So Far, So Good

Via the Crack Den, Herbert on our lack of leadership:

Above all, I’d like to see the creation of a second Manhattan Project
that would lead us in a few years to an environment in which
alternative fuels are abundant, effective and affordable. We are a
pathetically weak player in that game right now.

Instead of staring mesmerized at the tragedy in the gulf, like
spectators at a train wreck, we should be trying to regain that
innovative can-do spirit that made America the greatest of nations.

All around us is the wreckage of our failure to master the challenges
confronting us. We see it in the many millions of Americans who remain
out of work and whose hopes are not rising despite all the talk of
economic recovery. We see it in the schools where teachers are walking
the plank by the scores of thousands because of state and local budget

We see it in the shrinking middle class and in the black community
where depressionlike conditions are fostering not just a sense of
helplessness, but despair.

What’s needed is dynamic leadership (it doesn’t have to come from the
top) to reinvigorate the spirit of America and turn that sense of
helplessness around.

Doc and I were talking about this a little last weekend, the idea of risk-aversion and how people think if they just hold on tight and close their eyes and don’t move, everything will be okay and nobody will get them. And things keep getting worse, but we’re all the optimist who jumped off the building, saying every floor he passed: So far, so good. So far, so good.

Yeah, everybody’s losing their jobs, there is nothing the boss man can’t do and walk away from scot-free, your years of service to a company barely get you a shrug when you’re shoved out the door, so far, so good.

Yeah, the rule of law’s been destroyed, we basically live in a police state, Miranda rights no longer mean all that much, there’s nothing the authorities can’t do and walk away from scot-free, so far, so good.

Yeah, it’s getting harder and harder to breathe, the ocean is filling up with oil, nobody gives a fuck about the polar bears, everyone has asthma, there’s something in the drinking water the town said was safe and now the kids have cancer, so far, so good.

Yeah, the guy we elected to end the wars and close the torture prisons isn’t doing that so much, Congress is still full of assholes, our state legislators are too busy gobbling corporate knob to take our calls, our school boards want us to worry about if Jesus rode a dinosaur and if our kids can’t read it’s because they just don’t want to enough, so far, so good.

Yeah, poverty and ignorance have been institutionalized, walled off, and called the acceptable price of living the way the top five percent live while the parts of the city the tourists don’t visit might as well rot for all anybody gives a damn, so far, so good.

I think in no small part we haven’t had bold action because we keep telling ourselves we’re not that fucked yet. I mean, as a country, hey, look at Haiti. Look at that sinkhole in Guatemala. Look at small towns in China any day of the week. Look at those Feed A Child commercials or whatever. We’re not that yet, so so far, so good.

And the problem with that is that by the time we are that fucked in totality (because by the way, plenty of places actually are), we’ll have so internalized this paralysis that we won’t be able to move. Your muscles lock up, your joints freeze, your back creaks if you don’t move around while you can, and then you’re stuck. On the couch, in your house, in your world, where all you can do is hope things don’t get worse. Meanwhile the ground is rushing up at you a hundred miles an hour.

People talk nostalgically about the unity of purpose and decisive action that characterized America during the Space Race, during World War II, during the Depression. While I say all the time that our memories about the war aren’t about the war, they’re about how we have to think about the war in order to survive the next one, it does seem, doesn’t it, that once upon a time we were more nimble, more able to jump into the breach.

David Brooks would say the hippies ruined that; Thomas Friedman would blame us not making enough Arabs suck on this nine years ago. I don’t think 9/11 or Vietnam changed everything, I think the collapse of the manufacturing base did, but it did it slow and painful, and gave us time to look at the windows we were passing and continue to whisper to ourselves so far, so good.

That being said: What do we do? What now? That’s always the question here. Waiting for a leader to come along to give us a reason to get off our asses hasn’t worked so well. George W. Bush tried to look like that’s what he was doing, and the problem wasn’t only that the ends were monstrous but the means were stupid: Go shopping? For America? People would have done anything, that first week or so, and that’s what you ask? And when we’re done buying new kitchen towels, for fuck’s sake then what? You didn’t see wholesale baseball teams emptying out to go fight the war and plenty of people would say you weren’t going to see that, ever, and I think that’s probably why he didn’t ask for it.

