What We Don’t Know Will Hurt Us
AND so on the 29th day of his presidency, Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill. But the earth did not move. The Dow Jones fell almost 300 points. G.M. and Chrysler together asked taxpayers for another $21.6 billion and announced another 50,000 layoffs. The latest alleged mini-Madoff, R. Allen Stanford, was accused of an $8 billion fraud with 50,000 victims.
"I don't want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems," the president said on Tuesday at the signing ceremony in Denver. He added, hopefully: "But today does mark the beginning of the end."
No one knows, of course, but a bigger question may be whether we really want to know. One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans' reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly "changed everything," slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable. Obama's toughest political problem may not be coping with the increasingly marginalized G.O.P. but with an America-in-denial that must hear warning signs repeatedly, for months and sometimes years, before believing the wolf is actually at the door.
This phenomenon could be seen in two TV exposés of the mortgage crisis broadcast on the eve of the stimulus signing. On Sunday, "60 Minutes" focused on the tawdry lending practices of Golden West Financial, built by Herb and Marion Sandler. On Monday, the CNBC documentary "House of Cards" served up another tranche of the subprime culture, typified by the now defunct company Quick Loan Funding and its huckster-in-chief, Daniel Sadek. Both reports were superbly done, but both could have been reruns.
The Sandlers and Sadek have been recurrently whipped at length in print and on television, as far back as 2007 in Sadek's case (by Bloomberg); the Sandlers were even vilified in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch last October. But still the larger message may not be entirely sinking in. "House of Cards" was littered with come-on commercials, including one hawking "risk-free" foreign-currency trading - yet another variation on Quick Loan Funding, promising credulous Americans something for nothing.
This cultural pattern of denial is hardly limited to the economic crisis. Anyone with eyes could have seen that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire resembled Macy's parade balloons in their 1998 home-run derby, but it took years for many fans (not to mention Major League Baseball) to accept the sorry truth. It wasn't until the Joseph Wilson-Valerie Plame saga caught fire in summer 2003, months after "Mission Accomplished," that we began to confront the reality that we had gone to war in Iraq over imaginary W.M.D. Weapons inspectors and even some journalists (especially at Knight-Ridder newspapers) had been telling us exactly that for almost a year.
The writer Mark Danner, who early on chronicled the Bush administration's practice of torture for The New York Review of Books, reminded me last week that that story first began to emerge in December 2002. That's when The Washington Post reported on the "stress and duress" tactics used to interrogate terrorism suspects. But while similar reports followed, the notion that torture was official American policy didn't start to sink in until after the Abu Ghraib photos emerged in April 2004. Torture wasn't routinely called "torture" in Beltway debate until late 2005, when John McCain began to press for legislation banning it.
Steroids, torture, lies from the White House, civil war in Iraq, even recession: that's just a partial glossary of the bad-news vocabulary that some of the country, sometimes in tandem with a passive news media, resisted for months on end before bowing to the obvious or the inevitable. "The needle," as Danner put it, gets "stuck in the groove."
For all the gloomy headlines we've absorbed since the fall, we still can't quite accept the full depth of our economic abyss either. Nicole Gelinas, a financial analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute, sees denial at play over a wide swath of America, reaching from the loftiest economic strata of Wall Street to the foreclosure-decimated boom developments in the Sun Belt.
When we spoke last week, she talked of would-be bankers who, upon graduating, plan "to travel in Asia and teach English for a year" and then pick up where they left off. Such graduates are dreaming, Gelinas says, because the over-the-top Wall Street money culture of the credit bubble isn't coming back for a very long time, if ever. As she observes, it took decades after the Great Depression - until the 1980s - for Wall Street to fully reclaim its old swagger. Not until then was there "a new group of people without massive psychological scarring" from the 1929 crash.
In states like Nevada, Florida and Arizona, Gelinas sees "huge neighborhoods that will become ghettos" as half their populations lose or abandon their homes, with an attendant collapse of public services and social order. "It will be like after Katrina," she says, "but it's no longer just the Lower Ninth Ward's problem." Writing in the current issue of The Atlantic, the urban theorist Richard Florida suggests we could be seeing "the end of a whole way of life." The link between the American dream and home ownership, fostered by years of bipartisan public policy, may be irreparably broken.
Pity our new president. As he rolls out one recovery package after another, he can't know for sure what will work. If he tells the whole story of what might be around the corner, he risks instilling fear itself among Americans who are already panicked. (Half the country, according to a new Associated Press poll, now fears unemployment.) But if the president airbrushes the picture too much, the country could be as angry about ensuing calamities as it was when the Bush administration's repeated assertion of "success" in Iraq proved a sham. Managing America's future shock is a task that will call for every last ounce of Obama's brains, temperament and oratorical gifts.
The difficulty of walking this fine line can be seen in the drama surrounding the latest forbidden word to creep around the shadows for months before finally leaping into the open: nationalization. Until he started hedging a little last weekend, the president has pointedly said that nationalizing banks, while fine for Sweden, wouldn't do in America, with its "different" (i.e., non-socialistic) culture and traditions. But the word nationalization, once mostly whispered by liberal economists, is now even being tossed around by Lindsey Graham and Alan Greenspan. It's a clear indication that no one has a better idea.
The Obama White House may come up with euphemisms for nationalization (temporary receivership, anyone?). But whatever it's called, what will it mean? The reason why the White House has been punting on the new installment of the bank rescue is not that the much-maligned Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is incapable of getting his act together. What's slowing the works are the huge political questions at stake, many of them with consequences potentially as toxic as the banks' assets.
Will Obama concede aloud that some of our "too big to fail" banks have, in essence, already failed? If so, what will he do about it? What will it cost? And, most important, who will pay? No one knows the sum of the American banks' losses, but the economist Nouriel Roubini, who has gotten much right about this crash, puts it at $1.8 trillion. That doesn't count any defaults still to come on what had been considered "good" mortgages and myriad other debt, whether from auto loans or credit cards.
Americans are right to wonder why there has been scant punishment for the management and boards of bailed-out banks that recklessly sliced and diced all this debt into worthless gambling chips. They are also right to wonder why there is still little transparency in how TARP funds have been spent by these teetering institutions. If a CNBC commentator can stir up a populist dust storm by ranting that Obama's new mortgage program (priced at $75 billion to $275 billion) is "promoting bad behavior," imagine the tornado that would greet an even bigger bank bailout on top of the $700 billion already down the TARP drain.
Nationalization would likely mean wiping out the big banks' managements and shareholders. It's because that reckoning has mostly been avoided so far that those bankers may be the Americans in the greatest denial of all. Wall Street's last barons still seem to believe that they can hang on to their old culture by scuttling corporate jets, rejecting bonuses or sounding contrite in public. Ask the former Citigroup wise man Robert Rubin how that strategy worked out.
We are now waiting to learn if Obama's economic team, much of it drawn from the Wonderful World of Citi and Goldman Sachs, will have the will to make its own former cohort face the truth. But at a certain point, as in every other turn of our culture of denial, outside events will force the recognition of harsh realities. Nationalization, unmentionable only yesterday, has entered common usage not least because an even scarier word - depression - is next on America's list to avoid.
© 2009 New York Times