Monday, December 22, 2008

The Economic Elephant

It would be unfair to describe the Book TV broadcast of a panel discussion on the economy organized by The Washington Post as three blind men grabbing at an elephant. For one thing only one of the panelists, Thomas Friedman, was male, although he compensated for his minority status by definitely being the most myopic of the group. The women on the panel, Barbara Ehrenreich and Michelle Singletary, could not be accused on blindness, although in a situation as complex as this one, it is often hard to tell the difference between sharp focus and tunnel vision. I suspect that I tended to see focus in Ehrenreich's remarks because they were so sympathetic to my own. Much of Ehrenreich's writing has examined the lives (perhaps it would be more accurate to call them "survival tactics") of the so-called "working poor" and the widening of the gap that separates their incomes from those of the wealthy. Ehrenreich is a champion for those of us who react strongly against Main Street being forced to foot the bill for the mistakes made by Wall Street, and she would probably even reject my one grasp at optimism in the belief that Wall Street cannot survive without Main Street. However, I was advocating that position on the basis of economic theory and history. Ehrenreich is neither an economist nor a historian. She is a journalist who usually shares David Simon's intuitive talent for anthropological field work without necessarily making any claims to anthropological training. She goes into the field of the working poor the way Simon has gone into the field of urban Baltimore to examine its decay from multiple points of view. She thus distinguished herself from both Friedman and Singletary by coming to this panel informed by data, rather than anecdotes and factoids; and I can hardly fault her for wanting to focus on data while all around her preferred to ignore the data by telling pleasant stories.

Singletary is also a journalist who apparently covered some of the same Baltimore beats that Simon did; and, while she now writes the nationally syndicated column, "The Color of Money," for The Washington Post, her performance on this particular panel was closer to that of a motivational speaker. Like Ehrenreich she has been exposed to the world of the working poor; but, if that exposure was limited to her grandmother ("Big Momma"), then it is easier to accuse her of succumbing to tunnel vision. There is nothing wrong with her holding up Big Momma as a model for how to live frugally; but, in the current crisis conditions, motivational lectures about the virtues of frugality are about as helpful as just-say-no sermons were for dealing with drug addiction. Indeed, to the extent that consumerism is, as I have suggested, just another form of addiction, Singletary was basically bringing Nancy Reagan into the arena of personal finance management.

Friedman's myopia is best understood in terms of his single-minded focus on creating wealth, even when surrounded with those trying to get their heads wrapped around the problem of poverty. Listening to his mile-a-minute declarations, one could easily wonder whether or not the noun "poverty" is even in his working vocabulary. Another noun that appears to be absent from his vocabulary is "bubble," which means that he is blithely oblivious to factors that cause economic bubbles, as well as the consequences that arise when those bubbles burst. Nevertheless, his rhetorical style carries such a compelling sense of conviction that he is a real-life embodiment of the Old Lady in Maria Irene Fornes' musical Promenade, whose one major song includes the lines:

I know everything.
Some of it I really know.
The rest I make up.

One has to be very alert in reading Friedman to catch him when he is making things up, and following his flamboyant speaking style is even more challenging.

Needless to say, meaningful discussion among such different minds is about as unlikely as the three blind men finally coming to agreement about what an elephant it. The result was more like a something-for-everybody variety show. Some were probably ready to shell out their money to buy Friedman's wealth-making patent medicine. Others were content to nod knowingly at the stories of Big Momma's lessons in frugality. My guess is that few wanted to hear Ehrenreich talk about all those poor who are still scraping at the door, and that does not bode well for Barack Obama's intentions to get us all to work together towards repairing our seriously broken economic system.

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