Because: We don’t ever ask, anymore, for anything but what someone else tells us he thinks we can get.

Other presidents have tried before and since, but the follow-through always sucks. The crack den, from whence this column came, talks about infrastructure projects that need doing, that could be draped in bunting to give people an idea of what the fuck is going on. A couple of TARP projects near my house got done, a friend is back at work weatherizing homes like crazy because the stimulus checks are clearing, but it’s not enough. We’re dealing with years of neglect and this has been true since Ronald Reagan; a reasonable amount of stuff isn’t enough of a fix.

And at the slightest hint of opposition, everybody lays down. Ooh, socialism, ooga booga, too fast, too much. What will the polls ever say? Forget the polls if they’re on your side, Chris Matthews’ racist uncles think this is a shitty idea and Sally Quinn said you’re an asshole, so let’s scale back, and act absolutely astonished when it doesn’t solve the problems. And let’s never fail to blame the American people, especially Those Kids Today, for just not having the gumption we once did.

This isn’t just political, it’s personal, too. How many times do you talk yourself out of risks, every day? How many times do you say “I can’t” knowing can’t is either won’t, don’t wanna, think it’s too hard, or am scared to move forward? Half the time, someone does come along and say look, I know the way out and I can show you and all you have to do is stop sucking for a minute, our reaction (don’t think I’m exempting myself here) is, “Jesus Christ, I’m tired, can’t somebody else take care of it?”

I do get it, you know, the defense mechanism, because: You’ve
already jumped. You’re already falling. Try to make the best of it.
Look at the faces in the windows you pass on the way down. Smile at them, wave. It’s not a bad strategy, really.
Convince yourself the ground ain’t coming up for you and maybe you
won’t even notice you’ve hit it already, sometime back when you were
frantically telling yourself so far, so good.

What do we do? I don’t have an answer here, except to say this: We demand better of each other and of ourselves. We look at insurmountable problems and we decide to do what we can instead of doing nothing. We can’t guarantee somebody else won’t game the system or take advantage of those with decent natures or simply not pull his weight. We can’t guarantee the results of anything we do so we stop letting that stop us.

We demand better of each other and we demand better of our leadership as well. We’ve been saying it here for years: We can do anything you ask, just ask, for fuck’s sake. We stuck a flag on the moon back when computers were the size of Volkswagons, how insane was that? What can’t we do? We continue to fight for people who fight for those who can’t fight for themselves, and we look at all the bullshit and all the betrayals and all the ways Obama’s not good enough and Pelosi’s not good enough and probably some more Republicans are gonna get elected in the fall and we get back up and we say okay, that sucked, we lost, what next? And every voice saying we’re foolish and should just … I dunno, eat more chips or something, is a voice we stop listening to.

And when something presents itself to us as irredeemably fucked, when some monumental problem rears its ugly head, when things start to go completely to hell, we don’t ever say to ourselves, we don’t ever ever say:

So far, so good.



