Monday, December 08, 2008

Pavlovian Applause

That is Fr. Frank's phrase for the fairly mindless praise being heaped on the Obama economic team, people of great credentials and many practical failures.

The piece is called "The Brightest are not Always the Best." One great thing about Frank Rich is that he's incapable of saying what everyone else is saying. But another great thing is his ability to find a cultural framework that puts politics in perspective. Here he invokes David Halberstam's book about the boy wonders in the JFK administration who brought us the quagmire of Vietnam.

Were Fr. Frank not invoking Halberstam, he could have used a more accurate title, "The Brightest are Often Dumb."

The piece is about Summers and Rubin and Geithner and you won't be surprised by the flaws he finds in their actual record. The more interesting bits are the frighteningly familiar comments from Halberstam about the blindness of the Kennedy geniuses. Since I think Kennedy is Obama's real model rather than Bill Klinton, it was alarming to hear Halberstam talk about the free pass the DC press gave JFK because of his similarties to them as to prep schools, Ivies, credentials, and white-collar world-view - a certain kind of entitled, liberal elitism that you could hear in Obama's comment as he introduced his foreign policy team: "They share my pragmatism about the use of power, and my sense of purpose about America's role as leader in the world."

Rich quotes Halberstam at one point on how the boy geniuses were not so smart:
“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.
This is true. The "quickness" comes from systematic dissociation from the actual consequences of and people affected by the model that appears in the boy wonder's brain.

There are two things that have made the problem much worse since Kennedy:
  • the hegemony of economics over domestic policy. Economists in the US are abstract modelers, and the modelers are in charge of Obama's economic policy.
  • the "knowledge economy" was just an idea during the Kennedy Administration, first publicized by UC President Clark Kerr as the Kennedy period was coming to an end. The prestige of "symbolic analysts" and their detachment from the great masses of real people are more acute now by a factor of 10.
It's going to take cultural imagination to get us out of this. The question is how do we get that through the airlocks of the Obama Admin?

1 comment:

Gerry said...

the dissociation is key. makes it easy to push the red button. once we get over celebrity brightness, where do we turn to find that wisdom in experience--what does it look like?