Masterful Storytelling, Most of It Quite Fanciful

This was the week Obama was in Ireland – but even if his great-grandfather’s grandfather was from Ireland, our president just doesn’t seem Irish. His father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas, and he was born in Hawaii and spent a chunk of his early childhood in Indonesia – so seeing him down a pint of Guinness was cool, and he was gracious, and the folks at Trinity College in Dublin gave him a warm welcome, and he offered some cool quips in Gaelic, but it just didn’t feel right. But if you’ve been a community organizer in Chicago – with its Saint Patrick’s Day parade where they dye the river green – maybe you do get what it is to be Irish – full of bluster and Blarney and good cheer, and good at masterful storytelling, with a twinkle in your eye. Think of James Joyce.

And maybe there are national traits that are passed down through generations, no matter how much else shapes just who we are. Those of us whose grandparents were Czech do carry a bit of Franz Kafka in us – that fellow who scribbled away in his apartment in Prague, telling the tale of the fellow who woke up to find that he was a cockroach, and that tale of that long trial, where you’re not sure what the crime was, or if you were even there to commit it, if you did, or who is prosecuting you, or where you are, or much of anything.

Those are odd metaphors for life as it is – but it’s a Czech thing. And Kafka’s heir might be Milan Kundera – the fellow who wrote of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – more odd metaphors for life as it is. Kundera retired to Paris and only writes in French now – but with the same philosophical bemusement. And there’s Vaclav Havel – the first president of the new post-Soviet Czech Republic, the former surrealist playwright and fan and friend of Frank Zappa, and a reasonably good rock drummer – brilliant and principled and heroic, and sly and playful. There are always layers and layers of subtlety and irony.

So maybe there’s a Czech motto: Most often things aren’t really what they seem, so keep your eyes open and stay loose, keep your sense of humor, and step back and consider what might really be going on, and don’t be all cocky and sure of yourself, because it’s that passionate convictions stuff that will render you quite silly and laughably absurd. But no, that’s too long for a motto. How about this? Don’t panic.

And maybe all this makes those of us with a bit of Czech in us unfit for modern American life. Cops and politicians and Chris Matthews are Irish. And the Scotch-Irish settled in the Carolinas and over into the Ozarks, and gave us blue grass music and an evangelical born-again mindset that blossomed into the Christian Right that has dominated American politics for many decades. There’s a lot of bluster and cocksure passion in America, and a lot of masterful storytelling, most of it quite fanciful. Yes, that’s a nice way of saying that the story being told is just not so – but it sounds likely to the rubes. It’s all more Irish than Czech.

But in the early eighteenth century there was the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin – Jonathan Swift. He might have been secretly Czech, as he was a satirist, the finest in the English language. And it was more than Gulliver’s Travels. There was his Modest Proposal and A Tale of a Tub and so much more. Nope, things are not what they seem. Step back. Loosen up. Let’s think about this. And damn, he was sly. It was that deadpan delivery. He’d dispassionately and reasonably explain an issue, and its details, as it subtly became odd, then absurd, then horrifying. And you were never sure just when things turned on you, when you realized what you had always been thinking led to very dark places.

That was cool, but he’s long gone. And now, in these times, with our issues, all we can turn to is The Onion:

According to alarming new figures released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s population of mature adults has been pushed to the brink of extinction, with only 104 grown-ups remaining in the country today.

The endangered demographic, which is projected to die out completely by 2060, is reportedly distinguished from other groups by numerous unique traits, including foresight, rationality, understanding of how to obtain and pay for a mortgage, personal responsibility, and the ability to enter a store without immediately purchasing whatever items they see and desire.

“Our grown-ups are disappearing at a much faster rate than we previously believed,” said Census Bureau chief Robert M. Groves, who believes the decline in responsible adults may now be irreversible. “Unfortunately, we’ve only recently noticed this terrible trend, perhaps because of this group’s unusual capacity to endure hardships with quiet dignity instead of whining loudly to draw attention to themselves.”

Ouch. But that nails it:

According to recent data, the grown-up population has plummeted dramatically since 1950, when a Census count found that more than 24 million Americans could both admit when they were wrong and respect a viewpoint other than their own. Today, only one in three million citizens can provide thoughtful advice to a fellow human being instead of immediately shifting the topic to their own personal issues or what they had for lunch.

