This is it for me, at least for this chapter. I am off to join some people who don’t much appreciate voices singing out of key, and while they might be able to get over my public disdain for coaches who punt in opposing territory, it would be rather awkward to continue to point out the incompetence of the administration. So for now, it’s probably best to hang it up.
I never meant to write this in the first place. It was just my good fortune that a series of emails simply grew into a website, and all of a sudden instead of shouting at a TV screen I was typing at a computer screen. Which is far more healthy.
When I got up and running in February, the economy was in the tank. Breaking up accounts to get under the deposit insurance threshold was, for one brief shining moment, the stuff of practical people and not survivalists who have spent too much time with the SAS handbook.
It was also the time that it seemed real change might happen. We had a vigorous new President who, at the difference of his predecessor, did not seem like a twig floating down a rapid. Some early decisions were unfortunate – picking Rahm Emanuel and letting Rahm pursue his feud with Howard Dean, picking Tim Geithner and Larry Summers while exiling Joe Stiglitz and Paul Volker – and some were, perhaps, inevitable – telling the unions they would not get card check or a renegotiation of NAFTA, telling gays that they could keep waiting.
Still, change seemed inevitable, if only because the market meltdown was its own change agent. It only took about a week in September 2008 for the three-quarter-of-a-century Republican crusade to privatize Social Security to run aground. One more good push and the major banks were about to restructure themselves. And Eastern Europe looked set to provide that push.
Health care reform was inevitable. It was the Administration’s signature issue, the key project on which the team was all in. With a huge majority – 58 seats outright, 59 with Franken, 60 with Lieberman – the once-in-a-generation opportunity was at hand. The country could not afford to do otherwise.
The one question mark was carbon. A carbon tax would pit region against region – broadly, the coasts against the center – and with the public opposed to anything with “tax” in the name, there wasn’t that much support, even though it would come from guys in the Middle East who hate us and go to people in the midwest who are God’s children. Just ask them.
Those were the days.
Then the government managed to prove that it would really, positively, absolutely funnel as much money as was necessary into the financial services industry. All of a sudden – and it was terribly sudden – two things happened:
- The stock market rocketed;
- The government lost all power to change.
The first was evident off the bat, although of course the duration of the rally surprised me and continues to surprise me. You will note the current issues in Dubai and Greece, in case you thought the dead would stay buried forever.
The second was far more subtle. It was the discovery of a hollow threat. Like a parent who tells his misbehaving child that he will leave him at a faraway gas station and finds the child still unwilling to behave, the Obama team found that in their unseemly haste to shovel money into the market, the market had no reason to listen to them. Strange as it may be, Jake DeSantis might be 2009’s Man of the Year. Once he proved that you could go public and not cower in fear at the government’s Sternly Worded Letters, the rest of the country saw that the Administration could be crossed with impunity, at least as long as you were not a creditor of an auto company.
To skip ahead to the present, can you imagine – just imagine – some marginal senator who might or might not represent a filibuster-breaking vote jerking around Lyndon Johnson when Lyndon wanted something? A marginal senator hanging onto a committee chairmanship, a marginal senator with no natural allies in either party? But that’s why Lyndon fought so hard on every vote – he never wanted someone to get the idea that he could be beaten.
We are all products of our environment, and Obama’s environment was one where a naturally sunny and charismatic person was encouraged to appear even sunnier. He didn’t just have to beat Hillary Clinton – a task most would have described before the Iowa primary as only slightly easier than climbing Everest in early January dressed in flip-flops and a beer helmet – he had to beat her and get her and her supporters to like him. I find it hard to believe even now; a woman famous for holding grudges and her grudge-holding supporters decided at the end of a nasty campaign to circle up and support Obama in exchange for an uncertain claim at a meaningless position. If that’s not winning with grace, I don’t know what is.
The difference between campaigning and governing, however, is that when you govern you need to deal with the irreconcilables. Hillary Clinton could be convinced that Obama was the best deal she was going to get. Jim DeMint cannot, and if Socrates himself came back to debate him would not concede the merit of Obama’s actions. And quite clearly the various factions in the Afghan drama, or the Iraqi drama, could care less what happy thoughts come from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
What these people respect is victory. Jim DeMint doesn’t know his history any better than his politics, but this much is certain: if he knew Obama would win, as so many potentates around Europe knew Napoleon would win, he would be looking to settle on whatever terms were offered. It is Obama’s very refusal to punish that has made people so relaxed opposing him.
There is a great shame to it all. There is nothing particularly wrong about the country today; by the standards of virtually all of human history, we are blessed beyond comprehension to live in this place and time. With no great reforms, we will lead wonderful lives of overwhelming plenty.
Others could as well, if only the government tried. The big things. The lack of a meaningful carbon tax to take control of our energy policy. The lack of resolve in driving down health care costs. The compulsive need to bail out not only the financial system but also the risk capital profiting from the system.
And it’s the little things that have knock-on effects. If you are reading this, you know my perspective on rescission. But take, for example, the refusal of all parts of the political spectrum to recognize that the solution to a lack of affordable product is to reduce the price of the product, not to increase it and then try to come up with some sort of magic subsidy to more than make up the difference. And yes, housing is a product like any other. Or our lobbyist-driven insistence on ignoring the problems in our food supply, even though we know people are getting sick and we know how to prevent it.
The thing that was so refreshing about Obama in the primaries was the sense that he really understood the issues and had the courage to stand up for doing the right thing. And now that is gone.
So that was my year of thoughts and observations. I would be nice to imagine that I contributed to the national conversation somehow; about 69,000 people viewed my rescission post, so that’s a bit like getting the crowd at Lambeau Field to listen to me for a few minutes.
I would have had no readers whatsoever without the help of James Kwak at Baseline, Mike Konczal at Rortybomb, Felix Salmon at Reuters, Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism, and of course the incomparable Paul Krugman for a plug he has surely forgotten. For all of you who did find this spot – the folks who commented regularly, Albrt, Anne, Bond Girl, CrocodileChuck, Cyrano, DMW, Dutch Richardson, Economista Non Grata, Joe, Mark Hartzer, Mike3550, Pete Muldoon, Ribald, Sparhawk, StatsGuy, Stephen Dodson, Twist, WiscoDude – thank you very much for making this such a wonderful experience. I am the better for it, and I appreciate it.