Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 July 2011

To Default, or Not to Default: The Political Angle


Yesterday I explained a few of the catastrophic consequences of the GOP’s attempt at default extortion, whether or not it actually causes a default. Some of them are starting right now.

As I re-read that post for typos today, it occurred to me that some readers might mistake my intent. They might infer that, in warning of the horrendous practical consequences of a near-default, let alone an actual one, I am implicitly advising the President to back down, get the best deal he can, and kill the risk of default ASAP, at all costs.

That I am not doing.

Smart and honest people can recognize people smarter than themselves. My training and experience, I think, occasionally give me insights into particular fields that even the President might heed. Among those fields are engineering, science, some aspects of economics (especially energy), and some aspects of finance.

But in politics I am a student at the master’s feet.

In the last two decades we have learned that there are two kinds of human intelligence: analytical and emotional. Careful readers of this blog will understand that most of it focuses on analysis, with only occasional forays into politics. The reason is simple: while my analytical intelligence is high, my emotional intelligence is unremarkable. It is nowhere near as extraordinary as the President’s.

As I have written before, the President’s emotional intelligence is literally off the scale. You have only to read his first book to know that. And how do you think a “black” man became president of a country still fighting the Civil War in every way but armed struggle—and still influenced, if not dominated, by Southern culture in a myriad of hidden ways—and did so in a mere four years, from a standing start with his 2004 keynote speech?

On more than a few occasions, I have wondered why the President was doing what he did. On some, I had the temerity to second-guess him. On every such occasion, save those in which the ball is still in play, I was able to see his strategy once the dust had settled. And his strategy was successful. The President had been two or three steps ahead of me at every stage of the game.

For me, the most striking example was his handling of Hillary Clinton during the brutal Democratic primary campaign. Not only did the President win. Not only did he avoid alienating independents and moderates by overreacting to her campaign’s vile racist tinge. He also managed to keep Hillary on his team and gain enough votes from understandably disappointed women to put himself in the White House. White women were among his most important constituencies and still are. That’s political skill!

Today the President’s position is similar to Harry Truman’s in late summer 1945. Then Truman faced Imperial Japan’s fanatic and ingrained military culture. Japan had armed children as young as fourteen with firearms, bayonets and swords. It had taught them to resist any invasion by the “barbarians” to their last drop of blood. And it still had under arms the millions of hardened combat veterans who had made the long retreat home.

My late uncle was then a surgeon in our Navy. He partook in the planning for a massive, million-man seaborne invasion of the Japanese mainland. He later told me that our leaders had expected casualties so high that no doctors would appear in the invading force for the entire first day. Medical corpsmen would be the first care givers, and even they would not be sent until the third wave. The first two waves expected 100% casualties.

It was under these circumstances that Truman had do decide whether or not to drop atomic bombs on Japan. We had only two of them, although we could have made more given enough time.

Knowing their awful and devastating power, some in the Cabinet advised Truman to do a “demonstration” first. They urged dropping the first bomb in the sea and creating a tidal wave. Military leaders, who had fought for nearly four years against a ruthless, resourceful, and fearless foe, advised that a mere “fireworks” display would accomplish nothing but depleting our small stockpile of weapons by 50%. Truman had to make the decision, all alone.

Just so the President today. He faces a determined, irrational, utterly intransigent culture of social and economic nihilism. Every person who can think (and that’s where analytical intelligence can be helpful) can see how Republican ideology has been a contributing cause, if not the primary cause, of virtually all of our ills today. It was directly responsible for the Crash of 2008 and the two needless and endless wars that we are now belatedly trying to wind down. And there is no doubt whatsoever that GOP ideology has, in less than two generations, converted human history’s most successful economic system—our New Deal culture of intelligently regulated capitalism—into something midway between the robber-barons’ primitive klepto-capitalism and the corporate fascism of Nazi Germany.

Politically, the forces that the President faces are every bit as intransigent and irrational as the armies of Imperial Japan. They see no facts, evidence or reason. Loyalty to a fixed and pre-determined plan is their sole criterion for evaluation, and total victory for their misguided policies is their aim. Their principal (and sole rational) apologist, David Brooks, admitted as much yesterday.

More terrifying still is the nature of the political foe the President faces. Today’s GOP has collected every racist, nativist, xenophobe, homophobe, Christian fundamentalist, apocalyptic, gun nut, illegal militia member, immigration vigilante, conspiracy theorist, political paranoid, acquisitive petit bourgeois, angry Archie Bunker, and unenlightened rich or near-rich miser as its “base.” And it has exploited, if not created, the most outrageous but effective propaganda machine in human history to do so.

Some of this happened by accident, and much of it by design. But make no mistake. Under the right circumstances, this dangerous, deranged rabble, whose “leaders” in Congress now follow it rather than lead, could have a fighting chance of turning our great democracy, with all its thousands of nuclear weapons, into something resembling Nazi Germany, but without the overt racial scapegoating.

This rabble has been led to believe that our current predicament, which was thirty years in the making, is the President’s fault. Their faith in their leaders’ utterly fact-free, irrational vision is deep and far beyond reason. And they are now beginning to force their “leaders” to go where even their own dim intelligence suggests the wise do not tread.

It is increasingly clear that nothing but a catastrophe will open, let alone change, these small and dangerous minds. I myself have written as much.

So the President has a peacetime decision to make as consequential and vital as Truman’s wartime one. Should he hope that a mere demonstration, such as Minnesota, will bring the rabble back to reality? Or will it take a real economic catastrophe—a near-default or actual-default—to wake up enough of them to break the spell of GOP fairy tales and set our nation on an upward course again?

No mere analytical intelligence can answer these questions, certainly not mine. How much of a shock it will take to awaken nearly one-third of our population (and a significant fraction of its so-called “leaders”) from a mass psychosis is a matter of emotional intelligence and refined judgment. Those are precisely the qualities for which I helped elect the President.

Polls show that the public will rightly blame the GOP for any chaos and hardship that ensue. The President seems to believe them. I do, too. Certainly I and everyone I know understand who is to blame.

But in the end, the decision is a matter of hard judgment, just like Truman’s decision to drop the bomb.

Would a smaller “demonstration” catastrophe like Minnesota suffice? Can we temporize and hope for a better, less catastrophic “teachable moment”? Or if we wait for another year or two, will our society have gone too far down the road to fascism for any teachable moment to matter? Is this, in fact, our last chance to change our national psyche and national direction before the next financial crash or oil-price shock destroys our ability to reason together entirely?

These are questions for the President to answer. He alone has the one-in-a-million combination of analytical and emotional intelligence. He alone has demonstrated practical understanding of this nation’s collective psyche again and again, in moments of extraordinary pressure and tension.

That’s why he’s the President. There is no one in public life today whom I would trust more to make that hard decision.

Whatever decision the President makes, I will stand by him 100%, if only because I can see no obviously correct course. Better than most, I can foresee the hard consequences of a default, or even a near default. But I also can foresee the equally disastrous consequences of giving in to the sort of dangerous, irrational, treasonous extortion that the GOP now presents as its excuse for “policy.”

The better course may be to let the worst happen, just to show even the slowest among us what the GOP are made of today, and then try to minimize the awful consequences. I’m just glad I don’t have to make the decision myself.

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