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

27 December 2009

Learning to Love Logic

[For an extension of my analysis of our rotten financial sector to student loans, click here.]

Year’s end is a time for “wrap-ups.” This time we have not just one year to wrap up, but a decade.

The decade now passing was one of greed, excess, undiscipline and arrogance. It started with the “dot-com” bubble and ended with a mortgage-housing bubble and near economic collapse. For me, its defining cultural image was the Texas TV mega-preacher declaring “Jesus wants you to be rich.” Apparently he had never heard the Biblical proverb of the camel and the needle.

If ever there was a national funk of our own making, this was it. A strong and wise polity would have responded to 9/11 far differently, both at home and abroad. The attack seemed so world-changing only because we were weak and slow to adapt to both international terrorism and globalization, which are related. After all, hijacking and terrorism have been with us for at least four decades.

Most of us would like to forget who set the decade’s tone: Dubya. A legally stolen election, monotonous repetition of simplistic economic fairy tales, an optional war of Oedipal vengeance, and an apotheosis of private greed did not utopia make. Even after nearly a year of rational government, the mental image of Dubya’s swaggering, bullying stupidity still sets my teeth on edge. I cannot bear to see his face or even his name, which fortunately have lately achieved an unaccustomed seclusion.

But we humans cleave to the positive. So my betting is that most pundits will focus on the last year. That’s the one that gives us hope, and there’s enough to talk about there.

Amidst the mostly useless deadline-induced chatter, one signal rises above the noise. Pundits from the right and left don’t seem to know what to make of the President. Liberals suspect him of selling out “his” progressive ideals, some of which he never expressed. Honest conservative pundits like David Brooks express open admiration, which makes liberals even more nervous. Harder-core conservatives like Ross Douthat see the President as something of a split personality heading for a fall.

The wonder is how quickly national culture changes. For those of us of a certain age, a well-known cultural icon provides an easy path to understanding the President: Spock. Not the real Dr. Spock, who wrote my parents’ generation’s baby books, but the fictitious one: the half-Vulcan, half-human commander from Star Trek.

That Spock is one of the most finely drawn characters in all of video science fiction. His Vulcan ancestry and training allow him to control his emotions to the vanishing point. Yet his iron control hides a human soul.

At first Spock seems odd—a cold and lifeless humanoid, a sort of bionic computer. But as the episodes roll by and you get to know him, he grows on you. His awkward attempts to understand human outbursts and humor endear him. His extreme understatement evokes chuckles. Slowly you come to see that, beneath his relentlessly logical mind, he shares your human cares and values. So there comes a time when the pointy ears seem to vanish and Spock becomes another admirable—even lovable—human video hero.

Maybe that’s why accepting Barack Obama was so easy for us Boomers. We grew up with Spock.

Spock may have been fictitious, but his likeness to the President is uncanny. Both are half-and-half in racial background. Both are preternaturally cool and rational—in Spock’s lexicon “logical.” Both distinguish themselves under terrible pressure, as everyone around them succumbs to fear, rage or other unhelpful emotions. It makes you wonder where we would be if this president had been at the helm on 9/11.

The President won his election and governs with Spock-like serenity. He demands the same style of his crew. “No drama Obama” indeed. Even for those unfazed by his unusual background, his superhuman control can seem unearthly.

In the most recent Star Trek movie, an über-villain named Nero destroys Spock’s home planet and murders 10 billion innocent Vulcans. Near the movie’s end, Spock refers to this demon as “a particularly troubled Romulan.” As I chuckled, the President’s image came unbidden to mind, calling the outrageous campaign lies about him “inaccurate.” In a world of bombastic, self-righteous self-promoters telling wild tales of braggadocio and doom, factual understatement can be endearing.

That’s why I think so many are so wrong about the President’s (temporarily) waning popularity. The dip is not a sign of more to come. Many voted for him just to see the back of Dubya and his party. They hoped that ridding ourselves of our most incompetent, jarring “leader” in postwar memory would magically solve all our problems. Now they are coming to terms with the fact that changes in leadership are the beginning, not the end, of changes in our lives and status. The cultural era now ending was rotten to the core; it’s going to take a few years to drive out the rot.

Progressives, too, are disillusioned. Didn’t Dubya try to ram through radical changes with a smaller mandate and majority in Congress? Why isn’t the President—or at least Rambo Rahm—talking openly about dropping the “nuclear option” and banning filibusters once and for all? Why doesn’t the President shout more at those fiendish bankers, who trashed the people’s economy and now are eating the lunch they paid for?

It takes a while to get to know and love Spock. The perennial tension between emotion and reason and how it bears on our humanity are among Start Trek’s key themes. Once you see how cool logic can bring order out of chaos, or even save the day, the pointy-eared fellow becomes far more sympathetic. When you begin to suspect that he shares your own feelings deeply, your comfort grows. All that will happen with the President, just as with Spock.

Over course events in real life will make the difference. David Brooks thinks Obama will win people over by 2012, when he has next to run himself. But Brooks wonders whether he can win them by next November, as he must to keep his majority in Congress.

The answer is an old saw: a year is an eternity in politics. By next November, the President will have health care firmly under his belt—an enormous achievement. The sky will not have fallen on patients or doctors, further dispelling whatever credibility the Boehner-McConnell (and now McCain) cult of obstruction may have left. Some kind of financial reform will have become law. If members of Congress have any idea of the popular rage out here (which they will see during these holidays) it will have teeth. The president will have made progress in curbing greenhouse gases, if not by legislation then by agreement, regulation and industrial policy. If our military forces do as good a job fighting and politicking in Afghanistan as they did in Iraq, our “surge” will be starting to show results.

Most of all, by next year economic revival will be apparent to everyone, although not everyone will yet have a job. The impact of the stimulus is just now reaching its peak and will have had several months to work. The revival of animal spirits now boosting the stock market will have hit business generally, and hiring globally will revive, with China in the lead. The investigations of wrongdoing just starting will see some of architects of our financial collapse doing perp walks. Next November will look far sunnier than the blizzards of today.

So don’t count our President Spock out yet. Many would like to see him vent for us and govern with an iron fist. Some are still confused by the lies of last year and the far right’s relentless disinformation campaign. Yet slowly but surely, people will come to understand that a master of the art of the possible is not a revolutionary Marxist, that an incrementalist is no radical, and that a man who never raises his voice really does care about making our lives better. The unusual (for a president) skin color and name will vanish from memory. What will remain is a soothing image of an extraordinarily bright, wise and practical leader, who treats serious problems with the gravity they deserve and, underneath his cool exterior, cares deeply.

After eight years of cowboys in the White House, the Justice Department and just about everywhere else, that style takes some getting used to. But like Spock’s, it grows on you. Logic does not help wave banners, but it does the job. A practical, caring logic like the President’s, which values millions’ health care above the orthodoxies of both left and right, is something we’ve not seen here for a long, long time.


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