Well, maybe only one in three million citizens are of Czech heritage:

“Grown-ups are as fascinating as they are rare,” said anthropologist Arthur Ambler, who has lived among level-headed adult populations and documented their lifestyle. “It may seem odd to the rest of us, but for mature adults, occasionally putting the greater good ahead of their own interests or remaining calm when something doesn’t go their way is commonplace.”

“Imagine confronting a problem directly instead of pointing a finger, cowering in fear, or pretending it just isn’t happening,” Ambler added. “This is how these people actually live, if you can believe that.”

Yes, don’t panic. And keep your eyes open and stay loose, keep your sense of humor, and step back and consider what might really be going on, and don’t be all cocky and sure of yourself, because it’s that passionate convictions stuff that makes you a fool. Just do your best.

Well, that’s rare, and we find ourselves where we are, with this sort of detail from Ezra Klein:

It’s been less than three years since the fall of Lehman. The financial crisis remains lodged in our minds, and in our jobless rate. And yet, as ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger has pointed out, the Federal Reserve lacks a vice chairman for banking supervision. There’s no one officially in charge of the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research. The seat marked “insurance” on Financial Stability Oversight Council is empty. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a leader but not a director. No one has been confirmed to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. And Republicans are still saying Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond is under-qualified to serve on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.

Meanwhile, the House GOP is fighting to starve financial regulators of the resources they need to do their work. Both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission needed extra money to scale up to their expanded roles under the Dodd-Frank law, but the Republicans’ 2011 budget proposal whacked them with sharp cuts — and then their 2012 proposal repealed most of Dodd-Frank, with no vision for what should go in its place. The irony? All this is being pursued under the guise of deficit reduction. And why do we have such a gaping deficit? The… financial crisis.

Yes, there’s a lot of masterful storytelling, most of it quite fanciful. And Kevin Drum says he finds what Klein lists as stunning almost beyond belief:

It’s this more than anything else that has convinced me over the past couple of years that America’s wealthy class is simply morally bankrupt and that the leadership of the Republican Party is politically bankrupt. Five years ago I would have been embarrassed to write a blog post suggesting that this might be the reaction of the moneyed class to an economic collapse. Then we had one and this was the reaction. Once again, events have outrun my best efforts to be cynical.

But that’s not the half of it, as Klein has much more:

Last spring, we watched a drilling platform explode in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil prices are gyrating violently, causing pain for consumers and heartburn for economists. And, most important, nine of the 10 hottest years on record were in the past decade. So the Earth is warming and our energy status quo is, quite literally, blowing up in our faces. But are we doing anything about it? Quite the opposite.

Most of the Republicans vying for the 2012 presidential nomination once supported a cap-and-trade plan to curb carbon emissions and move us past fossil fuels. It was part of the McCain-Palin platform in 2008, part of the Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney governorships, part of Newt Gingrich’s speeches. Today? They’ve all recanted. And Congress is not seriously considering alternatives, such as real infusions of money into research and development. We’re just watching temperatures climb and prices spike and hoping against all the evidence that this turns out well.

Where is Swift when you need him?

And then there’s the debt ceiling:

We know that an actual default would have catastrophic consequences – Ronald Reagan called it “unthinkable,” former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder said it “could lead us back into recession,” and Moody’s warned that it would trigger an immediate downgrade in the nation’s credit rating. We know exactly what we need to do to avoid those consequences. But we’re… not doing it.

Instead, Republicans are trying to convince themselves that perhaps default wouldn’t be that bad, and that thus it’s worth risking, to scare the Obama administration into caving to the GOP’s agenda. So Rep. Paul Ryan is telling CNBC that the markets will accept default “for a day or two or three or four.” And Rep. Devin Nunes is telling Politico that “by defaulting on the debt, in the short and long term, it could benefit us to go through a period of crisis that forces politicians to make decisions.”

And this debt ceiling thing is pretty simple:

It’s a bomb sitting at the base of the economy, and we need to get it wrong only once for things to get very, very bad very, very fast. Worse, it’s an entirely unnecessary risk: If Congress wants to change policy going forward, that’s what the budget is for. Paying our bills, however, is not optional. But in our system – unique among developed countries – it is optional, albeit with terrible consequences. One day, a few political leaders will make a few bad decisions that bomb will go off – completely unnecessarily.