10 thoughts on “So Far, So Good

  1. I keep hoping for something akin to guillotines parked on rich people’s lawns when enough people finally hit the pavement and go splat!, but, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
    People do internalize all the external crap around them. They try not to, but, they do. It takes a hell of an optimist to wake up each morning after being out of work for eighteen months and say, “this is the day I get a good job.”
    But, what’s worst about it is that we’ve been fed a diet of lies from all the elites for thirty years or more, and people get used to being lied to, and get used to telling themselves lies to get through each day–sometimes, no more than, “so far, so good,” but, often, “it has to get better,” even when there’s absolutely no reason on earth to think that’s even remotely true. We consistently allocate resources in ways that move money upwards, which makes all those myriad problems worse.
    There are solutions, partial ones, better ones, which might stabilize the economy without the sort of boom-and-bust cycles and huge debt accumulations that have plagued us since the market privateers moved into Washington, but, until we get governance that sees the very people on whom it’s depending for advice as the problem, individual efforts are going to be fractured and insufficient to the task.
    That’s one thing thatis different from decades past–the recognition that some problems are so large that only government has the cumulative resources to tackle them is not there now. Ronnie Raygun and his wrecking crew began that process, but, every President since then has adopted that refrain in some fashion–even Clinton ran in 1996 on a leaner, smaller government, which, if truth be told, has been a prescription for disaster.
    Want a Manhattan Project for energy? Government will have to structure it. Government will have to divert some of the 60-odd percent of R&D dollars that go to the Department of Offense each year, because there’s one truism in R&D–talent follows the money. Want to finally bust down the military to its necessary framework for actual defense? A whole bunch of people in government are finally going to have to tell the truth about some elemental factors–that having the modern equivalent of the French Foreign Legion posted in a thousand places around the world isn’t making us safer, actually makes us less free, isn’t being used for our defense (if it were, 9/11 would have turned out differently) and that all this money spent on arms and war is responsible for the greatest portion of our income taxes, and because we spend so much on guns, there ain’t no money for butter.
    If government can’t or won’t do that, and the media won’t report those facts, it’s not going to matter much what the individual does.
    Some of the best advice the Founders gave came from Tom Paine: “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the superficial appearance of being right.” We haven’t dared to ask ourselves some rather penetrating questions about whether or not the system is broken, or even if it’s repairable with the tools we have available.

  2. To grossly mis-state Pascal’s wager:
    I agree that we are risk averse. But there is a central problem that we do a poor job of estimating the risks. In so many situations, the ship is sailing and each route has its risks and we choose the familiar (no action, continue what we’ve always done) over a change even when the comfortable takes us right into the reef. This is one reason the economists can have so much fun looking at human behaviors.
    A fun read is the book Kluge: The haphazard evolution of the human mind by Gary Marcus. His basic premise is that in the formation of the human mind, there are all sorts of artifacts from the past. At the time, certain hacks worked well for the mind. In later formation in more developed situations, these hacks lead to strange results.

  3. What you do is: Everything. You fund every program and proposal that shows the slightest bit of promise, you fund wind, you fund solar, you fund hydro, you fund everything. There won’t be a single answer or a magic bullet. Doing a “ONE BILLION DOLLAR PRIZE to the genius who solves all our energy problems!” is a waste. Don’t look for one person, don’t look for one answer. Throw all kinds of ideas at it, throw all kinds of funding towards it, and let’s unglamorously nickel and dime our way to the answer.
    The Manhattan Project was focused on producing a single object. We need the same level of focus on energy independence, but we shouldn’t concentrate it all on a single proposal.
    Oh, and make Tony Hayward do a fucking perp walk already.

  4. Ever watch Planet Green, for example? There are a lot of people out there working on outrageous ideas. It’s not that the ingenuity left us, but we’re suspicious now of smart people and – goddammit – the Bachelorette is on, and isn’t she adorable?
    See what I did there?
    The first thing we should do, if we’re going to have any reason for hope at all, is to detonate the Catfood Commission’s mission.

  5. We all believed that Obama understood what was needed, had the courage to do it, and could persuade us that it had to be done. We didn’t account for the fact that the government is now for the Corporations, by the Corporations, and of the Corporations. I’m sorry, but until that changes, nothing else can be changed.

  6. Can you phrase that in the form of a tax cut? That is the only thing the Democratic majority has a stomach for with the Republican controlled Congress.

  7. Actually, money does talk. If all the things we think we need were priced to truly reflect their cost then maybe the rushing towards the pavement would slow down. But, yeah, good luck with that. I keep thinking–will someone do the numbers to see what era was most in balance with most countries? What if it were 1952? Maybe one car, people mostly in cities or the country, not the suburbs, without a/c, without massive amounts of processed foods, polio just eradicated but no computers, no statins– well, it’s kind of a stupid exercise (what if it turns out to be 1744?!) but it distracts me from thinking about the fact that my lifestyle is not nearly sustainable and indeed is ruining the environment. Maybe just cutting back on the population? No one ever talks about that. Maybe walk back gradually to 1/4 of the people on the planet so that people will be able to have YouTube? My head hurts.

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