mercredi 24 octobre 2012

Famous Men

With just under two weeks to go until election day, I would like to crawl under a rock and hibernate. And I don't even live in a swing state. I swore I would not set foot in the US for as long as George W. Bush was in the Oval Office but ended up returning to the US to live before he slunk away, never to be seen again. It was a strange time: the entire American public seemed to have given up on or even actively repudiated Bush, his policies, his politics, his wars, his neocons... As his presidency wound down, the subprime crisis emerged and the housing bubble burst. This came as no surprise to me, a virtual newcomer to the US, where everyone I met was involved in the mortgage refi or real estate business, or was married to someone who was. This can't be a good sign, I thought. Turns out it wasn't. (Note to the 40-somethings who were riding high during that time but who have since lost jobs and extra cash: you are crazy if you think a Romney presidency will bring those crazy money jobs back. Once Romney eviscerates the mortgage interest deduction,the housing market will scream in pain.) I'll never forget where I was when I heard, on the radio, that Lehman Brothers had collapsed. I was driving south on I-5 to join my husband for a post-charity golf tournament dinner. I literally looked up at the sky, to see if it was falling. The election of Obama marked a turning of the page, symbolically, but many people seem not to have realized that the economy, in free fall, would have to bottom out before it could begin to heal. Since my work involves deciphering economic texts, I was privy to what the non-partisan economists - most of them not American - thought about the global financial meltdown. They all agreed it was a long overdue and hence necessarily brutal correction, and they all agreed that the recovery would take a long time to materialize and that it would be characterized by weak job creation. Guess what? They were right! Let's not dwell on these complex matters. Let's instead just say that, given the slow nature of the recovery and the weak net job creation numbers to date (partly due to the huge number of jobs that disappeared, see above), it is amazing that the sitting President has never fallen behind his challenger and often has in fact led in the polls. This can only be due to one thing: an incredibly weak and lunatic field of Republican contenders resulted in an incredibly mediocre, hollow and unfit candidate, the man we know as Mittens. Had the Republicans come up with a strong or even adequate Republican candidate - someone with genuine, enlightened conservative values, substantial governing experience and charismatic leadership skills - they would be running ahead in this campaign. Instead, they chose someone who exemplifies everything that is wrong with latter-day capitalism and the corporate mindset. If Mittens does end up pulling out a victory, it will not be due to his leadership, experience, genuinely conservative worldview or anything like that. He does not have any of those things because he is fashioned out of silly putty. It will be due to voter intimidation and chronic mendacity combined with that lethal, uniquely American blend of apathy, fear and greed. The stock market took a big tumble yesterday, falling by something like 248 points on worse than expected corporate earnings numbers. According to the corporations in question, these disappointing numbers are attributable to the global slowdown (led by slower Chinese growth, now at single digits) in general and the European recession in particular. Okay, this is logical: US corporations are multinational, in part, ironically, to spread their risk of exposure to economic cycles. When Chinese GDP growth is double digit, this is good for everyone who does business with and in China. When the Euro Area is relatively strong, trade is more robust for everyone. This is called globalization. As a CEO, Mittens knows all about this. Which brings me to my next question: if Mittens is elected, and after he has spent the week repealing Obamacare and rolling back a half-century of women's rights, how is he going to create 12 million jobs if America's trading partners are suffering? I'm afraid that while America's multinantional corporations can "explain" their poor performance by pointing to slower growth in Asia and a recession in Europe, American voters will see this as an excuse, and an inexcusable one at that. As a CEO, Mittens is probably used to dictating a set of "must have" numbers and then getting them. This would be a lot harder to accomplish if he were CEO of America. These days, I find myself thinking about the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I read it as an undergraduate and have never forgotten either the austere, gripping photos (by Walker Evans) or the complex, poetic text (by James Agee), documenting the lives of three white sharecropper families living in Southern Alabama during the Great Depression. The foundations for what we think of as the social safety net were laid at this time by FDR. He succeeded Hoover, who had presided over the start of the Great Depression and who made things worse by stubbornly clinging to the idea that business would correct the economy without government interference. When that did not pan out, he said let the state and local governments take care of the problem. The problem was that they simply did not have enough money to cope with the magnitude of the misery. And the rest, as they say, is history. And as we know, those who do not learn from history tend to repeat it.
A Walker Evans photo from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men