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Pavlov's Blue Dog

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We are prey to bad habits. We have become habituated, well, you should probably call it "conditioned"-aversively-to the presentation of political postures in a certain perverse way. Eight long, ugly years of Cheney and Bush, where we found the shadow of truth only after it was too late, have trained me to expect things in that perverse order and with the requisite level of suspicion and anxiety. It was a horrible eight years, preceded by the near lynching of Clinton and all the gnashing of teeth that entailed. We are unused to the Barack Obama way, and it shows all over the place in columns, articles, essays, and frantic angst, even here. I will begin by faulting President Obama for this. He or someone in his inner circle should understand in its fullness that we have been abused and that we flinch, strike out reflexively, and misunderstand all too easily. It is his job to communicate, ours to first listen attentively with a proper amount of respect and trust. Of course, respect and trust went out the window years and ages ago, so it's his bounden duty to restore that ... or struggle and perhaps fail.

So, to backtrack a little, I was standing at the back entrance to the Pavlov Institut on Vasilevsky Island, having trod around in the gloomy late December snows past the linia and the buildings of (then) Leningrad State University across the Neva from the museum of the siege and across the Little Neva from the Peter and Paul Fortress. I hoped to find someone who could tell me in simple Russian when the Institut would reopen. I had forgotten that Soviet Russia closed down at the end of the year as men playing Det' Moroz (Father Frost) appeared long-frocked Santa-like along the Moika Canal and Nevsky Prospekt. To be sure, I was where I never should have been, for the rear of the Pavlov Institute, closed, cold, and unlit was guarded by a dog fully capable of bounding through snow toward me at lightning speed, growing enormously, and bringing me to an epiphany all in the blink of an embarrassing eight seconds. Perhaps it was the irony of the encounter that turned my consciousness from outright fear to a fleeting wisp of humor. Imagine being torn apart and devoured by a ravenous canine in the shadow of Ivan Pavlov, I thought briefly, and then the beast was upon me.

I turned to face the dog, fully as big a dog as I had ever shared a small space with. The dog was silent and while I took the lack of peeled back upper lip and lack of vicious growl to be a last good sign, I realized suddenly that I did not know Russian guard dogs, and so the silence became a threat. As the dog broke through my imaginary three-foot radius of personal space, I turned fully toward it and exposed the palms of my gloved hands to the beast, which was, by then, decelerating rapidly. The dog looked at my empty hands, looked into my face, gave one semi-friendly woof, and then placed herself between me and the door I had been knocking on.

I am telling you about this event because, a) it was real, and b) it was very frightening, fast, and full of information about life itself. I discovered that there is a universal means of communication among beings of good will. I was lucky that the dog was such a being, but reflecting on it, I decided that a university dog would likely have some manners, even in Soviet Russia. I have practiced the palms up thing several times since, and verified that it works. So, I wonder, why people don't know about universal communication devices and why, for instance, Barack Obama and Co., so badly set up the appearance and delivery of Secretary Geithner's plan for reorganizing finance in the world!

Make no mistake about it, their first intention is to reorganize finance in the United States, but they are completely aware that what is done here is a message to the entire planet and its financiers. The press is full of articles about how difficult it is going to be to get something this draconian through a Congress congenitally habituated to communication with lobbyists. The question of whether this is ground-breaking, revolutionary reform is up in the air at the moment, and more of that in a moment. But, let my first point be that defending Congress from lobbying paid for by the taxpayers' bailout money is just about the most Alice-in-Wonderlandish thing I can think of. The press, corrupt and destitute as it may be, needs to be all over the lobbyists and pointing out where these cockroaches are getting the money to set aside the will and safe future of We the People!

Paul Krugman writes that the Geithner Plan (the Plan created by many that Geithner presented Thursday in Congress) is not revolutionary and very much the expression of a "business more or less as usual" frame of mind. Dr. Krugman correctly points out that continuation of the "securitization" of risk (especially very risky assets) could prove to be the Plan's undoing. What Krugman does not say is that the credit default swaps and other instruments (what Timmy calls "vehicles") do actually exist and more importantly cannot be ignored. The less-obviously and only potentially toxic securities are very much a matter of whether we do anything or not ... the less we do the more likely many will go bad. There does not seem a will for the federal government to try to buy up all these instruments, therefore a market for them must be created. So, I fault Krugman for crying "merde" at the town sewage treatment facility! And, to get back to my theme of communications, I fault Geithner and Obama for mangling the pre-presentation of their policy. The AIG situation should have been given a loud reproof, followed by a full-throated demand for return of the bonuses.

There is an old joke about the mechanic and the surgeon, the former complaining about the cost of a simple tonsilectomy, the latter complaining about the cost of a new muffler, a joke that rests on the fulcrum of doing one's work on a living organism rather than a cold car. Obama and Geithner are playing market-manager and financier psychology as if they can avoid the market and finance sectors taking "irrational steps" to preserve the last vestiges of their autonomy. It cannot be done; it is a moving target. The administration needs to be frank and open, for the model being established for the rest of the world has to be direct and honest. The new federal policy should not the copied from the foreclosure manual of FDIC. This sort of thing has to be done quickly and surely, yes, so they should not deceive themselves that it can be done by cagey finessing of considerable power structures. Once they understand this, they can impose the regulations that the People have demanded.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a 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 (more...)

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