A DIY Economic Recovery

by david

(guys, I’ve buried the lede massively here, so feel free to skip to the last few paragraphs)

Over the past couple years I’ve become exactly the type of political creature I fear most: the cynical, dejected type. I still follow the news (too closely), and still like a handful of elected officials. I’m occasionally surprised and encouraged by somebody crossing party lines or saying something plainly true but politically unwise. But these are exceptional, not typical, moments of enthusiasm.

I like the President. I really do.* I think he understood the danger of a broken political system and (perhaps unfortunately) felt he had sufficient mandate to chart a new path of cooperation between the parties to get us out of the terrible mire we were in at the beginning of 2009. Maybe he overestimated the strength of his argument, especially up against the power of corporate money in politics. Maybe he underestimated how much of his governance would be constrained by his own need to raise dollars of his own in a few short years. Regardless, I think he understood the problem.

But I worry he’s too cautious to solve it. Remember all those articles in the early months, when members of his administration were leaking to everybody they could that he was reading a mountain of books about “transformative presidencies?” Bet they wish they could take those leaks back. (Cheerleaders, lead us in the cliche now: UNDERPROMISE! YEAH YEAH! OVERDELIVER! YEAH YEAH!) I haven’t read that mountain of books, but I wonder how many of their subjects were as timid and polite and deferential in their leadership as President Obama is. If his goal was to transform politics, then his strategy was to negotiate with a hurricane. I’m not talking just about the Republicans (although their complete failure to recognize–let alone address–the common good makes them the Marlo Stanfield of negotiating partners); the whole of Washington is currently structured to hear and respond to the complaints of those with money and access (occasionally someone without money gets access, but only if they’ve been funded by someone with money, like the Gates Foundation). He tried to fix our broken politics by flattering the practitioners of our broken politics.

One example of how this works: Paulson and Bernanke, and then Geithner and Bernanke, called urgent meetings of Congressional leadership to demand unprecedented action on behalf of Wall Street, and truly, the moment was dire. A collapse of the banking system would have been catastrophic. Great Depression Part II level catastrophic. So, we benefited from urgent government action. But the second part of the urgent action, correcting the underlying problems so that we a) are safe and b) don’t have to do something so unfair and unpalatable again, was never pursued so vigorously. That effort was compromised from the beginning because every seat at the table was filled by big money, employed by big money, or elected with the support of big big money. With that team, it was inevitable that the stimulus would be watered down with tax breaks and corporate incentives and that the financial reform would be toothless.

You don’t have to believe that they all sit around the urgent meeting table chuckling and stroking white cats (well, not all of them). If you want to give them the benefit of the doubt**, try this: when they think about the effects of reform, their first thoughts are of what happens to the world as they see it and experience it. Big money makes big money off of low interest rates, unregulated markets, and mortgage loans staying on the books rather than being accepted as losses. Higher interest rates squeeze profit margins, regulation of markets reduces their information advantage, and having to face the sad reality of the bad loans they issued will lead to actual nearterm losses.  They feel that they’d already experienced pain, and plenty of it (I suspect that bankers also believe they have a *right to profit*, rather than a *right to seek profit*, but that’s probably a post for another day).  And all of that additional pain, and shareholder revolts, and all the rest that powerful people fear is avoidable if they just draaaaaaaag their damn feet. Of course, we’re not getting out of this mess until we stop lending the banks free money for them to lend back to us at a profit, until we slow their ability to inflate speculative bubbles, and start to thrash our way through the reality of home prices and loan losses. Every person at the urgent meeting table probably knows this. But they’re either a)benefiting or b)constrained by those who are benefiting. Unless we had a generation of elected politicians willing to commit mass electoral suicide, they will be constrained.

And this, to bring it full circle, is why I’ve been so dejected. One party is now utterly devoted to fulfilling the needs of the wealthiest individuals and the most powerful corporations, and the other is mostly devoted to fulfilling the needs of the semi-wealthy and the most powerful corporations, hoping the pennies they squeeze from them can ease our slide into national obsolescence through a combination of Head Start and windmills. Our political problems are mostly self-reinforcing.

We need actual transformation, and I don’t think it can come from the political class. As much as I like President Obama, I think he should have kept the campaign approach, not the campaign staff. At least when campaigning he talked about audacity. Now, audacious is something the other side does, daily pissing away the principles and values the country is built on. Only they do it so regularly it’s mundane. Mundane audacity. There’s something.

