The Day the Earth Still Stood

What Will Obama Inherit?

Inauguration day!

Gazillions of Americans descended on Washington. The rest of us were
watching on TV or checking out streaming video on our computers. No one
was paying attention to anything else. Every pundit in sight was
nattering away all day long, as they will tomorrow and, undoubtedly,
the next day about whatever comes to mind until we get bored. And in
the morning, when this post is still hanging around in your inbox,
you'll be reading your newspaper on... well, you know... the same things:
Obama's speech! So many inaugural balls! Etc., etc.

So I'm thinking of this post as a freebie, a way to lay out a little
news about the world that no one will notice. And all I can say -- for
those of you who aren't reading this anyway, and in the spirit of the
clunky 1951 sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still -- is: Klaatu barada nikto!

Okay, no actual translation of that phrase (to the best of Wikipedia's knowledge)
exists. We do know that, when invoked, the three words acted as a kind
of "fail-safe" device, essentially disarming the super-robot Gort
(which arrived on the Washington Mall by spacecraft with the alien
Klaatu). That was no small thing, since Gort was capable not just of
melting down tanks but possibly of ending life on this planet. Still, I
remain convinced, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the phrase
could also mean: "Whew! We're still here!"

Though I skipped the recent remake of the film, which bombed (so to speak), I consider this post my remake, though with a slightly altered title:

January 20, 2009: The Day the Earth Still Stood.

Klaatu barada nikto has, by the way, been called "the most
famous phrase ever spoken by an extraterrestrial." After watching the
final press conference of George W. Bush, I wonder.

Now, whether Bush was the extraterrestrial and Dick Cheney the super
(goof-it-up) robot, or vice-versa, is debatable, but whatever the case,
let's celebrate the obvious: We're still here, more or less, and
they're gone. Dick Cheney to fish and shoot. George W. to think big, big thoughts at his still-to-be-built library.
Let's face it, on the day on which Barack Obama has taken the oath of
office, that constitutes something of a small miracle. But a nagging
question remains: just how small?

Or rather, just how large is the disaster? If the Earth still stands, how wobbly is it?

In fact, our last president -- in that remarkable final news conference of his ("the ultimate exit interview," he called it) in which he swanned around, did his anti-Sally Fields imitation (you don't like me, right now, you don't like me!),
sloshed in self-pity while denouncing self-pity, brimmed with anger,
and mugged (while mugging the press) -- even blurted out one genuine,
and startling, piece of news. With the Washington press corps being
true to itself to the last second of his administration, however, not a
soul seemed to notice.

Reporters, pundits, and analysts of every sort focused with laser beam predictability on whether the President would admit
to his mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere. In the meantime, out of the
blue, Bush offered something strikingly new and potentially germane to
any assessment of our moment.

Here's what he said:

"Now, obviously these are very difficult economic
times. When people analyze the situation, there will be -- this problem
started before my presidency, it obviously took place during my
presidency. The question facing a President is not when the problem
started, but what did you do about it when you recognized the problem.
And I readily concede I chunked aside some of my free market principles
when I was told by [my] chief economic advisors that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression.

"So I've told some of my friends who said -- you know, who have taken
an ideological position on this issue -- why did you do what you did? I
said, well, if you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression,
I hope you would act too, which I did. And we've taken extraordinary
measures to deal with the frozen credit markets, which have affected
the economy."

Hold onto those "worse than the Great Depression... greater than the
Great Depression" comments for a moment and let's try to give this a
little context. Assumedly, our last
president was referring to his acceptance of what became his
administration's $700 billion bailout package for the financial system,
the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.
He signed that into law in early October. So -- for crude dating
purposes -- let's assume that his "chief economic advisors," speaking
to him in deepest privacy, told him in perhaps early September that the
U.S. was facing a situation that might be "worse than the Great

then, the Bush administration had long publicly rejected the idea that
the country had even entered a recession. As early as February 28,
2008, at a press conference, Bush himself had said:
"I don't think we're headed to a recession, but no question we're in a
slowdown." In May, his Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Edward
Lazear had been no less assertive:
"The data are pretty clear that we are not in a recession." At the end
of July in a CNBC interview, White House Budget Director Jim Nussle
typically reassured the public this way: "I think we have avoided a recession."

