“If necessity knows no law, then neither does power”

I’ve been musing over the state of our national discourse a lot recently.

The stakes of our socioeconomic quandary feel very stark. Mountains of debt and millions of unemployed putting pressure on a systems of goods, services and production that looks like what philosophers call a self-contained system, which only functions with internal logic and is easily proved fallible by external logic.

So, common sense says that smart people would be working together with an acknowledgment of what the biggest priorities are in order to create a new approach, right?

Wrong. Instead, we appear to be in the midst of one of the most cynical periods in modern political and economic history. Break the world down into three groups: Vox Politic, Vox Populi and Vox Media. The way people are feeling, the way politicians are acting and the way that the media is interpreting is creating more alienation, disaffection and confusion that ever before.

Paul Krugman today in the Times had a very balanced column suggesting that the issues facing the Obama administration don’t have to do with scope, as popularly suggested, but with faulty policy. Whether you agree with him or not, the column attempts to move the dialogue to issues and solutions away from ad hominen attacks of ability and motivation.

I witnessed another discourse recently that reinforced my sense that concern about the partisan bias of the media and the political forum is removing some of the partisan intensity of private conversations.

Here’s a sample of a Facebook dialogue between two former high school classmates. A bit of background: I went to an all-boys Catholic boarding school in Rhode Island run by Benedictine Monks. My dad was a teacher there. The kids at the school were smart, were taught with intellectual rigor and came from all over. For such a small school, the alumni body has remarkable diversity of interests, views and life choices. This dialogue is between two men who represents what on the surface would appear to be highly divergent choices about life, the role of money, the role of culture and the importance of political discourse.

Call them Frick & Frack. I encourage you to read through the dialogue. What I find interesting is how resonant each argument is. How polarized these arguments appear in public discourse. And, how aligned both contributors are by their concern and interest.

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Frick: Might this cover be implying that Barack is not only incompetent but also living in la-la land? The proof is in in the pudding and, according most credible, unbiased and objective takes on reality, not tainted by ideology or emotion, Obama has failed miserably on all the crucial counts: the economy, Iran, health care a…

Frack: Question the received opinion. As you are no doubt aware, Obama has also had to contend with some of the most difficult challenges any recent president has faced. A near meltdown of the housing market. Bankruptcy of the auto companies. A quagmire in Afghanistan. Possible meltdown of the Chinese economy. Historically speaking, a year is far too soon to make a reasoned assessment.

Frick: … failed so far… with more than 3 million jobs lost in the last year alone, an Iran that, without Israeli intervention, will soon be a nuclear power and unparalleled deficit (borrowing) spending that puts us, literally, at the mercy of China, Obama has put policies in place that point America in a downward direction instead of up, back in the … See Moreblue and in a more powerful position. It’s possible that Obama can still right the ship and turn things around, but right now the smart money says the economy is in for a double dip and that a new wave of foreclosures could very well be right around the corner. If that occurs, or if there is another successful terrorist attack on the mainland, Obama will be a one term President and his place, right alongside Jimmy, will be a foregone conclusion. I hope, for all of our sakes, that time and history prove me wrong. I would much rather have a robust economy and no more innocent life lost at the hands of Islamic extremist.

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Frack: What do you expect him to do? Adopt the Ron Paul solution to all our woes and print a 10 trillion dollar banknote, hand it to the Chinese, and say “Here. Debt paid. Now go to hell”? Complex problems take time-consuming consensus building to solve. Obama has smarts that Carter didn’t have. Give him a chance, bwah, and your fondest hopes may come true, even if later rather than sooner.

Frick: That’s pretty much what he has done. He took a deficit that Bush was responsible for and, instead of trying to turn things around, turned to the Chinese and compounded Bush’s folly by borrowing far, by far, more than Bush or any other US President for that matter. It’s not a question of me giving him a chance that will determine his success.  It’s a question of the policies he has put in place and, so far, I don’t see any policies that offer, in a fundamental, core or pivotal way, any reason to believe there is hope or positive change in the air. What I see is old style Chicago politics with corruption, back room deals and bribery being the coin of the realm. He’s proving to be the biggest flim-flam man of all time by promising us one thing and delivering something altogether different. What happened to being above board, transparent and bi-partisan? The country is more divided now than it was just a year ago and more is done behind closed doors than under any administration in recent memory.

