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White Water Statecraft

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My title suggests a busy person at the oars. Engineering types will visualize bailing buckets attached to the grips on the oars, which fill on the back stroke and pour as the oar blades reach their forwardmost point. They pour mostly over the sides, but it is a sloppy system. The oarsman doesn't seem to notice or care. He is rowing, port and starboard, and therefore facing backward, despite his aversion to that. Most metaphors exhaust themselves quickly, and this one is all but exhausted, yet ... yet there is something more than the mere mechanics of our situation. This is not just about the immediate tasks; there is much more going on and conditioning the President's activities. Joseph Stiglitz has written yesterday in Australia's The Age that President Obama's restitution of the status quo ante among financial institutions is wrong-headed and will just lead us back to the next crisis in a few short years. Paul Krugman has said as much from his catbird seat at the NYT. So the question is, why in the name of all that's reasonable and formerly holy are Barack Obama, Larry Summers, and Tim Geithner following this path? The answer is that there is quite a bit more going on than just restoring a bunch of egoistical and willful financial tycoons to positions of power and wealth. In fact, I will argue, all of that is an epiphenomenon of the larger process underway, a process almost infinitely more complicated than economic politics as usual. "Bail, bail, bail your boat, rowing down the stream." That's a clue. The original lyric is "gently down the stream." But immediately you see that the stream is treacherous and that sinking is the first issue—not sinking—and then not running aground or holing the boat on the rocks is the next immediate issue. They are virtually simultaneous issues and must be solved like simultaneous equations. Both must be done. Rowing and bailing and steering and looking around. Working with metaphors means that you have to understand ALL the terms of the metaphor's logic. So what is the stream? Are there other boats? Are they sinking? Do we risk collision with any of them? Are any bigger or in some way more dangerous than others? What is it that is prompting President Obama to spend so much time on getting our boat stream-worthy? Are there boatyards near by that we can trust to patch our boat? Will they put a team on board while we negotiate some serious white-water rapids? Then there is the treacherous wind—the hot air of a thousand voices all bellowing that politicians are infinitely duplicitous and virtually incapable of steering a straight and true course. Stiglitz and Krugman are academics and used to employing model boats on strictly controlled waters where as many of the variables as possible are controlled, where ideas are challenged in their pure form before being tested in the wilds of reality. What makes academics disdain reality is the impossibility of carrying out their craft with an endless array of chaotic variables to confuse issues and corrupt data. In fact there are other winds at the back of Barack Obama. These winds are the voices of earnest political exhaustion, the tidal wave of electoral success and the opposition's utter and miserable failure. There a way out of the wilderness and into the full expression of progressive values on a majoritarian basis, if only the trust of the larger mass of people can be earned. So Barack is not only bailing and rowing, he is putting out sails to catch the winds of a new unity politics. This is soberly done knowing that majorities fail most often from their own hubris. And, bailing, rowing, sailing, President Obama is necessarily steering our economy into waters where other economies are thrashing about, each with different means of propulsion, different command systems, different loads and destinations, all (or virtually all) simultaneously angered by the perceived attitude of the United States' about the corruption on Wall Street, each ignoring its own drunken financiers, each simultaneously hoping for a favored position in the new settlement, but each harboring a moral need to punish the U.S. for harboring such crass greed. Each also wonders what its holdings of USD as the current reserve currency will net them if they dare take a different course down the rapids of this crisis. Yes, the U.S. is the lead boat ... so far. Stiglitz and Krugman are not wrong. They are premature. The Obama administration is just over four months old and already some of the necessary signs of slowing sinking are noticable. We have not yet stopped sinking and, that being the case, what we do not need is a large wave of bankruptcies to flood over our rails and swamp us in front of our planetary competitors. There have been—in four short months—only small increments of serious change in American politics, especially in Washington. Liberals and Progressives became chronically restive and annoyed, while conservatives are now strangling on their own recent histories, unable to do much more than throw tantrums at passing events, ad hoc-ing it until they can see a course leading to safety of some kind, underwater at the moment and apparently willing to drown their best ideas and their best people out of sheer obstinance. Politics in America is not quite as bad as it was, but it is still toxic ... and it is still bought and paid for by corporate interests. Our boat floats or sinks in whatever kind of politics dominates. Obama and his advisors are working with reality. Reality is not what we hoped. It may never be. It will be what we make of it, once we get a grip and understand how utterly dangerous the economy situation really is. Our journey is to emerge at the end of this crisis with our economic leadership intact, with our hubris chastened, and with reasonable prospects for making landfall before we go over the edge with global warming. JB
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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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