22 – The Incompetence of Obama’s Repairmen (10 May 09)

    Give the man time! A new head of government cannot do everything at once! He has only had three months. These are the responses that one is likely to get when expressing doubts about the effectiveness of Obama’s policies when measured against the high expectations and overwhelming feelings of urgency that something dramatic should be done. Impatience is frequently interpreted as following from insufficient understanding about the set of circumstances that this new president inherited, circumstances that could hardly be worse in the imagination of most sympathisers.
    What Obama has been expected to do comes down to a task for which daunting is too weak an adjective, one requiring herculean powers. And of course that takes time. All true. But by not being critical, by not scrutinising his early decisions about the people with whom he wants to work, by not strongly questioning how these people interpret the jobs they have been asked to do; by not being critical of Obama in his early days, we may unwittingly be adding to the many disadvantages that surround him.
     When in political life something very big must be undertaken, the question of competence on the part of those who undertake it gains supreme importance. Competence may mean different things for different people. One very common interpretation of the term is akin to that for professionalism. A combination of one’s education, specialised training, and thorough experience, is brought to the fore as the standard to be applied. Looking at the members of Obama’s cabinet with such a standard in mind, we are likely to conclude that in general terms they’re pretty competent. But I like to measure competence against the task at hand. My dentist is very competent, and he probably knows enough even to help me get over minor ailments: he has had medical training. But then it is time to have my heart checked, or other vital organs, I won’t go to my dentist. He is not competent to do that; in other words, he is not specifically competent.
     To be sure, certain specific skills can serve you in an adjoining area of activity. At a concert given years ago in Tokyo by a Dutch woodwind ensemble, the musicians delighted the audience as they produced string instruments from under their chairs with which to play an encore, and they brought the house down when together they sang a motet for their final encore. But, believe me, a great pianist is not competent to play a violin concerto in a manner validating his or her reputation.
     The two men who have been asked to find a cure for the financial crisis, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, are financial thoroughbreds, and it only seems reasonable to expect that since they know the ins and outs of what happens on the rarefied reaches of that insider world you can entrust them with the task of fixing what has gone wrong with it. That kind of reasoning is indeed conventional wisdom. But look at the dire situation again. And pay attention to two factors. They are on the inside. They thank their careers to having been on the inside. They owe their considerable wealth to being friends with insiders. They have been acolytes of a master, Robert Rubin, who is nothing if not a consummate insider.
    The condition of the banks, and the moneymaking structures these have created, is central to the problem to be solved. But you cannot solve it from the inside; what the bankers and their friends and their government buddies think, understand, and believe are not the tools with which to repair the malfunctioning that the same bankers and their friends and their government buddies are responsible for.
     The system that has gone haywire is not a machine, and they are not engineers who can work with technical drawings and replace parts. Because the financial system is not something that stands on its own. No map of just itself can be a proper guide of how it should function. The financial system is embedded in a large network of social and political institutions. What it is supposed to do, what it has done, and the excesses to which it has become accustomed, this all has depended and does depend on their interaction with all those institutions on the outside. To gain conceptual leverage over it (indispensible for a political grip on it) you need to position yourself without bias on the outside. Knowing how to placate outsider politicians, members of Congress, and editors who determine what kind of commentary will accompany the process, is not at all enough – that has long been part of polished insider knowledge.
     The mechanisms to gain leverage over it do not, now, exist. They must be created, but for obvious reasons insiders are opposed to their creation. Which brings us to the other factor, which has to do with the point at which reason and emotions of the two men are intertwined. It is very unlikely that Summers and Geithner can distance themselves psychologically from the people to whom they owe their careers, who have made them rich, and whose beliefs they have shared and propagated. I rather doubt that these people have it in them to disown their own past, to dump fundamental beliefs about how economies work, and how the financial sector fits into desirable capitalism. On these matters, the people who count in their milieu appear, by most accounts, to be incredibly complacent. So, by my reckoning, the top people entrusted with the task to clean up a huge rotten area in the middle of what is still referred to as “capitalism”, something that is likely to bring even greater economic upheaval in the future, are not up to the task.
     Neither is the national security adviser of Obama up to his task. That became evident to me when I read about his confirmation hearings before Congress at which he explained that if the United States would leave Afghanistan without creating the impression that it had “won” there, it could no longer function as an effective power in the world. Here we are dealing with a very competent military person. A former top general of the Marines, a former chief commander of NATO, an upstanding and honorable man, as far as we can make out. But he is incompetent when measured against the job that he has been given, because national security cannot be advised on by someone who demonstrates that he does not have sufficient knowledge of the world, by someone whose narrow view of it is dictated first and foremost by military concerns, by someone who treats American power as a given, and by someone who, if history may be our guide, misunderstands what can possibly be achieved in Afghanistan through military means.
     The aides of Obama I have mentioned have helpers of course. Many brains are needed to fill in the details of the tasks to be performed. And one is well-advised to ask the question of how these brains have been shaped. Again, they would all seem very competent considering the top schools that they have attended. Washington is full of super smart people. But, most of the time, these smart people have had their wits sharpened by professors and courses that hardly pay heed to the broader setting of our civilisation, to its history, and to all those other things that do not lend themselves to quantification, and thereby to a semblance of “science”.
     They do not even appear to partake in a communal political memory that reaches farther back than the last couple of presidents. All you have to do is take a peek at their resumes with which they have gained access to their “higher learning” and which they present as they apply for jobs. These reflect the qualities that are treasured by technocracy. Also when they demonstrate their capacity to “think outside the box”, which has recently in management talk been considered quite valuable, they carefully remain within the bounds of what they understand to be permissible opinion. Truly original thinking is not appreciated, and for good reason, in a political/economic system shaped by, and largely serving, big corporations. Perhaps the saddest result of education priorities shaped by technocratic interests is that the young smart people are not encouraged to discover the important questions before coming up with answers.