By late September, the president, now campaigning for Congress to give him his bailout package, was warning
that we could otherwise indeed "experience a long and painful
recession." But well into October, White House press spokesperson Dana
Perino still responded to a question about whether we were in a
recession by insisting, "You know I don't think that we know."

Lest you imagine that this no-recession verbal minuet was simply a
typical administration prevarication operation, for much of the year
top newspapers (and the TV news) essentially agreed to agree. While
waiting for economic confirmation that the nation's gross national
product had dropped in at least two successive quarters, the papers
reported increasingly grim economic news using curious circumlocutions
to avoid directly calling what was underway a "recession." We were
said, as former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan put it
in February, to be at "the edge of a recession," a formulation many
reporters picked up, or "near" one, or simply in an "economic
slowdown," or an "economic downturn."

At the beginning of December, the National Bureau of Economic Research,
a private group of leading economists, made "official," as CNN wrote,
"what most Americans have already believed about the state of the
economy" (no thanks to the press). We were not only officially in a
recession, the Bureau announced, but, far more strikingly, had been
since December 2007. For at least a year, that is. Suddenly,
"recession" was an acceptable media description of our state, without
qualifiers (though you can look high and low for a single major paper
which then reviewed its economic labeling system, December
2007-December 2008, and questioned its own coverage.) Recession simply
became the new norm.

Now, as times have gotten even tougher, it's become a commonplace turn
of phrase to call what's underway "the worst" or "deepest" economic or
financial crisis "since the Great Depression." Recently, a few brave
economic souls -- in particular, columnist Paul Krugman of the New York Times -- have begun to use the previously verboten "d" word, or even the "GD" label more directly. As Krugman wrote recently,
"Let's not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a
second Great Depression." But he remains the exception to the public
news rule in claiming that, barring the right economic formula from the
new Obama administration, we might well find ourselves in a situation
as bad as the Great Depression.

Now, let's return to our last president's news conference and
consider what he claims his "chief economic advisors" told him in
private last fall. His statement was, in fact, staggeringly worse than
just about anything you can presently read in your newspapers or see on
the TV news. What was heading our way, he claimed he was told, might be
"worse" or "greater" than the Great Depression itself. Admittedly, John
Whitehead, the 86-year-old former chairman of Goldman Sachs, suggested in November
that the current economic crisis might turn out to be "worse than the
[Great] depression." But on this, he was speaking as something of a public minority of one.

Stop for a minute and consider what Bush actually told us. It's a
staggering thought. Who even knows what it might mean? In the United
States, for example, the unemployment rate in the decade of the Great
Depression never fell below 14%. In cities like Chicago and Detroit in
the early 1930s, it approached 50%. So, worse than that? And yet in the privacy of the Oval Office, that was evidently a majority view, unbeknownst to the rest of us.

It's possible, of course, that Bush's "chief economic advisors" simply
came up with a formulation so startling it could wake the dead or make
a truly lame-duck president quack. Still, doesn't it make you wonder?
What if, a year from now, the same National Bureau of Economic Research
announces that, by January 2009, we were already in a depression?

I'm only saying that, on the question of just how steadily the Earth
now stands, the verdict is out. Recent history, cited above, indicates
how possible it is that, on this question, we are in the dark.

And one more thing, while we're on the subject of recessions and
depressions, what if what's happening isn't, prospectively, the worst since the Great Depression, or as bad as the Great Depression, or even, worse than
the Great Depression. What if it's something new? Something without a
name or reference point? What then? How do we judge what's still
standing in that case?

Standing Questions

If I were the Obama administration, I might be exceedingly curious
about a couple of other "standing" questions right now. Here's one I
might ask, for example: Just what kind of a government are the
Obamanians really
inheriting? When, tomorrow, they settle into the Oval Office -- or its
departmental and agency equivalents -- and begin opening all the
closets and drawers, what are they going to find that Bush's people
have left behind?

