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The Financial Crisis (Part 4): Et tu, Obama?

Brutus (Palazzo Massimo, Roma)

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Antony slams Brutus by pointing out that being the “noblest Roman of them all” (because of his good intentions) does not absolve Brutus from his murderous role in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Marc Antony’s oratory perfectly exposes the divide between intentions and actions, between words and deeds. By stating that “I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, but here I am to speak what I do know”, he lays bare Brutus’ hypocrisy. He denounces neither Brutus nor the other, less-noble, conspirators for their lack of morality, and thereby usefully avoids debates about intentions rather than facts. Nonetheless, by continuously repeating that “Brutus is an honourable man” (“and so are they all, all honourable men”) while blasting their actions, Marc Antony’s words could not have been deadlier.

.Amid the current economic woes, Barack Obama and the Washington establishment are in danger of becoming Brutus and his co-conspirators, respectively. No sensible person should doubt Obama’s erstwhile intentions and intellectual ability. But just like Brutus, he should be judged on his actions, not his goodwill. Perhaps, just like Brutus, Obama is caught in the impossibilities of the times, limited by the system surrounding him. And perhaps, just like Brutus, an argument can be made for having to compromise one’s moral behaviour in order to save those ideals that are actually salvageable.

Nonetheless, the current economic crisis requires more than that. It requires a strength and integrity that Obama might posses but so far is not displaying in his actions. His current “stimulus package”, just signed into law this week, is an ugly cop out that does little to tackle the fundamental problems facing societies worldwide. Strong rhetoric is not the same as strong action. Tough words are not the same as tough decisions.

But Obama is an honourable man.

At the moment, Barack Obama is the most powerful president in decades. His approval ratings are higher than those of Bono at a U2 concert. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have Democratic majorities while the Republicans’ popularity seems more like that of Julio Iglesias crashing a U2 concert. Moreover, having assumed office at the apocalyptic low point of George Bush’s reign (which was never known for its vertiginous qualities anyway), there is little Obama could do wrong with respect to his own future legacy. The author of “The Audacity of Hope” is undoubtedly in a position to take courageous action in order to tackle the current economic crisis head on by systematically removing the cancerous corruption and inadequacies that have led us to into this current abyss. And yet, his focus so far has been on finding consensus and appeasing those who are responsible for the economic disaster we find ourselves in. Even his own economic team consists mostly of members of the old guard.
But Obama is an honourable man.

The Washington establishment are the unscrupulous conspirators to Obama’s Brutus. Whereas the president is focussed on preserving the Republic, his surroundings seem more interested in their own power base without much consideration for the future of their leader’s constituency. Obama, seemingly blinded by his own ideals of bipartisan and decency has signed into law a stimulus package so laden with the preservation of past mediocrity that it mostly benefits those special interest groups that were at the core of the problem in the first place. From car makers and inept shareholders to American consumers who have been living far beyond their means, all are being cared for. It is a spectacle to behold: like blood transfusions into corpses of the undead, the stimulus package is one huge transfer of wealth from the decent to the indecent, from the taxpayer to the tax evader, and from the future to the past.

But Obama is an honourable man.

What is truly needed is using the system-crash to create a new structure from the bottom-up. The one advantage that economic woes have is that they put political power back where it belongs: the people’s representatives. In times of financial hardship, bankers, lobbyists and plutocrats lose their cloud of invincibility. This gives such crises a cathartic quality usually unavailable to world leaders. After Bush’s failures, Obama has been given a clear mandate to reform and reshape the old world order. Bailing out the old cannot be part of that. More than ever before, the idea of “creative destruction” needs to be taken seriously.

On his show, American comedian Jon Stewart told Republican John Sununu exasperatedly: “We spent 700bn in Iraq, why can’t we rebuild our own country now? Here’s an idea: ‘I have WMD. Invade me’.” But spending such an amount on saving the old is not rebuilding towards a future, it is artificially maintaining the past.

Those individuals who do not directly benefit from new creation should be cared for in any civilised society, of course, but creation while refusing to allow destruction is like building a palace on an antediluvian island. As Plato reported, Atlantis sank into the ocean in “a single day and night of misfortune”, and was never heard of since. Sadly enough, this seems to be the path world leaders are choosing.

But Obama is an honourable man.

What is clear that the current lip-service to “reform” and “regulation” are preposterously inadequate, but it is also true that positive and productive ideas are hard to come by. The answers to economic crises are never straightforward. Yet that is exactly the original job of politicians and good kings: to gather the brightest minds of the land and come up with new and bold ideas to take their populace forward.

Moving forward undoubtedly requires both bringing peace to the past (i.e. holding responsible those who benefited from the systemic selfishness and greed that led us here), reformulating the relationship between economic, social and political dynamics (i.e. cutting ties between financial elites and people’s representatives), and rebuilding a system that more positively balances the undoubted strengths of capitalism with the obvious need to chain such a two-headed monster. Meanwhile, it would be helpful to avoid fake and distracting ideological debates on capitalism versus socialism. A well-run capitalist democracy is still the least bad system that we have thought-up, although it can come in many shapes and forms.

No sensible person could argue that it is either a simple or an easy task. We do not know exactly how or what, but that is what politicians in any democracy are for. Essentially, the current crisis puts politics on trial, and not elusive concepts like “economics”. Politicians need to represent the people, stimulate intellectual debate and then formulate practical answers that respond not to the quiet dogmas of the past but to the stormy present, to paraphrase that other president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.

Et tu, Obama?

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