Monday, March 24, 2008

Too Many Crises?

This morning's New York Times column by Paul Krugman, which I happen to read at SPIEGEL ONLINE because I have come to find them a more informed source than the Times often is, has the headline, "Financial Crisis Should Be at Center of Election Debate." This may well be the case; but, back when I was worrying about how I would vote on Super Tuesday, it seemed as if Krugman was putting the health care crisis as the center of the debate with his meticulous analysis of the differences between the plans being proposed by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Then, speaking of the Times, there was this morning's article by Richard Pérez-Peña about the "crisis" status of the war in Iraq at a time when the American death toll has passed the 4000 mark:

Media attention on Iraq began to wane after the first months of fighting, but as recently as the middle of last year, it was still the most-covered topic. Since then, Iraq coverage by major American news sources has plummeted, to about one-fifth of what it was last summer, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The drop in coverage parallels — and may be explained by — a decline in public interest. Surveys by the Pew Research Center show that more than 50 percent of Americans said they followed events in Iraq “very closely” in the months just before and after the war began, but that slid to an average of 40 percent in 2006, and has been running below 30 percent since last fall.

The 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry was awarded to The Age of Anxiety, a long poem by W. H. Auden that sought to dig into the souls of ordinary people in a time of crisis (the crisis in this case being the Second World War and the people being patrons of a bar in New York City). Auden's poetic analysis, however, had the literary advantage of being able to confine itself to one crisis at a time. Today's "age of anxiety" is one in which crises are coming at us from every conceivable direction. Not only is it too much for any of us to sort out in any sensible way, but it seems as if those who would lead us are no better off. Our current leadership holds to a faith-based optimism, which seems to lack all sense of reality; and, while there was enough substance in the proposals for health care to warrant the depth of analysis that Krugman provided, the discussion of Iraq has been top-heavy with good intentions and, as Krugman pointed out in his column today, all of the candidates have been depressingly weak in their efforts to address economic matters.

What is lacking is nothing less than sheer cowardice in the face of an intimidating pile of problems, each of which is of crisis proportions. I attribute it to what I have called our "cultural fear" of thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios. The prevailing wisdom is that one cannot get elected by talking about how bad things are, even when the ultimate message is one of how to make them better. In other words the demands of politics outweigh the demands for clear and analytic thinking applied to crisis management. The reason is summed up in one simple precept: You can't solve any problems unless you get elected. However, one of the more important general lessons that we could take from the final season of The Wire was that, even after you are elected, you may still not be able to do anything about those problems, particularly if your "political future" counts for more than the problems of the present. Personally, I suspect that the real liability in talking about how bad things are is that most of the people who hear you know this already and are just plain reluctant to believe in any solutions you have to offer. They certainly are skeptical about any solution grounded in "theory."

This brings us back to the Great Depression. The debate over whether or not the New Deal programs actually ended that economic crisis is less important than the fact that those programs dealt with practice, rather than theory. They provided people with things to do at a time when they were deep in the psychological depression of helplessness. They are also a product of a mentality that accepted a significant pragmatic principle, as articulated by Franklin Roosevelt:

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.

It is not that we are drowning in more crises than we could have conceived but that we all seem to feel as if nothing can be done about them. Unless voters start hearing more about practice, they may be too (psychologically) depressed by November to have much will to vote at all; and that would really be a worst-case scenario!

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