New York, August 4: We have all heard the line, 'DA NILE is not just a river in Egypt.' Denial can be a pervasive social and political phenomenon. Some of us just don't want to know the truth or face its consequences. Maybe that's why we envelop ourselves in national myths to survive. We want them to be true. Remember the slogan, "What, me worry?"
Take our worsening financial and economic crisis. It's hard for many of us to believe it's happening. The President keeps saying the economy is sound. Our credit cards still work. We have had recessions before and the system rebounded. Why not this time? Have confidence. Be positive. Stop all this "whining:" Shut up, and things will get better.
That's the kind of response I have had even from progressives to the film, columns, blogs and book I have been producing on these issues. A plummeting economy, failing banks, rising unemployment, rocketing inflation just does not seem to engage the way the partisan wars do. We live in a sports crazed country, and a celebrity obsessed culture. We want to debate personalities, not problems. We like red carpets and balance sheets in the red. Anything else is a, uh, bummer, man.
When I made my film In Debt We Trust, some critics called it "alarmist." While it exposed the subprime rape of so many communities and even though it understated the calamity that we are now confronting, it was still considered by some too "scary" or "negative."
Some responded: "If people are deeply in debt, it's their fault." Who cares about all the slick marketing maneuvers by the big credit card companies? We don't seem to want to know as if the cultural zeitgeist mandates they mantra: 'Entertain us, don't inform us.'
When I began sending my book Plunder investigating this calamity around to publishers there was a similar response even though the market meltdown had begin. My patient and committed agent Victoria Skurnick made a serious professional effort to sell it but the buyers, who all said it is well written, weren't buying. They wouldn't accept its analysis.
I soon found that the denial and distraction I encountered in trying to distribute In Debt We Trust was also in vogue in the book-publishing world. There, "business" books must conform to certain genres/templates and story telling trumps analysis.
Tips on how to make millions sell; polemics on how we are all losing don't. People who are in the industry or comment on it -- often TV "names" -- have whole libraries of their books in circulation even though they have little to say. Just look at how much attention former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan's book received with nary a mention of his role in stimulating the subprime boom. (I even met the God-like authority on his book tour and he kindly signed a dollar bill for me!) Less well known "News Dissectors" and independents are not considered as part of these cognoscenti.
In a world dominated by markets, marketing makes the difference. One publisher I spoke to came right out with it: He didn't think it would pass muster with the book buyer at Barnes & Noble. No B&N, no book!
Mine is a book about the economic bubbles that burst. What I have encountered in trying to place it are cultural bubbles that haven't.
In the meantime, I continue to write blogs and commentaries about the threat of a further collapse of the system. Again, some responded by not reading my arguments but rather ventilating at me with a stream of simplistic slogans.
Writes one: "This is so stupid. A lot of the problem is Americans as usual spending more than they have and the dumb banks who let them get away with it. I feel sorry for neither." Never mind that individuals don't have the power of banks nor often understand how they have been defrauded! Writes another: " ...do you believe in God? Why? You've seen no proof of it. You don't have to see proof of a thing to see its results or consequences." Duh?
A third: "I think the media has to take a lot of blame for all the derogatory remarks written about the economy and this country day in and day out." Huh, it was the media that took billions in ads from deceptive mortgage and credit card companies and never investigated their scams and schemes. This writer adds: "PLEASE...just once in a while, write about something pleasant and with good common sense."
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A fourth: "As usual you don't have a clue, just fan flames.It is not Bush's bail out, its your damn demagogs , (sic).. you know the jack asses. Imploding economy, really?"
Trillions, lost, housing market in free fall, credit markets seized up, jobs gone, inequality deepening etc. etc. Really? Yes, really!
A fifth comment, and the winner in this circus of denial: "You're hysterical, and, worse -- out of focus!! Try saying something new -- and constructive."
Right, even as this knee-jerk "critic" ignores my report on an organization's constructive efforts to help 20,000 homeowners in distress.
Sadly, too many of us don't want to hear it because to hear it is to fear it, and to fear it is to feel impotent to change it. Easier, isn't it, to retreat into partisan certainties (or personal putdowns) without considering what that whopper of a just announced deficit will mean for any new federal programs in the future?
Even worse, tuning it out makes it harder to press to get white collar criminals on Wall Street prosecuted after they showed us that the biggest bank robberies today are not of banks but by banks.
In a curious way, the denial by the public and pols about the financial crisis mirrors the avoidance that was dominant in the financial world where so many knew something was wrong, said nothing and did less. A former investment banker, Abigail Hofman, wrote about this in the Financial Times:
"The subprime meltdown is a perfect example of the 'emperor has no clothes' phenomenon. These were complex products, yet obfuscation was considered acceptable. Bank chief executives should have asked more questions. I suspect they saw the juicy profits and hoped underlings understood the risks."
"...investment banking culture has a cult aspect to it. If you work on Wall Street or in the City, you toe the party line. Despite lip-service to 'diversity,' diversity of thinking is not encouraged. This atmosphere of craven conformity breeds at first complacency and then mistakes."
So if it can happen in that world, it can happen in ours; yes, even in the progressive community and among liberal Democrats who invest energy grousing about McCain and O'Reilly, and don't press Obama to engage with the deeper crisis. At best, his new 'emergency" plan only touches the surface.
It's always fun to shoot the messenger. It's like, if we don't admit it's happening, it will go away. Sorry, I hate to disillusion you: It won't.