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Tipping Points

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The Washington Post Saturday ran a story on the meeting between President Obama and his staff with the crew from Wall Street and their associates. There were points of contact in this bit of journalism with the remarks Friday of political journalist William Greider on the Bill Moyers Journal program. But, there are also chasms of assumptions lying between the two. The curious thing is that it is difficult to know for certain whether Greider is in possession of the correct frame for this situation or whether the considerably less detailed and less candid Post, coming from the inevitable hubris of a Washington DC view of things is actually the better gauge. It does not help, by the way, that I have just watched Duplicity with Julia Roberts playing CIA officer Claire Stenwick and Clive Owen playing MI6 agent Ray Koval against industry titan Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and buccaneer CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) portraying thoroughly believable modern industrial bastards. The movie deliberately chases the audience around in flashbacks and repetitions to confuse and disorient, but Director Tony Gilroy has a purpose in mind that is plain enough for even me to understand. Not only are the industrialists greedy and willing to employ tactics formerly reserved to the clandestine services, but there is the dawning light realization that one of them has done this so adroitly and over such a long period that the necessary conclusion is that government folk are no match for determined CEOs. After the movie Greider seems very much the more astute commentator, but I have to re-center myself with other evidence and experience. There is, even among Progressives, a hesitancy to believe the worst, for if all that is said about big corporations is true, then evolving a solution to the current financial crisis is going to be very tricky, indeed. In fact it will be more than tricky; it will be impossible if Obama and his crew do not take some "revolutionary" stances and order some "revolutionary" measures. The editors of the NYT think so. But, we are all waiting for this to happen, for Change to assert itself. We all understand that the more preferable way is to have the leaders carry out "a revolution within our Constitutional parameters" rather than having the people actually carry out a physical revolution on the streets, something that would necessarily precipitate a shift in the stance of leadership. The approach of the physical revolution is heralded by public displays of anger, reaching a tipping point, sparking violence here and there, but remaining peaceful by in large. But this has not happened, and some (like Professor Venkatesh) believe that it will not happen. I am not among them. I believe we are edging toward a first tipping point and that the next stimulus could easily come from abroad at G20 or directly from China, as Margaret Atwood describes in her book Payback as described in this excellent review by John Gray in the NYRB. The G20 and China alone act above the streets. Their actions will, however, become obvious to the man in the street and to the financial moguls as economically unpalatable. Abandoning the US$ as the world reserve currency will stoke problems that have been tamped down by deliberate U.S. policy for decades. It is common knowledge that we have been living way beyond our means for at least a generation. China knows this and already has deliberately tipped its hand by suggesting that the World Bank be the arbiter of currencies through a mechanism that is transparently inadequate to the task. Still, China is telling us that hyper-inflating our debts away will not fly in Beijing. We know that inflating the currency is one way to pump lifeblood into the anemic, if not brain dead, domestic economy. We know that inflating the US$ will affect the recovery elsewhere, if there is to be a recovery at all. The more radicalized the folks in eastern Europe and Russia and India become as their economies dwindle down over longer and longer periods, soaking up rainy-day reserves, the more pressure is put on Obama and Geithner to do things that Wall Street does not want and everyday Americans will with reflexive xenophobia misunderstand ... until the tipping point. Greider's hypothesis (and the assumption of most people on the Left) is that the finance and industrial moguls are just too strong for Obama to buck by himself. Obama is no fool and has provided himself a communications conduit in the person of Timothy Geithner and in some respects Larry Summers, but neither of these will be trusted long by the moguls to preserve the status quo ante, especially if the tipping point is reached abruptly, particularly from abroad. And what the moguls fear most is ordinary Americans with pitchforks and rope not simply watching their life chances going down the drain, but actually experiencing the end of this era ... which if you are paying attention to the real numbers is inevitable. Losing one's job, having the car begin to break down and realizing that you are going to have to live with the damned thing and big repairs for years more than expected, catastrophic illness with the rainy-day reserves already gone, derogation from upper to lower middle class, from middle middle to near poverty, from college bound to who knows where, these are the experiences that will unbind Americans from their illusions. But many Americans are still drinking the cool-aid of corporate benevolence, the notion that big corporations produce big numbers of jobs, that bigger yet is better yet, that astronomical executive salaries and bonuses are such a small part of the whole that moguls are okay, just richer, but not happier. The facts are not getting to ordinary Americans because these facts are complex and the media are, after all, very big corporations with a bias. Meanwhile, the far right stokes the insecurities of the masses with spot-on clairvoyance and utter disregard for the long-term consequences. It is time, my friends, to see this situation for what it manifestly is, to take up a hank of rope and a hay fork and to convert these people to an understanding of how badly they are being abused. The goal is to down-size corporate America, both finance and industry, to put MORE people to work in smaller, more compliant industries, to recognize that "too big to fail" is just TOO BIG for the American democracy and for the health of our planet. The Left must understand that there are many tipping points, that reaching one does not assure that the next will be reached. We need to keep up the pressure on President Obama so that he acts on our behalf and is not smothered by the moguls. He wants us to. Remember how he campaigned. He is depending on us to fight for Change. JB

 

James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese History, (more...)
 

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"We need to keep up the pressure on President... by William Whitten on Monday, Mar 30, 2009 at 3:04:41 PM
I have a good friend in Manhattan, 77 or so, who w... by James Brett on Monday, Mar 30, 2009 at 4:16:43 PM
Thank you for your considered response Mr. Brett. ... by William Whitten on Monday, Mar 30, 2009 at 7:24:52 PM
I just cannot take seriously the notion that there... by James Brett on Monday, Mar 30, 2009 at 10:02:04 PM
The "government" itself has documented t... by William Whitten on Tuesday, Mar 31, 2009 at 12:56:16 AM
If you are going to publish this kind of stuff, at... by James Brett on Tuesday, Mar 31, 2009 at 1:06:02 PM