Monday, February 09, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Leisure Class: Carly Fiorina for Governor of California

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 2/09/09

My father was born in 1899. He was an electrician – he put the beacon light in the tallest building in Providence, RI, early in the century and he shut the lights out in the last factory to leave Fall River, Massachusetts, and head south after the Great Depression. Through most of that time he worked in factories as did most of my relatives; all of whom on my mother’s side, dozens and dozens of cousins, half cousins and great aunties, had come over from Ireland together just at the turn of the century.

There is so much talk of those days now because of the Obama bill going back to the House this week; talk of Hoover, talk of Roosevelt and talk of John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist between the wars.

“There are very few economists who really buy into Keynesian theory anymore,” says The Hill columnist Dick Morris. “Keynes felt that people would react automatically to a few dollars in their hands. Consumers would run out and buy new products, and businessmen, seeing the uptick in sales, would rush to open new plants and hire new workers who would, in turn, generate more demand.”

I seem to have distinct memories of that time although I wasn’t even born then. But I remember that world as my parents remembered Ireland, although it was a place they had never been; it resonated around the house, floating in the background like a clear tenor voice on the radio in another room; the voice of John McCormack, the Grand Maestro, singing A Little Bit of Heaven. Apparently for many, it still does.
I once asked my father what they did before the Great Depression when they weren’t working.

They went dancing, he said.

How often, I asked?

Every night, he said. They went dancing every night.

It’s different today. People are different.

Some thoughts for the Roosevelt nostalgicos and the Hoover nostalgicos: In the mid-1920s when Keynes predicted people would spend money if it was thrown at them, he was right, they would. That is because they had nothing else to do with money but dance. They lived in the present – a good and sensible way to live. The common people did not see money as something they would need to prepare for old age; that is, something to put in a 401k fund, a retirement fund, a nest egg; dotcom stocks or Wall Street investments, as they did in the 1990s when a vast swath of middle-class Americans were invested in the stock market. For that - for looking to the future - they had kids. The money the Keynesians gave to them for free they used for dancing.

It came to mind recently when an old friend said not to worry about the state of the economy and the future it demands because, as we get older, “ . . . our kids will take care of us.”

We hope and expect they won’t have to. But we do have kids. And not this week, but soon it will be time, as the Walrus said when Victoria’s age was just beginning to go to pieces, to think of many things, meaning difficult things and things we usually don’t like to think about normally. And we will begin to review again why we have kids and why we don’t.

That time could come sooner than we think; next week possibly or by early March if the Obama group fails in the administration of bank bailouts and the stimulus/spending bill. The best observers among us, including New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Jim Rogers, the commodities guru, suggest the obvious path; the path of nature: The weak banks have to die or they will kill the strong banks. The strong banks have to survive.

I don’t think they will do it because Obama and his administrators have not shown themselves to be the kind of people who have the courage to do difficult things. Many of them have shown themselves to be expedients. So far it has shown itself to be an administration of delightfully soaring rhetoric, style and the cool, as Miles Davis designed “cool” to be a noun and an object. But cool is not what you want in a President. It’s what you want in Miles Davis.

If they don’t this, it will be the turning point.

Rule of thumb if fate casts you as it has Iceland this week and maybe Ireland next week and you have to look to your kids for support as you age because American money, on which you have staked your entire existence, is suddenly not worth much of anything: First, one of two children would not be enough. It would be an unfair and unjust economic burden to put upon them. Four to six was the usual model – you might call it a “general theory” of family in the Keynes era of love and work. Second, the kids would have to like you. They would have to love you or they just wouldn’t do it.

Revolution is another option. Like what they are calling the Saucepan Revolution in Iceland where a lot of older people who were a little rich just a few weeks back are beating sauce pans outside government buildings, demanding action of some kind to try and get their money back; demanding something from a government which has nothing to offer. But in our global economy this is a little like the Marie Antoinette crowd revolting against the King while the peasants face starvation. Just because we have out-sourced the working class – in the case of the current declining economic cycle primarily the 130 million girls, more child than woman, who left countryside to labor in China’s Pearl River factories to work 50 hours a week for $50 a month in the greatest migration in human history – does not mean that we have not been enriched by their efforts.

So what are the options? Possibly for very many of us, there are no options. Possibly the leisure class revolutionaries like those in Iceland demanding action today are the Decembrists of our time; the original Russian intelligencia – revolutionaries who had the character to declare themselves superfluous in the 1820s.

When President Obama placed an op-ed in the Washington Post the other day to pitch his stimulus/spending plan, Mitt Romney was there the next day explaining the plan’s pitfalls. It appears that Romney was there at the editor’s bidding and not on his own suggestion as his comments were culled from a speech he had given recently. Which suggests that the bookies in Los Angeles and at the Washington Post are beginning to put their money on Romney and helping to prepare the way already for Romney in 2012. No doubt he sees the way himself.

Romney, who offered and supported a much smaller stimulus package, made the point that stimulus spending should follow the economic karma. Spending should head in the direction of projects that are likely to be built anyway. Stimulus spending should help them get there.

In other words, government intervention in the economy should follow the contours of history.

How hard is that?

Very hard.

We today are at a new sign post; a “between” – a Tibetan word meaning something like death. We are facing a new era and a new “post”: there was post-colonial, which brought my father’s people here in the 1840s, then the post-industrial, which gave my grandmother’s people work. Later, if they were smart, some of them went on to invest in Wall Street. That’s the new “post”: We are in a “post investment” phase or a “post Wall Street” phase.

This is the new “post.” As Victoria’s rise marked the end of an era built on the grazing and shipping of Cotswold sheep across the world in wooden sailing ships, so Roosevelt ended a vast world empire built on Anglo-American manufacturing. And Bill Clinton, our own Queen Victoria, marked the end of an empire built on massive, class-wide individual investment.

But that is not where this American journey ends. A recent poll tells us that half of all Americans would like to move. And most want to move to these four cities: Denver, San Diego, Phoenix and Seattle, all western cities.

That is where it ends: California, Seattle, the Pacific Northwest. And that is where it begins again. This – heading west – has always been the American way of progress and new beginnings and will continue to be in the foreseeable future.

California is at the moment, in a state of political free fall. It is the center of our current disorder; the spot on our map where we as a people began to lose confidence. It must be there – not Washington or New York – that we begin to turn it around.

Romney is good but Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packer and key McCain advisor in 2008 is good too. And she is considering running for Senate, it is reported.

She might instead run for Governor.

“One of the things about leadership is that you have to see things before other people,” she told Charlie Rose. To date, she has.

Both parties now have tried everything; movie stars, professional wrestlers, stand-up comedians, relatives, Sunday-school teachers, musicians and celebrity singers. It is a management task, and Fiorina is a legendary manager.

And she is a Californian and California is our most import state as it is the end of our American journey and the place where we face our fate today across the Pacific.

I’ve felt that the nostalgia binge is a kind of secular malaise or illness; historically, people begin to look to the past when they can no longer see their way to the future. Until we square up to the times, we will not recover. And until we recover we will not begin again.

And recovery will begin at journey’s end, in California.