No Big Ideas

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. But everyone knew. Jumping Joe has left and gone away – he married Marilyn Monroe. He was a great baseball player but he had other priorities. And marrying the unsettled and unformed Marilyn Monroe turned out to be a stunningly bad idea. But sometimes you do things because… because you do things. At least the Simon and Garfunkel song was a hit. And that’s what that song was about. Sometimes you just do things, and every way you look at it you lose.

And now no one thinks about Joe DiMaggio much at all – that’s ancient history. And baseball is a slow game, for old men. Middle-aged men follow professional football, and young men follow professional basketball, and teenagers are into what they call extreme sports. Things change – not for the better or for the worse – they just change.

And in the world of ideas, Neal Gabler notes that we no longer care much about big, exciting ideas. He doesn’t miss Joe DiMaggio. He misses Albert Einstein, Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. Those were the big hitters, with big ideas, but no longer:

We are living in an increasingly post-idea world – a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.

That’s an interesting contention. He doesn’t miss those big-idea personalities, really – he’s arguing that no one values big ideas themselves anymore. Now there’s just no market for big ideas. And of course he blames the internet:

In the past, we collected information not simply to know things…. But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them…. The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.

To clarify, Gresham’s law is a rather complex observation about monetary policy and exchanges rates, usually summed up as “bad money drive out good money” – but that’s not the issue here. Here the idea is that the post-idea world has sprung up alongside the social networking world, as he puts it. Twitter and Facebook and such are are basically information exchanges, designed to feed information hunger. There’s no room left for big ideas, or even little ones:

Of course, one could argue that these sites are no different than conversation was for previous generations, and that conversation seldom generated big ideas either, and one would be right. But the analogy isn’t perfect. For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated….

To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to Yogi Berra, that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.

Yes, we’re doomed. Or, as Kevin Drum sees this, Neal Gabler is being silly:

Well, look, maybe blogging and tweeting have degraded my ability to think so dramatically that I just can’t see Gabler’s point even though it’s staring me in the face. But does he really think that high school sophomores use Twitter and Facebook as replacements for the deep thoughts and sophisticated conversations they used to have? That they used to sit around debating Niebuhr and Friedan but don’t anymore because they’re too busy with their Tumblr pages? Maybe that’s how things were at Gabler’s high school, but they sure weren’t at mine.

And Drum remembers when people blamed television for this very thing:

I always thought the anti-TV crowd at least had a point: television really did crowd out things like books and magazines, which were better suited to big ideas and complex arguments than the tube. But social networking? As near as I can tell, it’s mostly crowding out in-person gossip and… television. That seems like a much more benign trade.

And Drum sees it this way:

For what it’s worth, I do think that the rise of the media omnivore is changing the way we think, in some ways for the worse. But it’s hard for any of us to really understand what’s going on because we’re still in the middle of a huge transition: television and the internet and social networking are supplanting older, more mature forms that we knew how to exploit thoroughly, but they haven’t themselves yet matured to the point that we really know how to exploit them anywhere near as deeply. So we’re naturally nervous: big ideas may or may not have been more common half a century ago than they are now, but at least back then we knew where to find them and we have a widely understood set of social conventions about how to discuss them. We haven’t yet really figured that out for electronic media, and that makes the discussion of big ideas chaotic enough and inchoate enough that it can often seem as if the ideas themselves don’t exist anymore. But I suspect they do. We just have to learn how to talk about them in a new language.

And Drum points to the economist Jared Bernstein, who thinks Gabler is right about the inability of big ideas to gain any sort of foothold any longer, but says Gabler has it all wrong, as the real issue here is, as it always is, folks with big money protecting their money:

The financial crash of the 2000s revealed a confluence of many powerful and socially disruptive forces: levels of income inequality not seen since the dawn of the Great Depression, stagnant middle-class living standards amidst strong productivity growth, solid evidence that deregulated markets were driving a damaging bubble and bust cycle, deep repudiation of supply-side economics, and most importantly, even deeper repudiation of the dominant, Greenspanian paradigm that markets will self-correct.

We may not, in my lifetime, witness another historical moment where these destructive forces are so clearly revealed. What’s more, there were economic thinkers arguing for a new paradigm…. And yet, at least from where I sit today, we let the moment pass…. Why did we squander the opportunity? Not because there were so much information on the web. It is, at least in part, because the concentration of wealth and power blocked the new ideas from a fair hearing.

You want new big ideas? People who have fortunes to lose will work hard to make sure you hear no such thing. And that may be the real issue here. The economy is somewhere between stuck on dismal and heading for real disaster, and most political discourse is about nibbling around the edges to fix things. Yes, the Tea Party crowd has big ideas – abolish most of the government and go all-out libertarian, all the time. If we had next to no government at all happy days would be here again. That’s a big idea. And the far edge of the progressive left wants to bring back the WPA and tax millionaires and billionaires at a hundred and ten percent, and have Medicare for all, abolishing private health insurance, and so on. These too are big ideas. And politicians in the middle, where most are, worry about what can actually be done. Big ideas, either way, cannot be done. The votes aren’t there.