Frack: I just hate to see him fail, and feel that attacks on his policies are more partisan in nature than not.

Frick: You may be right, and I may be being partisan without knowing it, but I believe, above all and even more, that I am giving and have given him a fair chance. So far the results haven’t been good and, when you get past the double talk, spin and mumbo jumbo, there is no reason to think they are going to get much better anytime soon. Key economic indicators in housing, commercial real estate and the general economy don’t look good. Further, evidence that a bubble, due to cheap money and overvalued assets, may be what has pumped up the markets thus far. Again, I hope I am wrong. Believe me, I have nothing to gain and everything to lose of there is a double dip in the economy or if there is another successful terrorist attack in the US. My family was fortunate enough and lucky enough to weather the last storm. I’m not sure more government is the answer. I’m concerned for my families ability to withstand any more inclement weather.

Frack: Yah, the financial DEW line was talking of a double dip as far back as April of ’08. And it could happen. I just hope the prognosticators are correct about commercial real estate not being quite as over-extended as housing.

Frack: What irks me most is people making pre-judgments so they can be first in line to say I told you so. I’m more interested in full-spectrum analyses which offer an array of probabilities right up to sigma 10.

Frick: Yeah, but don’t you have to wait until the game is all but over for that? At that point you won’t be able to have any hand in the outcome and will just have to live with what is rather than squeal like a pig and, hopefully, at least get a little oil while holding on to your ankles for dear life.

Frack: Heh. If you got some sharp boys on your staff, you can do the spadework, pile up your Fuck You money, and not spend your golden years working at Aardvark Body Rub Studios, scrounging for chump change and slapping hot oil on the backs of men who look and smell like Ferlin Husky.
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Me: Ok. This was alarmingly smart and civilized. Must be the product of a rigorous Benedictine education. Can’t figure which point of view is right. The mess we’re in has been building for 15 years, when the borrowing capacity of consumers and businesses was reached and the only was to boost consumption and spur growth was to lower the cost of money and increase leverage. Bingo: you get bubbles. Obama has no choice but to play the hand he’s dealt. So, the option is to keep a fundamentally corrupt financial system on life support by providing a federal subsidy. That’s all fine, and while it’s unfortunate, the outsized compensation of the players in finance is a non-central issue.

What is central is what else to do. The one thing that has to happen is job creation — at any short-term cost, provided that the jobs are sustainable. The second thing is that the cost structure of social well-being (health and entitlement) needs to be lowered, so as to reduce the drain on the economy and create more resources for new development.

So, the measure of Obama is whether he is helping to stimulate activty that addresses our two biggest domestic priorities, and whether he is communicating in a clear and consistent fashion what we are doing, why it matters and what our expectation is about the results.

He’s doing miserably on the second front.

On the first front he’s put a ton of stuff in motion, but appears too willing to dilute key elements, sacrificing principal to expedience.

I don’t know that any of us know enough about what’s going on behind closed doors to know whether he’s gotuch choice but to comprise. The country is in a pretty tight spot. But we can confidently say that he’s providing none of the clarity and perspective that the country needs from him.

Frack: Throw the rascals out. ALL of them. The lobbyists first and foremost. (Like that will ever happen….)

Frick: Hey Dan, Thanks for coming in, summing it up, giving an overview and tying a ribbon on it. It’s good to know we made some sense even if none of us are quite sure what’s coming down the road.

Me: I wouldn’t call it a bow! Just thinking out loud. And Frack, we’ve tried throwing assorted clusters of the rascals out a few times over the past 25 years. It’s like Zombie-fluid: the idealists turn rascally once they are exposed. I’m wondering where the better idea is.

Frack: 25 years? “Throw the Rascals out” goes back to 1828! And you’re right; reformers tend to take on the attributes of the machine they work inside of. Because by the time they make it to the top, they’ve internalized the ethics of their profession–or lack thereof.

It strikes me that if necessity knows no law, than neither does power.