And we know what happens next:

When a crisis comes, the people who were charged with preventing it like to say that it could not have been predicted. Who could’ve imagined that housing markets would crash all around the country or that terrorists would fly planes into buildings, or that a hurricane would breach the levees in New Orleans?

Sometimes there’s truth to those claims. But not in these cases. These crises are predictable. These crises are preventable.

Again, where is Swift when you need him?

And Kevin Drum notes that the global economy is a slow motion train wreck:

Once the housing bubble collapsed, a recession was inevitable. But the severity and length of the ensuing slump wasn’t inevitable, and a second slump certainly isn’t either. And yet, either a second recession or its near equivalent now seems more likely than not thanks to our increasingly 18th century approach to economic management over the past year. It’s as if we’ve deliberately gone back to leeches and bleeding as cures for what ails us, and now we’re surprised that the patient is getting worse instead of better.

This didn’t have to happen. It still doesn’t have to happen. It’s a manmade catastrophe born of reactionary stupidity and political cowardice. We might still get out of this with our skins barely intact, but if we do it will be thanks only to dumb luck. Buckle up.

And of course he’s talking about things like this:

The UK saw its worst April public sector net borrowing on record last month as tax receipts fell, the Office for National Statistics said.

Public borrowing, excluding financial interventions such as bank bail-outs, hit £10bn, compared with £7.3bn the previous year.

The ONS said tax receipts in April last year were boosted by a one-off bank payroll tax which raised £3.5bn.

April’s figure was higher than many analysts’ expectations of about £6.5bn.

Economists said the figures were a surprising disappointment.

“The public finances have got off to a pretty bad start this year,” said Hetal Mehta, at Daiwa Capital Markets. She warned that the position could worsen if economic growth was weaker than expected.

Samuel Tombs, at Capital Economics, said he believed the government would struggle to meet its borrowing forecasts this year.

However, he added: “Nonetheless, these are just one set of figures and the trend in borrowing should improve as more of the spending cuts kick in later this year.”

A spokesman for the Treasury said: “One-off factors affected borrowing, but it is clear from the downward revision to last year’s borrowing figures that the government’s deficit reduction strategy is making headway in dealing with our unsustainable deficit.”

David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, said it was clear that the government’s plans to reduce the deficit by more than £20bn over the year was proving difficult.

But he said the government must press on with its plans. “The fragility of the economic recovery is creating a difficult backdrop, but the government must not deviate from its strategy to restore stability in the UK’s public finances,” he said.

“Businesses support the measures being taken to reduce the deficit, and the emphasis should be on spending cuts rather than tax increases,” Mr Kern said.

Yep, that sounds familiar. That’s what our Republicans are saying, or as Digby puts it – “Clearly, the problem is that they just haven’t cut enough. It’s probably time to think about another round.”

But see Paul Krugman in his column about the failure of austerity in Europe:

My guess is that it’s just not willing to face up to the failure of its fantasies. And if this sounds incredibly foolish, well, whoever said that wisdom rules the world?

And there’s this detail:

I often complain, with reason, about the state of economic discussion in the United States. And the irresponsibility of certain politicians – like those Republicans claiming that defaulting on U.S. debt would be no big deal – is scary.

But at least in America members of the pain caucus, those who claim that raising interest rates and slashing government spending in the face of mass unemployment will somehow make things better instead of worse, get some pushback from the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration.

In Europe, by contrast, the pain caucus has been in control for more than a year, insisting that sound money and balanced budgets are the answer to all problems. Underlying this insistence have been economic fantasies, in particular belief in the confidence fairy – that is, belief that slashing spending will actually create jobs, because fiscal austerity will improve private-sector confidence.

Unfortunately, the confidence fairy keeps refusing to make an appearance. And a dispute over how to handle inconvenient reality threatens to make Europe the flashpoint of a new financial crisis.

Yes, there’s a lot of masterful storytelling, most of it quite fanciful. Is everyone Irish? It is called Blarney. Whoever said that wisdom rules the world? The Irish, and of course Swift, knew that was never so.

But there are even more damaging fanciful stories being told, and Neal Gabler explains that in America the Stony-Hearted:

When the political history of the last thirty years is written, scholars will no doubt describe a rightward revolution that jolted this country out of its embrace of New Deal, big-government progressivism and into a love affair with small-government conservatism. But this change, significant as it is, has been undergirded by a less apparent but no less monumental revolution that has transformed the nation’s values, ideals and aspirations. Over those same thirty years, we have become a different country morally from what we were.