That’s just the way it is, and the Washington Post reported here that the White House’s allies – Obama’s base, the unions, maybe even his mother-in-law – have been pressuring anyone they can find in the administration to get far more ambitious. Make the economic debate about big ideas. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Sing for the fences. But the item reported that Obama’s aides generally respond that this ain’t gonna happen. You see, Obama feels “a responsibility to explore policies that have a chance of passage, rather than merely making a political statement.”

And Steve Benen argues that is getting it backwards:

For good or ill, this is consistent with the president’s MO – he doesn’t like picking fights he expects to lose. Obama could immediately launch a bold and ambitious economic agenda, which would have real merit and garner considerable support from the left, but he won’t, not because he’s a secret conservative, but because he’s generally unwilling to invest energy in a plan that can’t pass, regardless of the ancillary political benefits.

Of course, choosing a more cautious approach carries its own costs, and forfeits an opportunity to draw stark contrasts with far-right Republicans, who are (a) wildly unpopular; and (b) chiefly responsible for blocking any hope at economic progress.

So rejecting big ideas and choosing a more cautious approach is letting a real opportunity pass, to show up the other guys – for what that’s worth – and in the New York Times, Binyamin Applebaum and Helen Cooper offer a companion piece to the Post item, on the state of thinking about economic policy inside the administration:

As the economy worsens, President Obama and his senior aides are considering whether to adopt a more combative approach on economic issues, seeking to highlight substantive differences with Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail rather than continuing to pursue elusive compromises, advisers to the president say.

Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want him to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact. These include free trade agreements and improved patent protections for inventors.

But others, including Gene Sperling, Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, say public anger over the debt ceiling debate has weakened Republicans and created an opening for bigger ideas like tax incentives for businesses that hire more workers, according to Congressional Democrats who share that view. Democrats are also pushing the White House to help homeowners facing foreclosure.

Even if the ideas cannot pass Congress, they say, the president would gain a campaign issue by pushing for them.

And there’s this – “Gene Sperling, Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, say public anger over the debt ceiling debate has weakened Republicans and created an opening for bigger ideas.” And a “wide range of economists say the administration should call for a new round of stimulus spending.”

They seem to be at sea:

Mr. Plouffe and Mr. Daley share the view that a focus on deficit reduction is an economic and political imperative… As part of this appeal to centrist voters, the president intends to continue his push for a so-called grand bargain on deficit reduction… Administration officials say that their focus is on a number of smaller programs that could benefit the economy.

Which is it? Matthew Yglesias comments here:

I see this debate as reflecting the pathologies of collective decision-making process. What you really have is one group of people, mostly economists, who think the economy needs a big new stimulus. Then you have a second group of people, mostly professional political operatives, who think that picking a public fight with congressional Republicans about a big new stimulus package would be a political loser. These are both sensible views, in my opinion. But Group I can try to strengthen its hand by arguing that the political strategists are wrong on political strategy. And Group II can try to strengthen its hand by arguing that the economists are wrong on economic policy. That sounds like a recipe for confusion to me.

But he sees a way out:

The important thing to remember is that if you have an idea that can be implemented and that works, it doesn’t matter whether the initial public response to it is good or not. A President governing during a labor market recession and faced with a hostile congress needs his economists to huddle with some lawyers to devise the best possible unilateral courses of action. They shouldn’t be fighting with political strategists about the alleged desirability of having a big picture public argument about macroeconomic stabilization policy. The truth is that what Obama says will matter much less than what he does. And anything he does will either have to be things he doesn’t need congressional approval for, or else will be things that aren’t that big a deal.

So just swing the unilateral Executive Order bat. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? That’s where Steve Benen is:

So what are we left with? An agenda with (a) modest ideas that might make a modest difference if they can overcome Republican opposition; and (b) an eye on deficit reduction, which polls suggest would be popular, even if it offers no tangible benefits at all in the areas of job creation and economic growth.

Were Republicans less ridiculous, and had the midterms gone the other way, the White House would prefer a stronger policy. But the combination of GOP radicalism and voters’ misjudgment has left West Wing officials thinking that they have limited options.

For what it’s worth, I’m not unsympathetic to the hurdles, nor am I blind to the fact that Republicans can and will block any idea with merit. I can also appreciate why the president seems reflexively reluctant to deliberately fight a losing battle – no one wants to look inept on the issue that matters more.

Benen suggests going big:

Will the GOP kill bold ideas? Of course they will. But having the debate positions Obama as the leader with the right vision, who cares about getting Americans back to work. Picking the fight offers a chance to blame the do-nothing Congress and make Republicans the opponents of a real jobs agenda, dragging down the GOP brand even further in advance of 2012. All the while, there’s value in giving progressives something to fight for.

Tangible results are obviously more important than rhetoric, plans, and speeches – voters want jobs, not more talk about jobs – but Republicans won’t allow real progress anyway. The more Obama can make them own the results, while positioning himself as the leader fighting the good fight, the better off he’ll be politically.

