is evolving toward something better, and you’re willing to take the chance that that’ll work out even in your own and your children’s lifetimes.

If you’re a conservative, you tend toward glass-half-empty. Being a conservative is an entirely respectable thing to be. It, too, is not at all identical with being a right-winger. Being a conservative means that you are deeply grateful for the discoveries, sacrifices and progress of our predecessors – so grateful that you’re hyper-aware of their vulnerability. You believe that we have always hung on by the skin of our teeth. You know that “human nature” is a mix of the beautiful and the horrific. You look around you, and at history, and all over the face of it you see the evidence of humans’ reptilian brains at work. You see the Holocaust, you see Stalin, and Pol Pot, and Mao. You know that power corrupts, that absolute power corrupts absolutely – and you want to architect things to reduce the possibility of anything “absolute” taking shape. Sacrificing rapid progress seems an acceptable price to pay for avoiding catastrophe. (By the way, one of the ways you attempt to architect things is to disperse power as widely as possible – precisely to avert the concentration of political power that Lord Acton feared. And your supreme achievement in that respect – so far, pre-Internet – is the Constitution of the United States.)

It’s impossible to prove which of these dispositions is “right.” I, of course, would be inclined to argue that evolution – even “thinking” itself – is fundamentally grounded in what I’m calling the liberal, glass-half-full, forward-leaning disposition. After all, where is natural selection among genes (and memes, and all replicators) projecting its efforts, if not into the future? But I suppose a conservative, glass-half-empty, momentum-slowing type would argue that nature is providing all the trajectory of that sort that we need, thank you very much. He or she might say that the Big Bang is doing just fine propelling the universe into the “future,” and that humanity’s part in that future is, after all, tiny – i.e., that we shouldn’t get big-headed about our own role. No, this wise conservative would say, we appeared, we will disappear, we will not turn out to have mattered much in the scheme of things… but while we’re here, we can seek to make the best of it – and that requires being grown-ups, not teenagers.

Both liberal and conservative dispositions are very different from radical dispositions. Radicals are far less modest, far more certain, far more willing to go “all the way,” far more self-indulgent. Sometimes they perceive crucial truths – things that liberal and conservative dispositions are ill-equipped to understand. But it’s usually dangerous for radicals to come to power.

So making good political judgments is not about simply "We're right and you're wrong" -- though surely that is often the case, in both directions. And it's not a matter, obviously, of "choosing" the right disposition. We do not choose them, they choose us. What we can do is to do our best to understand the times we live in, within the limits of our impulses and intelligence (of all kinds, emotional as well as intellectual) -- and then take actions that are based on those present realities.

In some respects, the Obama Administration is oozing toward actions that I think are grounded in the present and the era that's now taking shape. But in one very important respect -- tackling the financial mess -- they're not. And it's not because they're too far left or too far right. It's because, I believe, our president is not liberal enough, in the dispositional sense I am using here. More on this in a later post.