Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Crisis Slouching Towards Us

NOTE: This is third in a series of four planned posts about how we make decisions as a society, and where our political leadership might be taking us. It is meant to be non-partisan, but my conservative-ness might slip through. In the first post,I discussed the difference between team thinking and crisis thinking, and how we seem to be demonstrating a team mentality while saying we are in a crisis. The second post considered the possibility that things aren't all that bad, but political marketing is making us feel the world is falling apart. This post looks at whether we are waiting for a crisis we know must come, but is taking its sweet time to get here. The final post will consider the possibility that our society is in fact splitting in two.

I was in a small meeting with a group of a half dozen smart and experienced marketers here in New York City, when the conversation turned to the screwed up-ness of our society and our politics. In no time at all, about half the group was discussing the steps they were taking to prevent the government from seizing their retirement assets in the event of financial collapse, how much cash you should take out of the bank and keep hidden under the proverbial mattress, and whether a shotgun or a pistol is the better home defense alternative. And the half not participating all had a look on their face that said, not "look at the conservative nut jobs" but "geez, I probably should start thinking about this stuff." Doomsday preparedness has, it seems, achieved a sort of mainstream respectability it completely lacked not too long ago.

This failure of leadership has been widely noted by the public: consider how abysmally low are the approval ratings for Congress, who are after all directly elected by the people expressing their disapproval. We often explain this seeming inconsistency by saying that a lot of people like their congressman alright, but hate the results of the whole assortment of them. But what if people are voting for the party they find less objectionable, because they accept the narrative that the other guys are mostly to blame, without any real faith in the individual they are electing? (As a personal observation, I've never voted for anyone, for any office, feeling that that individual was worthy of support. I've voted against people I thought would be awful leaders, and I've voted for certain expressed positions without much confidence in the person expressing them.)

Is our doom hanging over our heads? The problem is that we can't be sure. Maybe this is just the extended darkness before the dawn. But the belief people seem to have, regardless of political affiliation, is not that things are going to get better, but that we pulled back from the precipice briefly, but the problems are only getting worse behind the emergency barriers we've erected.

Where that crisis comes from depends on your political affiliation. When I talk to liberals, they tell me that that this is a crisis caused by our business and financial elites. In their telling, the system is rigged to enhance their power and earnings, and their narrow-minded selfishness is wrecking the fairness and the shared prosperity of the American system. Conservatives will blame different elites: those in the government and the heights of culture who want to overspend other peoples' money and try to solve deep rooted societal problems through heavy-handed federal intervention that's doomed to fail. Interestingly, one side's hero is the other side's villain. Liberals think the government can constrain the greed of businessmen. Conservatives lament that by constraining businessmen, government has exacerbated our financial problems, keeping the 'job-creators' on the sidelines.

This public split may actually be a core reason why a future crisis seems inevitable. If we can't even agree on who is driving us to ruin, how can we stop it? And each side identifying a cohort of wrongdoers who align with their preexisting politics disguises another possible answer: our business, our political and our cultural elites have all failed us. Peggy Noonan has noted that we seem to have elites in all walks of life who want to be cool instead of being leaders.

What I guess I'm suggesting is that, if we take off the partisan blinders, we might find that our problems are in no small part due to an elite that has become self-perpetuating and self-serving. This elite shares certain assumptions (about the virtue of a meritocracy created by a flawed college admissions system, for example) but more importantly, certain relationships. The fact that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have four Ivy League degrees between them is often cited as an example of their talent and drive, but rarely as an indication that leaders from both parties tend to travel in the same rarified circles. Increasingly, the elites from all walks of life come from the same background, which means they are broadly more sympathetic to each other than to those left behind by the modern world. It also means they lack the necessary sense of urgency to hold off the crisis dragging towards us: everyone they know is probably doing fine.

The problems we face don't have painless fixes. But our elites gain power by telling their supporters that they don't need to bear the pain, that it is the responsibility of the other side. So as long as the crisis is held at bay, they can retain their power through these cheap arguments. Which perhaps explains why the crisis is slow in coming: if there are short term financial moves that can be made to forestall it, our elites will grasp it, no matter the long term consequences. Because every day that they are in power is a day they can enrich themselves, and be told how wonderful they are by their cronies and hangers-on.

If the gut feeling expressed by my work colleagues is right, the crisis is coming for us like a zombie: slowly, but relentlessly. Our elites aren't thinking of that eventuality, but are playing for their short term advantage no matter what might be looming on the horizon. And the bulk of citizens, who intuit that things are going off the rails, can't find anyone they trust to fix the problem when they can't even agree on who's to blame.

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