Monday, September 15, 2008

Bush-Speak Redux

I suppose it was inevitable that President George W. Bush would address the nation in the wake of the fall of Lehman Brothers. When the BBC NEWS Web site provided an account of his remarks, I realized that it might be interesting to compare them with what he said last March when the Federal Reserve rode in on the white horses to rescue Bear Stearns. Back then it seemed as if his basic message was the following:

One thing is for certain, we're in challenging times. But another thing is for certain: We've taken strong, decisive action.

This time the tone was slightly different:

I know Americans are concerned about the adjustments that are taking place in our financial markets.

In the White House, and throughout my administration, we are focused on them and we are working to reduce disruptions and minimise the impact of these financial market developments on the broader economy.

The difference, of course, is one of tense. When Bush spoke about Bear Stearns, the problem had already been resolved, probably without his having anything to do with the solution. This time, at least from Lehman Brothers' point of view, the problem was not solved; so the present-tense language is all about keeping yet another shoe from dropping. The times are still challenging, but the challenge is more threatening. Indeed, it is challenging enough that he knows better than to raise any false hopes:

In the short run, adjustments in the financial markets can be painful, both for the people concerned about their investments and for the employees of the affected firms.

Unfortunately, he could not resist a long-run observation again:

In the long run I'm confident that our capital markets are flexible and resilient and can deal with these adjustments.

Last March it was:

In the long run, our economy is going to be fine.

At that time I felt it wise to cite someone with more economic credentials than our President, invoking one of the more famous remarks by John Maynard Keynes:

In the long run, we're all dead.

As I pointed out earlier today, whether the White House is talking about deliberations or actions, that talk always seem to have something to do with the poor getting stuck with paying for the problems made by the rich. Did Bush reassure me that current activities will be any different? Of course he didn't. What happened to Lehman Brothers may be seen as a major casualty for the rich in their War Against the Poor, but it is hardly a sign that the tide of the War is turning in favor of the poor.

Will the tide turn when the White House has a new occupant. The BBC report from the campaign trail was not particularly encouraging. Here is the Republican side:

Mr McCain blamed the problems at Lehman Brothers on "ineffective regulation and management".

He said he was "glad to see" that no taxpayer money was being used "to bail out Lehman Brothers".

'Serious crisis'

He called for "major reform" that would "replace the outdated and ineffective patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight in Washington and bring transparency and accountability to Wall Street".

There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but I was glad to see Barack Obama make it sound as if John McCain was closing the barn door after the horse had been stolen (by thieves implicitly, if not explicitly, endorsed by McCain):

Mr Obama implicitly attacked President Bush for the economic situation.

He blamed "the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression" on "eight years of policies that have shredded consumer protections, loosened oversight and regulation, and encouraged outsized bonuses to CEOs while ignoring middle-class Americans".

"Too many folks in Washington and on Wall Street weren't minding the store," he said.

This is nice as far as it goes, but I feel a need to say, one more time, that remedial action will not do very much unless it is accompanied by a full-scale rethinking of our economic policy. If that rethinking does not reassess the current dangerous priorities accorded to maintaining wealth vis-à-vis getting out of poverty, then we are going to get four more years of business-as-usual, regardless of who ends up in the White House. This is the perfect opportunity for Barack Obama to demonstrate that his "audacity of hope" is more than shallow rhetoric; and I, for one, believe that ignoring that opportunity will seriously disadvantage him.

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