Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oh Know You Don’t!

When it comes to spinning yarns, Republicans might as well own a haberdashery. After basically taking a two-year sabbatical from any responsibility for helping revive an economy they had a major role in driving into the ground, they are now expending considerable political capital constructing a bold new narrative that they are hoping to peddle to the electorate. The narrative? The reason for the great recession of 2008-09 was owed directly to an out of control government not living within its means.

Yep, you heard that right. Deficit spending was the prime culprit for the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Not Goldman Sachs, not the repeal of Glass-Steagall, not even Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Well, give Republicans this much: they finally figured out that nobody was buying the Fannie / Freddie fable. That dog just wasn’t hunting. Rule number one in politics: keep it simple. If you have to spend more than two sentences trying to explain something that, for the most part, flies over your audience’s head, it’s probably not going to get any traction. And traction is what politics is all about.

Republicans rode the tide of voter frustration over a sluggish economy all the way to shore in last year’s midterms in large part by arguing that stimulus spending, rather than helping, was actually making things worse. Not content with merely ignoring most prominent economists who insisted that the stimulus actually kept the economy from plunging into a depression, Republicans are looking to parlay their audacity by rewriting the history of the event altogether. And if Democrats aren’t careful (i.e., don’t wake up) they are going to find themselves on the short end of yet another narrative gone astray.

The sheer hubris of such a stance, in the face of overwhelming and contradictory evidence, is owed directly to two undeniable factors: The first is known and taught by every political science professor in the country. If you don’t challenge a lie quickly enough, it eventually becomes the truth. The “laydown” by Democrats during the healthcare debate of ’09 was textbook and proved fatal. Over time, Republicans were able to convince enough voters that the claims they were making were true, when in fact virtually all of them were false. There was no government takeover of the healthcare industry, there was no public option and, most importantly, there were no death panels. If anything, the watered down bill that President Obama signed into law more closely resembled the Bob Dole compromise that Bill Clinton rejected in 1994, than the single payer system progressives were hoping they’d get.

No matter.  Like it says in Politics 101, say it often and loud enough and the multitudes will believe almost anything. Never give a sucker an even break. That W.C. Fields was a genius, wasn’t he?

But, I fear, the biggest factor behind this Republican hubris may run much deeper than anyone suspected. You can basically sum it up in one word: denial. Deep down there is a fundamental refusal to accept that this great engine of capitalism has an inherent flaw within it that damn near wrecked the world economy and, worse, threatens a repeat performance.

When the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic in 1912, taking fifteen hundred souls with her, the public outrage brought about sweeping changes in the way steamship companies conducted their business. No longer were ships permitted to navigate at full speed through waters known to be hazardous; all ships were required to have sufficient lifeboats for all hands onboard; and all ships were required to have twenty-four radio facilities in the event of an emergency. But besides the public outcry for regulation, there was a willingness on the part of these companies to modernize their fleets and bring their personnel up to speed on the new regulations. In short, while the cost of doing business went up, the prevailing logic was that the alternative was too ghastly to contemplate. Another Titanic was unthinkable. Public confidence had been shattered and needed to be rebuilt. End of story.

Almost one hundred years later we have come face to face with our own economic equivalent of an iceberg, and we have seen the Titanic founder in front of our very eyes. Millions have lost virtually everything they had; millions more were adversely affected in some way, while still millions more sit and wonder what will happen to them. Will they be the next to lose their jobs or get a reduction in pay? But, unlike that infamous maritime tragedy of a century ago, the lack of any outcry is profoundly disquieting. It is the undeniable truth that no one speaks about. The great ship has sunk, shush, don’t say anything. Don’t confuse the frustration that people are feeling over the way things are for an outcry for change. They are two different things entirely. The former is a natural reflex; the latter reveals a willingness to deal with the underlying cause.

Of course if you don’t acknowledge the disaster in the first place, it didn’t really happen, did it? And while one can certainly understand the state of denial that exists in the minds of those who have just seen their loved ones freeze to death, there is no excuse for such denial existing on such a massive scale as we have seen in this country over the last year and a half. I’ve heard of business as usual and getting on with one’s life, but this amount of reluctance to look at the truth is beyond bizarre; it smacks of something pathological.

And the GOP is capitalizing on this psychosis by driving a Mack truck right down the middle of the road straight towards Fantasy Land, with of course the aid and abetting of corporate America, which neither sees a need for fundamental change within its basic structure, nor acknowledges it had anything to do with the calamity in the first place. When you combine these three forces – corporate collusion, public apathy and willful political deceit – you get an iceberg a mile high and ten miles deep just waiting for the next vulnerable steel hull to ram its icy spur into.

I have watched “Titanic” on my DVD player dozens of times and not once have I ever been surprised at the ending. The largest, most opulent ship in the world, steaming at full speed through an ice field, oblivious to the warnings that have been issued to her, only to be felled by the inevitable fate that lies in her path. It is the consummate example of greed and arrogance run amuck.

The great recession of 2008-09 was caused by those same ingredients: greed and arrogance. To suggest anything else is to engage in delusional thinking. To attempt to capitalize on the misfortune and ignorance of the victims by distorting the truth and concocting falsehoods is reprehensible. And that is what the Republicans are doing. In their version, the reason why the Titanic sank is because she wasn’t allowed to navigate as her owners thought best and was too hindered by the outdated rules and regulations of her day. Also, had she been smaller and less bloated, she would’ve survived. And then there is the matter of all those useless lifeboats cluttering up the boat deck.


Of all the reasons why the Titanic sank, none have ever been attributed to her size or girth. In deed, the fact that she was so large actually helped keep her afloat a little longer than most ships would have with comparable damage. Something to think about as Republicans take their hatchets out to “trim” the budget. Size does matter.

We were lucky in many respects that we had a President and a Congress that took the steps they took in the early months of 2009. We did not escape unscathed; it will take years before the economy is back to where it was before the recession hit. But know this, as bad as things got and continue to be, it could’ve been far worse.

Yet in some ways we are no wiser for the wear. And that is because we still have not completely dealt with the true culprit responsible for the disaster. We are fixated by the iceberg; and that fixation has prevented us from seeing the willful negligence that took place on the bridge of the stricken vessel. It is still taking place, as we speak, in boardrooms across America. Greed and arrogance are always among us, and are virtually unchecked. Too big to fail is still in place and everyone who knows better holds their collective breaths and prays that the great ship will somehow manage to avoid its destiny next time. Good luck.

For the next time disaster strikes – and there will be a next time – it might well destroy everything we hold near and dear to us. And when that happens we will, all of us, be as guilty as those who aimed the “unsinkable” ship straight at the iceberg. On that day there will be no rest for the weary, no excuse for the blind, or salvation for the culpable.


Anonymous said...

Interesting metaphor with the Titanic. The only problem is... with the ship, all aboard -- 1st class to steerage -- shared the same fate. When the economy declines, the fate of the upper 1% will be very, very different than the bottom 1%.

Peter Fegan said...

Actually, more steerage class women died than 1st class men. But I do get your point about top 1% vs. bottom 1%.