Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Brink
These would be fascinating times except for the fact we have to live in them. Hour by hour, day by day, we're now seeing the full rank flower of 30-50 years of economic and political trends: the absolutist strain, able to perceive only total victory or utter defeat, in majoritarian-democratic politics; the ability of a solid faction, fermented in a closed informational loop, to throw into utter chaos a system consciously designed to force compromise and consensus by its many choke points; what happens when the Left altogether loses the courage of its ostensible convictions.

It's grimly satisfying to see the Republican establishment now shitting itself over its inability to corral the monster it created. The problem, again, is that we all will suffer the consequences--in higher interest rates, a double-dip recession, loss of national prestige--it won't be forgotten that we did this entirely to ourselves; smart economic and strategic competitors will bend themselves to thinking about how to get us to do this again (and indeed, other than 9/11 itself, what wounds have we suffered as a country over the last decade that weren't self-inflicted?)--and the greater likelihood that the same attention-deprived electorate that empowered this right-wing suicide cult will blame the well-intentioned but feckless Obama for the downturn, and replace him with a fellow-traveler of the people who brought this on us.

I don't know what the answer is; I doubt anybody does. Our economy and our politics each seem to reinforce the worst tendencies of the other; probably the same could be said of either with the culture that informs and encompasses both. The traditionally recommended remedy--more democracy--seems too susceptible to money and manipulation to pull us out of it; other means are both repellent and impractical.

What's kind of mind-blowing is that we're at the precipice of something profound and transformative, maybe more than anything in our lifetimes, and the protagonists--almost everyone on the right, and surely more than a few on the left--are still scrabbling for tactical advantage and trying to ensure that the other side eats the blame. I suppose they can't do otherwise, but that too says a lot about the bad road we're on.

Yet we can't just put this on the politicians. That they seem to reflect the country so well--in its smallness, selfishness, and myopia--is maybe the most discouraging element.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The All-Stars of American Decline
In honor of the MLB all-star selections announced today, as well as Independence Day weekend, I’m handing out some honors of my own: the All-Stars of American Decline.

These aren’t the people “responsible” for our regrettable perch at the precipice: that distinction is probably best reserved for, one, the public officials and unelected political actors who have made the decisions that led us to imperial overstretch, fiscal teetering, and embedded (and legal) corruption of our business and political spheres; and two, the shapers of culture and popular opinion, mostly entertainment executives and media moguls, who have eroded our attention spans, blunted our compassion and capacity for reflection and nourished our appetite for spectacle. If you read this site, you know what I think of Grover Norquist and Rupert Murdoch. No, these are the folks who less caused the problems than embody them.

Right up at the top, and the inspiration for this idea, is the political pundit Mark Halperin. He’s in trouble, suspended from his job, for having called the president “a dick” after his White House press conference the other day. A notorious hack even by political pundit standards, Halperin personifies the despicable Beltway mindset that views politics in a way entirely disconnected from the real-world effects of public choices. What was absolutely typical of his work wasn’t the pseudo-controversial remark, after a few minutes’ buildup of "oh, I'm about to be NAUGHTY!," but rather the total absence of observation or analysis of how the ideologically extreme and frighteningly irresponsible positions of the negotiators in the budget reduction meetings might have prompted the president's ire.

(And, as notes, he's not even good at it. Mike Allen of Politico is just as hack-y in approach, but at least he brings something to the table as a journalist. Halperin's both insipid and dumb as shit.)

I don’t think I have the stomach to fill out a whole lineup of Decline All-Stars, but we can round out a top five of individuals and types. There’s Bristol Palin, her mother’s daughter in every respect with the absence of discernable talent, pronounced mean streak and evidently unlimited self-regard.

(Actually, self-regard is the consistent element of all these selections: despite a pretty much total lack of tangible accomplishment or demonstrated ability, they think the sun shines out of their collective ass. This is the sense in which these individuals embody our shared problem, which—to simplify, but not all that much—boils down to an inability to accurately assess ourselves.)

There’s Terrell Owens, who’s a somewhat problematic member of this club because he evidently is talented—exceptionally so—and at times has shown himself a hard worker to boot, as when he rehabbed furiously to suit up for the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. But Owens is narcissistic at a level that might shock even these other narcissists: he wrecked a series of very strong football teams (most famously the 2005 Eagles), and now seems more interested in his reality TV show than anything else. (I heard a rumor that he tore his ACL working on the show, which I desperately want to believe, but can’t find anything to substantiate it.)

There’s every Wall Street asshole who made obscene money shorting the economy without any adverse consequence, then whined anonymously to the press—see this New York magazine story as the example—about how upsetting it’s been to be vilified by the president and others. The selective perception and willful historical amnesia of this group is also sadly representative of our larger problems; so too the absence of any meaningful policy correction to ensure that we don't repeat the mistakes of 2008 as the next bubble inflates.

And finally, because we can’t and shouldn’t let democracy itself off the hook, there are Representatives Anthony Weiner and Michele Bachmann. Congresswoman Batshit you know about, so I’ll just note that her total absence of legislative accomplishment or thought leadership on anything non-crazy would disqualify her from aspirations to higher office in a more functional country. As for Weiner, while I’m sympathetic to the view that his personal life is his own and that the Democrats showed their usual fear of their own shadows in pushing him offstage so quickly and insistently, there’s no arguing that his judgment and self-control were all-time awful. And that he evidently hit a wrong button—being old and tech-impaired, I don’t grasp how Twitter works, but my understanding is that he accidentally made public the dick-pic that was intended to be private—adds a comical element. Also, that his name is WEINER and he did all this.

Having watched the guy for a few years and met him once (he came to the think tank where I used to work for an off-the-record conversation in 2008, when he was expecting to run for mayor the following year), none of this was all that surprising. There was always a strong whiff of opportunism. presumption and entitlement to Weiner. His core political identity was that of an outer-borough moderate-to-conservative Democrat, which was how he ran against Freddy Ferrer in the 2005 mayoral Democratic primary. But as a more assertive Democratic left began to cohere online, he perceived, I suppose to his credit, that there was an opportunity to win fans and raise money by remaking himself as a loud ’n’ proud lefty. He’s by no means a dumb guy, though he’s also not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Before the scandal, probably his most revealing moment was when he dropped out of the 2009 mayoral race, basically admitting that he didn’t want to risk his career against Bloomberg’s billions. As we now know, he might well have won had he stuck it out.

More principled people tend to take those risks, fighting for something larger than themselves. Which again is why Weiner joins this list.