We have? Yes, you can make that argument:

The United States has always had a complex national moral system. On the one hand, there is the Puritan-inflected America of rugged individualism, hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility in which you reap what you sow, God helps those who help themselves, and our highest obligation is to live righteously. These precepts run from Cotton Mather to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Billy Graham.

On the other hand, there is also an America of community, common cause, charity and collective responsibility. In this America, salvation comes from good works, compassion is among the greatest of virtues, and our highest obligation is to help others. These precepts run from Walt Whitman to the late 19th century Social Gospel movement to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

These two moralities managed to coexist – often within the same person – because they were not seen as mutually exclusive, especially in the 20th century. Nor was either the province of one political party or the other. Conservatives could subscribe to the ideals of generosity and compassion, just as liberals could subscribe to hard work and individual responsibility.

But somehow the story changed:

Everyone knows about the rise of Moral Majority-style Christian evangelicals as a potent force in right-wing politics. It injected a certain aggressive moralism into our political discourse and led to campaigns against abortion rights, homosexual rights, sexual freedom and other issues perceived as and then framed as moral matters. As a result, our politics became “moralized”; they were transformed into a contest of one set of values pitted against another.

This was hardly the first time politics was overtaken by morality. One has only to think of abolition and Prohibition. The difference this time was that as politics were being moralized and polarized, our morals were also being politicized and polarized. The two moral systems that had so long coexisted suddenly became mutually exclusive, oppositional and finally inseparable from the two regnant political ideologies.

And Gabler points to the obvious:

One can see this division in something as simple as the denigration of the term “liberal,” the “L” word, with its attendant idea that to be compassionate, caring and tolerant – virtues that had been celebrated, if only via lip service, by most Americans – is really to be mush-minded, weak and, more concretely, willing to give taxpayer largesse to the undeserving and lazy. (This was essentially the argument that some Republicans, such as former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), used when they sought to deny an extension of unemployment benefits.)

And this is no minor matter:

It is easy to miss how significant a change this is. It transforms compassion, a bulwark in practically any moral system, into a negative force that undermines the good of individual initiative. Indeed, conservative ideologue Marvin Olasky wrote a book to this effect, pungently titled “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” in which he called for the privatization of all charitable efforts. It rapidly became a conservative touchstone.

By the same token, liberals have come to see the emphasis on the individual and self-reliance as a form of civic irresponsibility and selfishness – a way to justify rogue economic behavior and enrichment at the expense of the community. It was, incidentally, a charge adherents of the novelist Ayn Rand gladly invited because they believe selfishness is a tough, exalted form of morality. Thus were the moral sides drawn: soft-headed versus tough-minded, big-hearted versus stony-hearted.

And we know who is winning this argument. Morality is now the preserve of the right:

Scarcely a generation ago, you wouldn’t have found many conservatives who would have sneered at compassion or tolerance or fundamental fairness, even if they disagreed with liberals on how these concepts might operate in the real world. Today, open contempt for these values is conservative boilerplate for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, and even for the Republican Party itself, whose idea of cutting government is always cutting programs that help the weakest and least fortunate Americans and whose idea of compassion is caring about the tax burden of the wealthiest Americans. Beyond politics, these attitudes threaten to make this the first generation that promulgates an individualism untempered by common decency.

And this has changed us:

If compassion is seen as softness, tolerance as a kind of promiscuity, community as a leech on individuals and fairness as another word for scheming, we are a harder nation than we used to be, and arguably a less moral one as well.

Yes, there’s a lot of masterful storytelling, most of it quite fanciful. And this story of compassion as softness, tolerance as a kind of promiscuity, and community as a leech on individuals and fairness, is deadly. But really, this might not be so. Most often things aren’t really what they seem, and you can keep your eyes open and stay loose, and keep your sense of humor, and step back and consider what might really be going on, and not be all cocky and sure of yourself, because it’s that passionate convictions stuff that will render you quite silly and laughably absurd.

But that may be impossible. There are only 104 grown-ups remaining in the country today. And they’re all Czech.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Austerity Economics, Political Discourse, Political Polarization, The Culture Wars, The Power of Narrative and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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