What are our options?

President Obama: I’m pulling for him, because he still could do it, and do it the fastest. But he has to transform our politics before he can transform our economy, and he has to transform his politics before he can transform our politics. He continues to bargain with bullies, thinking they’ll see reason.

Elizabeth Warren: She’s great. Can we elect 33 (and 218) of her next year? That might make a dent.

Occupy Wall Street/Boston/Los Angeles/Toontown: I’m hopeful. Not optimistic, but hopeful. I’m not ready to live in a tent with them, but that’s just because I haven’t been laid off yet, and have to defend my desk and paycheck from the marauding 99%. (See, it’s pernicious, this perspective we bring to the urgent meeting table). Seriously, I’m all for this movement. They have almost cracked my cynical, dejected shell. Their success is in some ways dependent on the emergence of spines in politicians, or the election of new politicians, so it’s a long road ahead of us if this is the road.*** Since the road is long no matter, I probably ought to start shopping for a tent, or at least drop off some supplies soon.

DIY: Occupy Wall Street is probably a part of this, although I have something more practical, slower, quieter, and less relevant in mind. Something that, even if it makes no difference at the macro level, will improve my life. I want to link to the last two chapters and the new appendix to Douglas Rushkoff‘s Life Inc., but they’re, uh, in a book, and I don’t like to type that much. What I recommend is that you read those chapters and that appendix, and then you don’t have to read my considerably shorter, but less useful next few paragraphs.

I want to join a CSA. I want to buy local. I want to purchase fewer goods and services from branded players I’ve never met and who know me as an account number. I want to bank with a credit union and invest in neighborhood shops and get involved in neighborhood issues. I want to push good people to run for public office. If someone other than an enormous telecom wants to sell me good internet access, I’ll take that local. I’m all ears.

Is this hippie naivety? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Our politicians mostly maintain a system that helps those who’ve accumulated wealth write and enforce rules to protect and accelerate that accumulation. I can’t spend enough to be heard in that system. But I can direct more of my spending away from that accumulation, to build little pockets of capital in places that don’t disgust me. I can work with people to cooperate and compromise on important matters in which Washington is irrelevant, and live a pretty good life feeling good about actual accomplishments instead of  feeling rage that I can’t get my way on a national scale.

Will these first steps fix the economy? No. Hell no. No and no. And if lots of people don’t do them, they won’t ever. But here’s why I’m a little bit guardedly optimistic: I’m a pretty normal guy. I’m feeling very, very detached from the things that the major media tells me I’m supposed to care about a lot. I suspect that most people are feeling that detachment. This is part of Occupy Wall Street’s fuel. We know we’re not supposed to be living like this. We know it shouldn’t all be so desperate and impersonal. We know only a stranger or an asshole would cheat us on a mortgage, and as we get to know people well, we discover that few of them are really, truly assholes. You can only be easily treated with crass dismissal if  you are a single ballot or a line on a spreadsheet. But if you build more of your life tighter with people who know you as more, you won’t be crassly dismissed. And as an upshot, your local economy will be healthier. It’s not hippie crap: it’s Adam Smith.

Nobody at the urgent meeting table in Washington has any of us in mind, not truly. They probably think they do. But they’re not allowed. Their days are filled meeting with people who don’t have us in mind, and their calendars are filled with the follow-up meetings to brief those people on results. The rest of us are treated like barn cats: not overtly abused, but generally left to our own devices, fed some scraps if they’d otherwise be wasted, and yelled at when we get underfoot.

If we want a recovery, I think we have to do it ourselves.

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*I am at a complete loss on how to reconcile his continuation and enhancement of Bush/Cheney era war and surveillance policies with the rest of his presidency. If we face an “existential threat” from the enemies we’re pursuing, it is we, not they, that will end our own existence. We’re eroding the best of ourselves to defend the worst of ourselves. But again, another post for another day.

**I actually do, most of them, most of the time.

***The other way they can change things fast is to change the vocabulary, to inject new ideas and thoughts into the mainstream. The standard media coverage of them right now frames them as G8-summit-style protesters, but increasingly you can’t ignore that they’re more demographically interesting than that. It’ll be harder and harder to ignore the words coming from mouths that look like your neighbors’. No matter what neighborhood you’re from, your neighbors are starting to show up.  Well, unless your neighborhood has a gate. In that case, your guards are starting to show up. Getting these ideas into circulation is long overdue: we can only expect so much airtime for Vermont senators.

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