On Monday, September 29, 2008, we were all left standing at the political altar, jilted by the U.S. House of Representatives’ rejection of legislation proposed by the White House for $700 billion in government aid to the financial sector. The legislation failed in a vote of 220-205. Talk about Monday blues! Julie Hirshfeld Davis, writing for the Associated Press, describes a scene in which incumbants on both sides of the political aisle had difficulty coming to terms with what the unforeseeable outcomes of public opinion over a shotgun wedding between government and business would mean for their political parties in the upcoming November 4 election. On Wednesday, October 1, the U.S. Senate, whose four-year term limits makes incumbants less affected by the election, passed a proposed financial recovery plan in a vote of 75-24.
Now, Wall Street is sweating it out while the rest of us on Main Street, still squinting into our televisions and digital devices, hope for what Oprah Winfrey calls a “light bulb moment.” Average Joe and Jane are struggling with the notion that the country’s financial security depends on delivering their hard earned tax monies to an already flawed system to fix itself. The bottom line truth of our prosperity is now becoming known; and, it will take more than a magic number (even if it is as hypnotic as $700billion) to find the country out of this financial labyrinth. The gas guzzling SUV’s and palatial homes that seemed so necessary to living out the American Dream are now props in a greater American tragedy that could have been written by Arthur Miller or David Mamet.
This may simply be a case of “ignorance is bliss.” In abandoning our better judgments for faith in our financial ingenuity, we have failed to heed that ageless warning against the pitfalls of human mastery sounded by the ancient Greek myth of Icarus. And, now, like the young boy protagonist, we are spiraling to our financial doom. Many of the corporate barons have their golden parachutes but average Americans can’t help feeling like the weight of the world is pressing down upon them.
It is hard not to feel the aftershocks of the recent financial crisis on Main Street. If you are fortunate enough to have the problem of your monthly rent or mortgage costing less than it does to fill-up the refrigerator and gas tank, then you probably have decided to spend your evenings at home watching cable television or a borrowed movie from the local public library while eating your favorite comfort food. If food can be considered a reliable indicator, then, when looking at the unpredictable cycles of inflation and consumerism within the past twenty years, it is easy to understand how Americans have become the fattest people in the world. Though we have grown accustom to these financial cycles (our growing waist sizes and bulging bellies and blank stares are evidence of this), instant fixes like pharmaceutical drugs, fast food, and homemade macaroni and cheese are losing their potency to comfort. We are becoming immune to the antidotes for our anxiety.
We are going to have to pay the price of the so-called “corporate bailout,” one way or another, despite all of the very sensible arguments against it. But, first a few things have to be cleared up before the hard working tax payers can give their blessing. The $700 billion question on everyone’s lips is whether this was the result of financial greed among a few overpaid corporate executives on Wall Street or the outcome of rampant consumerism and credit borrowing on Main Street? While sophisticated supply-side economic formulas to tame the unyielding capitalist beast (that is the financial markets) fell into retrograde, did a country of dreamers, full on the promises and hopes of prosperity, fall asleep at the gates only to be awakened by the roaring beast aloose in the city?
Only the financial super heroes, shielded by their millions and billions, have the audacity to caution against a crisis mode of thinking and the public’s current anger and fear over the most recent and far-reaching debacle in the history of Wall Street. This is mostly because they are wholly invested in the illusion of “big money.” Billionaire technology ‘Wiz’ turned global philanthropist, Bill Gates, the co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft, and Warren Buffett (a.k.a. “the Oracle”), Chairman and the largest shareholder of insurance conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, have recently been sought out by the media to offer their sage advice on this recent financial kudzu vine. In what might appear to be the only vindication for President George W. Bush–(the war hawk whose multi-trillion dollar “war on terrorism” campaign squandered vast amounts of financial resources and moral energy and who is now widely considered a “lame-duck”)—Gates and Buffett have echoed his declaration that the fundamentals of our economy are sound. This may be one of the more obvious proofs that the business titans are only to be rivaled by the politicians in there mastery of spells over the images of wealth and prosperity.
Where are the financial gurus when you need them? Maybe this setback in the markets will encourage Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve (1987-2006), to come out of semi-retirement and brew one of his bubbling financial potions, largely consisting of low interest rates and generous pinches of deregulation, to tame that shrewd medieval monster we call inflation. During his tenure as Chairman of the Federal Reserve the country experienced one of its biggest economic booms with the dotcom bubble. We all know how that turned out. The smoke coming off the Merlin-like fireworks after the bursting IT bubble sent the new generation of Silicon Valley wiz-kid, entrepreneur/venture capital babies running back to the “9-to-5” job security of major Fortune 500 companies. It is clearer now that Greenspan’s Smithian like riddles uttered in a commonly misunderstood Nietzschean tone of ‘will to power’ expanded the laissez-fare ethos of capitalism pumping blood to Ronald Reagan’s ‘trickle-down’ economic policies of deregulation in the 1980’s.
