Monday, February 9, 2009

The Literature (SIC) of Alarmism

Once again Peggy Noonan has been inhaling the fumes of Delphi to earn her keep as a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Apparently the name of her column is Declarations. I am not sure how this label came to pass. However, it is certainly the case that her text is dominated by sentences of the declarative type, which, unless I am mistaken, was also the favored type of the Delphic Oracle. The Oracle, however, was always wise enough to form ambiguous declarative sentences, which could offer at least one reading that turned out to be true. Noonan, on the other hand, tries to avoid ambiguity in her declarations and never seems to worry about whether or not they turn out to be true. Perhaps she assumes that each declaration will be true "in the long run," even if John Maynard Keynes recognized that this may be too far in the future to matter very much.

When last I sampled Noonan's prose, she was looking for Arthur Miller in airports and (without knowing it) finding Thomas Stearns Eliot. Last Friday she shifted her attention to reviving the faith-based mentality of the Bush Administration (whose stock seems to be doing better in Israel these days) by peddling the same kind of alarmist snake-oil that sustained so much of the rhetoric on which that Administration tried to rely:

Tuesday I talked to people who support a Catholic college. I said a great stress is here and coming, and people are going to be reminded of what's important, and the greatest of these will be our faith, it's what is going to hold us together as a country.

Furthermore, she seems to have thrown her own polemic efforts behind raising the tone of such alarmism:

On Wednesday, in an interview with Politico, Dick Cheney warned of the possible deaths of "perhaps hundreds of thousands" of Americans in a terror attack using nuclear or biological weapons. "I think there is a high probability of such an attempt," he said.

When the interview broke and was read on the air, I was in a room off a television studio. For a moment everything went silent, and then a makeup woman said to a guest, "I don't see how anyone can think that's not true."

I told her I'm certain it is true. And it didn't seem to me any of the half dozen others there found the content of Cheney's message surprising. They got a grim or preoccupied look.

However, she also seems to know that these days the economy strikes more fear in the hearts of her readers than terrorism does:

The national conversation on the economy is frozen, and has been for a while. Republicans say tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. Democrats say spend, new programs, more money. You can't spend enough for the Democratic base, or cut taxes enough for the Republican. But in a time when all the grown-ups of America know spending is going to bankrupt us and tax cuts without spending cuts is more of the medicine that's killing us, the same old arguments, which sound less like arguments than compulsive tics, only add to the public sense that no one is in charge.

The flaw in this kind of jeremiad is that it presumes that there ever was a "national conversation on the economy." Certainly, if we honor the spirit of Jürgen Habermas and view conversation as a socially-based "communicative action" through which individuals of differing viewpoint arrive at understanding, then we can take the paucity of understanding of current economic conditions as an indicator of the lack of successful conversation. This has been a long-standing problem where economics is concerned. There is a joke that probably goes back at least as far as the Truman Administration that, if you put three economists in a room, you will end up with six opinions. However, in the current crisis we are faced with a particularly complex system of mathematical models and decision-making processes, whose complexity, in at least some key instances, was deliberately designed to circumvent regulatory standards and practices. That very complexity inhibits conversation by fostering the assumption that understanding can no longer be attained and can only be relegated to some elite cadre of experts whom we feel we can trust. The best the rest of us can do is appreciate the scope of that complexity through the sorts of declarative sentences that someone like Jeff Madrick can provide us in the pages of The New York Review (most recently in the February 12 issue) without the benefit of Delphic fumes:

In response to the demand for mortgages by pension funds, investment managers, banks, hedge funds, and others across the globe, mortgages were easily granted; banks and mortgage brokers lowers the interest rates on mortgages charged to home buyers in order to attract more customers. It was principally the investor appetite for the mortgage-based securities that led to the mortgage-writing frenzy in the 2000s, not encouragement by the federal government to lend to low-income home buyers.

This is sobering stuff, but it is not the stuff of Noonan's polemics. Noonan would have us forget that we can be sensible adults (applying knowledge of how we got into the mess to find our way out of it) and revert to being those scared children that George W. Bush thought he could comfort. Will she succeed? We have already witnessed at least one faith-based foray into the heart of Wall Street; but this was probably an isolated incident. We may get a better indicator this evening at Barack Obama's first Presidential press conference. We should have plenty of evidence on which we can draw coming from both the sorts of questions put to him (Will Noonan be there?) and both the logic and rhetoric that Obama engages in his answers.

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