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Archive for the ‘performativity (bad)’ Category

frank rich’s problem and ours

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Frank Rich, as he often does in his best Sunday pieces for the NYT, gets into the seam to shout the obvious that the rest of the press cynically or idiotically ignores – in this case the fact that, for all the attention that’s been paid to Obama’s hawkish selections for State and Defense, his economic team is cut from the selfsame mold. In short, with both the imperial wars and the economic crisis, the very people who were involved in creating the problem are now going to be the ones appointed to pull us out…

This is what Rich is so good at, the emperor-has-no-clothes column, and this is what we’ve loved him for. But it is a love tinged with serious frustration as well, with this column no less than all the brilliant and brave ones he’s written about the war and terror over the past near-decade. We are frustrated because while he’s courageous at sniffing out the problem, he seems to stop just short, perpetually, of naming the real reasons for the disorder he describes.

Rich’s thesis today is that the economic team Obama’s assembled resembles the cabinet put together by Kennedy – JFK’s team of boy-wonders that somehow, despite their brilliance tumbled us into Vietnam. The payoff paragraph argues that it is an issue of personal defects, individual hubris, that makes these people make poor choices in crucial situations.

No, it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.

Geithner was no less tardy in discovering the reckless, wholesale gambling that went on in Wall Street’s big casinos, all of which cratered while at least nominally under his regulatory watch. That a Hydra-headed banking monster like Citigroup came to be in the first place was a direct byproduct of deregulation championed by Rubin and Summers in Clinton’s Treasury Department (where Geithner also served). The New Deal reform they helped repeal, the Glass-Steagall Act, had been enacted in 1933 in part because Citigroup’s ancestor, National City Bank, had imploded after repackaging bad loans as toxic securities in the go-go 1920s.

[…]

Post-Iraq, we’re unlikely to rush into a new Vietnam. But we ignore the past’s lessons at our peril. In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.

But of course, lots of people are a bit too smart for their own good – probably everyone and anyone who’s likely to be appointed to run Harvard or the US economy falls into the same camp. I would be willing to bet that the hubris Rich is naming is a constant in the managerial ranks of any society. No, the deflection that Rich performs here psychologizes or even theatricalizes that which is attributable to bad ideas. It transmutes a corrupt and corrupting ideology into a personal failure, an idiosyncratic flaw.

I hate to sound reflexive, to sound like I’m parrotting the party line, but the problem with Rich’s work – now and throughout the decade – is that as brave as he is in naming what is hiding in plain sight, he systematically refuses to lay blame where blame is due. In this case, neoliberal economics – the self-suspending rope ladder of financialization. We are to blame Rubin and Summers personally, just his earlier columns urged us to blame Bush and Rumsfeld and Rice personally. Rich has all the makings of a brilliant social analyst, a wide-angle reader of the American situation. But when he brings right to the heart of the darkness that he describes, we find not systems and ideas but always a soul in crisis, a man on the verge of sin or deep in sin and trying to scrabble his way out of it. We “blame Bush” – and, as is clear even from Rich’s column today, it is becoming ever more clear that the removal of the stumbling villain from the stage might not be the cathartic crisis point that augurs the end of the horrible piece we’ve been watching.

Still, I need to take care. Rich is brave, but not brave enough. My own argument here has become a performative repetition of the very problem I’m trying to diagnose in the column. I have ended up blaming Rich for casting personal blame when broader, structural claims are required….

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December 7, 2008 at 11:33 am