Reagan assumed the presidency like it was one of his roles in all those B-Films of the forties and fifties that made him ripe for political office in the great economic expansionism of American power during post-WWII industrialism. This was Ronald Reagan playing his best version of Theodore Roosevelt, without any of the humanitarianism and all of the imperialism. In case you forgot, the brutalism of the Reagan administration’s fantastic StarWars militarism and dynastic capitalist expansion was resoundingly callous toward the struggles of poor, working-class people.
Ironically, the Reagan administration’s “up from your boot straps” approach to the travails of poverty made it damn near impossible for the most vulnerable of society to ever have the opportunity to step into such promising footwear. Despite many years of expert opinions from education advocates and nutritionists linking poor diet with less than satisfactory academic performance, families qualifying for the federally aided school lunch program had to accept the government’s new classification of ketchup as a fresh fruit/vegetable. Outraged by this outward show of cruelty, many parents like mine decided that they would rather pinch pennies and save leftovers to send their children to school with packed lunches than to have them humiliated and hungry.
The generation-X of us from those poor, working class families now in our thirties has been awakening from the American dream for quite some time only to find that we are living a nightmare. Though we have worked hard to imagine our lives through the values and dreams that our parents encouraged in us, we are afraid. We fear that we naïvely accepted the promises that our degrees and hard work would mean a better life. Even more troubling is the fear we see reflected in the faces of our parents. As it was, many of them would probably have needed our financial help as they moved into their golden years. Now, with shrinking 401ks and demise of the social security program looming, it seems inevitable that we will have to provide greater financial assistance to supplement our parents’ retirement without the wage earning potential our professional and graduate degrees should have afforded us.
In an attempt to ease a possible hangover from the congressional failure to reach a passing vote on the White House’s proposed “bailout,” both political candidates made the medical mistake of doing what many professional binge drinkers have done before a night of robust alcohol driven partying and offered the nation a Tylenol in the form of last Friday’s debate. Sadly, despite all the highly sophisticated polling data and Nielsen ratings, it was what we have come to expect of modern debates post-Kennedy vs. Nixon—a safely choreographed dance between two dueling egos. With Jim Lehrer, the dean of political news, moderating—Obama and McCain were given every opportunity to lay out their individual plans for economic recovery. Beyond their political stammering around economic jargon, neither one of the candidates managed to say anything that would be considered particularly useful to the average man or woman on Main Street who is wondering how they are going to pay down the pile of bills collecting on their kitchen table, let alone paying off the government’s multi-trillion dollar debt.
Both candidates were very careful to say nothing that expressed his feelings about the crisis on Wall Street for fear that his passion might appear as partisanship. So, as a result, neither said anything that left us particularly hopeful about how voting their ticket into office would change the fate of the country’s financial insecurity. As was expected, the debate seemed emotionally detached from the current frenzy of the country. Strangely, it seemed like I had been watching the most recent teleplay version of the 1972 film, The Candidate. One of many season premieres in a T.V. fall line-up that sought to excavate the popular themes of our cultural imagination.
This 2008 television version of The Candidate was not a strong season opener to the November elections. Maybe a two-hour long preview of episodes to come, at best. With almost no dialogue between its co-stars–McCain seemed to make a concerted effort to avoid making eye contact with Obama; and, with limited passion, Obama seemed to emotionally draw away from the camera anytime his response seemed to hit an emotional nerve. I was left unaffected.
Had I not already made up my mind to cast my vote for Obama neither of the candidates would have swayed me this evening. On a scale of one-to-five, I give it two stars. We can neither afford the price of the ticket nor the time it takes to be entertained by the ideological performances of our politicians!
Not even the blue-grey buzz of the digital communication devices we use as extensions of our shrinking autonomy in this age of globalism (as true choice and mobility become luxuries of a few economic elite) can ease our anxiety. Even Hollywood, that land of mirrored realities and illusion, has lost its overwhelming ability to affect forgetfulness. As the cultural battle between the liberal secularists and moral conservatives over Hollywood becomes more transparent, there seems no politically safe place for the spectator. In those, most memorable lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Americans know that the discussion of to-deregulate-or-not-deregulate (a riff on Hamlet’s negative dialectic of being) is not merely ideological, the difference between republicans and democrats, but the freedom to live out our dreams. Institutions, financial or otherwise, are simply a matter of the choices we make. The illusion is not the dream but the choices we make as actors in our lives. This is the difference between the haves and have-nots. Those who have the greatest opportunity to make choices can afford the greatest latitude in fulfilling their dreams. Those who don’t must suffer through every mistake, even the ones that are beyond their control. Our dreams are our greatest human technology; and, no amount of money, without the ability to imagine our institutions as just and equitable, will make a bit of difference in the end.
For anybody still looking to spend through his or her economic stimulus check, my choice purchase is the newly released DVD of Sex and the City the movie. No, there are no great ideas about how to cure a financial hangover. Not even Carrie Bradshaw (the New York City fashionista/sex journalist with an addiction to Manolo Blahnik shoes) could figure out how to bolster the economy through consumer spending. However, the dramedy does contain an interesting moral tale about the pitfalls of illusion visa vie love and happiness. I won’t spoil the ending for you. Hint: The shoes can make or break an outfit.