This is no small matter. After all, they are betting the store on an enormous economic stimulus package -- approximately $550 billion
in pump-priming government spending, and another $275 billion in tax
cuts of various sorts, according to the present plan in the House of
Representatives. All kinds of possibilities are being proposed from
daringly experimental renewable energy projects to computerizing health-care records and building a national "smart" electricity grid, not to speak of rebuilding an infrastructure of bridges, roads, levees, and transport systems known to be in a desperate state of disrepair.

But what if the federal government slated to organize, channel, and
oversee that spending is itself thoroughly demoralized and broken? What

We know that, after eight catastrophic years, some parts of it are
definitely in an advanced state of wear and tear. The Justice
Department is a notorious, demoralized wreck. So, infamously, is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So, for that matter, is the whole Department of Homeland Security, as it has been ever since it was (ill) formed in 2002. So, evidently, is the CIA. Who knows what condition the eviscerated Environmental Protection Agency
is in, or the Housing Department, or the Interior Department, or the
Treasury Department, or the Energy Department after these years of
thoroughgoing politicization in which all those crony capitalist pals
of the Bush administration and all those industry lobbyist foxes were
let loose among the federal chickens meant to oversee them?

In those same years, huge new complexes of interests formed around certain agencies, especially the Department of Homeland Security,
and all sorts of government functions were privatized and outsourced,
often to crony corporations and often, it seems, expensively and
inefficiently. Who knows how well any parts of our government now

All I'm saying is that it can take months, or even years, to restore an
agency in disrepair or a staff in a state of massive demoralization. In
the meantime, how effectively will those agencies and departments
direct the Obama stimulus package? The manner in which the Treasury
Department threw $350 billion down a banking hole in these last
frenetic months should certainly give us pause, especially since the
banking system has been anything but rescued.
In the end, the U.S. government can order up hundreds of billions of
dollars, but applying them well may be another matter entirely. What
if, that is, the government now supposed to save us isn't itself really
standing? What if it, too, needs to be saved?

And let's not forget the world out there. If you watched Secretary of
State designate Hillary Clinton breeze through her confirmation
hearings, she seemed like the wonky picture of confidence, mixing the usual things
you say in Washington ("We are not taking any option off the table at
all") with promises of new policies. Looking at her, or our other new
and recycled custodians of empire, it's easy enough to avoid the obvious thought: that they are about to face a world -- from Latvia to Somalia, Gaza to Afghanistan -- which may be in far greater disarray than we imagine.

Only the other day, for instance, in a hardly noticed report,
"Joint Operating Environment (JOE 2008)," the U.S. Joint Forces Command
on worldwide security threats suggested that "two large and important
states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse." One --
Pakistan -- was no surprise, though all sorts of potentially
catastrophic scenarios lurk in its nasty brew of potential economic
collapse, tribal wars, terrorism, border disputes, and nuclear
politics. The other country, however, should make any American sit back
and wonder. It's Mexico.

Here's the money passage in the report: "The Mexican possibility may
seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and
judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press[ed]
by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns
out over the next several years will have a major impact on the
stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would
demand an American response based on the serious implications for
homeland security alone."

Of course, it could just be a matter of part of the U.S. military
looking for new arenas of potential expansion, but let's remember that
we're no longer in the frightening but strangely orderly Cold War
world, nor even on a planet any longer overshadowed by a "lone
superpower," the "New Rome." No indeed. Events in Mumbai
reminded us of this recently. There, ten trained terrorists armed with
the most ordinary of weapons and off-the-shelf high-tech equipment of a
sort that could be bought in any mall managed to bring two
nuclear-armed superpowers to the edge of conflict. Ten men. Imagine

We don't know what the world holds for us in the Obama years, but it's
not likely to be pretty and some of what's heading our way may not be
in any of the familiar playbooks by which we've been operating for the
past half century-plus. We don't yet know if whole countries, even
whole continents, may collapse in the economic, or environmental,
rubble of our twenty-first century moment, or what that would actually

I'm no expert on any of this, but on this day of anxious celebration,
here's my question: Is the world still standing? Do you know? Really?
Does anyone?

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