So don’t lay down a bunt and hope to maybe get on base; swing for the damn fences.

Somehow it all comes down to baseball. Or, as Andrew Sullivan notes, it comes down to race:

I rather glibly wrote recently that one reason president Obama has not opened a can of rhetorical whup-ass on those actually seeking the default of the US Treasury, is that he wants to avoid the “angry black man” trope. Once he is defined as that, the GOP needs nothing more to use the race card silently against him. That’s why they keep arguing that the president who killed bin Laden, prevented a Second Great Depression and achieved universal healthcare in his first term is somehow another Jimmy Carter.

But of course he isn’t. And of course he understands the political dynamic out there. He just knows that the one thing the far right wants – and needs – to do is get into a fight with him, elevating them, diminishing him, and alienating the middle of the American electorate. His approach is the classic civil rights movement approach with a black leader addressing a largely white electorate: non-violence, reasoned argument.

And Sullivan says this Washington Monthly commenter explains this rather well:

How does Obama break the iron unity of the GOP opposition to assemble a governing majority in the US Congress? …

Obama acts entirely within the tradition of mainstream African American political strategy and tactics. The epitome of that tradition was the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement, but goes back much further in time. It recognizes the inequality of power between whites and blacks. Number one: maintain your dignity. Number two: call your adversaries to the highest principles they hold. Number three: Seize the moral high ground and Number four: Win by winning over your adversaries, by revealing the contradiction between their own ideals and their actions. It is one way that an oppressed people struggle.

And this seems to be what Obama has been doing:

Obama has taken a seat at the negotiating table and said “There is no reason why we cannot work out solutions to our problems by acting like responsible adults. That is what people expect us to do and that is why we have entered into public service.” That is the moral high ground.

It’s like the college students sitting in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, way back when:

Obama sits at that table, like they did at the counter. Boehner and McConnell and Cantor clown around, mugging for the camera, competing to ritually humiliate Obama, to dump ketchup on his head. I don’t think those students got their sandwiches the first day, but they won in the end.

So Obama is actually winning:

Democrats are uniting behind him, although some white progressives think that they could do the job better. Independents are flocking to him. Even some Republicans are getting disgusted with their Washington leaders. Obama is not telling us about lack of seriousness of the Congressional GOP; he is showing us the vivid contrast between what we expect of our leaders and their behavior. The last two and half years have been a revelation of the essential conflicts in our society and politics.

So you can deal in big ideas, even if Neal Gabler says there aren’t any of those around anymore, thanks to Facebook or whatever. It’s a matter of living out big ideas, not talking about them.

And what’s on the other side of the ledger? Some years ago Andrew Sullivan wrote The Conservative Soul – arguing “that an accelerating shift was taking place in American conservatism that was transforming the small government secular temperament into a fundamentalist religious mindset that sought its refuge not in doubting humankind’s capacity for good, but in believing in God’s ability to heal all things, including politics.” And David Brooks, in his review, was not impressed at all – evangelical Protestants are “an infinitely diverse and contradictory group” who don’t think highly of the hyper-partisan screamers. But Sullivan, now that Michele Bachmann has been triumphant in Iowa, and Rick Perry, the Jesus Texan has entered the race, considers The Christianist Takeover:

One launched his campaign in a revival meeting calling for God to solve our economic problems (having previously led mass prayers for the end of the Texas drought); the other emerges entirely out of Dominionist theology and built her entire career in the Christianist world of home schooling, and anti-gay demonization.

And forget Mitt Romney – they hit him hard for “any previous deviations from binding orthodoxy” and Romney is on the defensive:

And it is this fundamentalist mindset – in which nothing doctrinal can be questioned, and the real world must be bent to the shape of a rigid theo-ideology – that defines these two candidates.

Hence Bachmann’s belief that the entire deficit can be ended in short shrift solely by massive cuts in spending. This “spending alone” principle cannot be compromised, since taxation in and of itself is a way in which the liberal elites control people’s lives. It doesn’t matter what economists say about the consequence of willful default or of austerity too sharply imposed. It only matters what God says. And God is bound up with a radical American theology in which slavery was more benign than the Great Society, and that the Founders were abolitionists. That American theology creates the justification for the use of American military power across the globe, especially in protecting and advancing Greater Israel, Bachmann’s and Perry’s fundamentalist cause of causes.

So we do have big ideas:

This is what this party now is: a religious movement clothed in anti-government radicalism. It has nothing to do with the conservative temperament, conservative political thought or conservative ideas. It is hostile to most existing institutions, especially government, contemptuous of the courts, and seized of an ideology as rigid as any far-left liberalism, as utopian as any wide-eyed socialist, as fanatical as anything the left spawned in the 1960s.

And it has hijacked an entire political party; and recently held to ransom an entire country. I knew it would get worse before it gets better. But this bad?

Yep – beware of big ideas. No matter what Neal Gabler says, we still have them. But there is a difference between big ideas and good ideas. And some us miss the old days, when there were good ideas, of any size.

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.
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