Thursday, January 08, 2009

One Hand Clapping for Robert Reich

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 1/08/09

Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, called up for advise by President Elect Obama, should be singled out for this lucid observation on the current world economic crisis: Anyone who tells you they know what is going on, he says, doesn’t know what is going on.

It is a refreshing pitch in a day when we are compelled forward almost compulsively by Nobel laureates who take their cues from Isaac Asimov and Ayn Rand, most influential New York Times columnists who would feel fully estranged in Seattle or Austin, reporting from Paris as if it was just yesterday that Hemingway liberated the Ritz – I guess we really will always have Paris, Ilsa – and plumbers who speak garbage but we actually listen because they tell us they are good Christian men.

These and so many other things tell us that we have come to the end of something; something in the culture which has nothing to do with the technical tunings of the economy. The question is, what?

It is also comforting to know that Reich’s advice doesn’t come from Asimov or Rand, but is a modification of Lao Tsu, who, as a countervailing force to Confucius, helped keep China on course for more than two millennia: Those who know, don’t say. Those who say, don’t know. Like Lincoln, we see ourselves on the river again and can only see to the turn of the bank. Like Lincoln, we have no idea what opens past the bend ahead.

“To listen to the pundits, one would think that today’s banking crisis and financial meltdown is something rare and exotic,” John Lauritz Larson writes in the LA Times. “But people who stayed awake in history class know that financial panic is a familiar ‘plot devise’ in the drama of modern capitalism. Speculation has been followed by collapse at least as far back as the South Sea bubble of 1720.”

That would have been near the beginning of something. Something that first got underway when Elizabeth I granted 200 billionaires license to start the East India Company and point their ships to the East.

The West’s journey to the East may have finally reached its limit: There are no more Indias to invade, no more Americas to colonize. Everything ends; journeys, generations, narratives, centuries, millennia, economies. The East is heading back to us.

The history of panics ought to remind us that independence was the first objective of America’s founders, writes Larson, but these days, we cannot retreat into semi-subsistence, grow our own food and sit tight under our own vine or fig tree.

Why not, again? The creative part of the process at the current moment is in the recognition that the themes we have been using – Krugman, Greenspan, Hamilton, Marx, Keynes, Elizabeth I, Roosevelt, Clinton, Obama – may no longer suit the times. Times change and every motivating vision becomes irrelevant in time. But when this creative recognition is barely breached today, it is always followed by a caveat: But of course we can’t do anything other than what we have always done before, even if it insures failure. Because we have not yet imagined anything else which suits our boat on the river as we enter the new century and the new millennium.

And so we – Obama – default to Roosevelt and the nostalgicos at the liberated Ritz of the 40s.

What again is wrong with sitting under our own fig tree? Economic cycles come from somewhere or rather, they are a manifestation of Americans and others going somewhere - heading West generally, in an American narrative, until there is no more West to get to. Things end and the American journey West ended at the Pacific.

Late in life Ambassador Kennan, embittered with the American condition, proposed a division of America into 12 regions. I would not suggest or support independence, and it is a vision only of the alienated, but regionalizing the economy into 12 culturally distinct regions with semi-autonomous economic purposes and functions would have the beginning effect of strengthening community tier economies. It would encourage local rather than global trade for stuff that is here already; it would build and strengthen regional economies and cultures like the Pacific Northwest and New England and it would defend them against the vicissitudes of globalization which is sketchy at best and dangerous at worst.

As Howard Dean said up here when he was governor, "We have more in common with the eastern provinces of Canada than we do with Texas.”

It would be only common sense to live like that; to do business first with those we are common with, and second then to those with whom we are not.

4 comments:

Marilyn Richard said...

Mr Quigley,
your post has been on my mind for several days with the question that you posed as to what has ended in our culture. May I suggest that it is trust?

What can be trusted? The financial institutions and their so-called regulatory bodies? Turns out my grandmother was correct about the mattresses. Madoff has shaken the trust of the moneyed class and will ultimately hurt the poor.

Can you trust that can of dog food to not kill your beloved pet? Do you suspect the beef you eat could turn your brain to mush?
Will that toy your grandchild has in his mouth poison him?

There is no news, just news product that you have to constantly sift through to find nuggets of truth.

When the holders of the highest offices in the land deceive and are lawless with no punishment or remorse it breeds cynicism.

Mr. Reich's comment is refreshing because it rings of truth. Truth. What an untried concept in these times.

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