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December 14, 2009

Populist Rhetoric and Symbolic Actions

Barack Obama is so mad at Wall Street! Here, just look at what he told 60 Minutes last night:

BARACK OBAMA: I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street...Nothing has been more frustrating to me this year than having to salvage a financial system at great expense to taxpayers that was precipitated, that was caused, in part by completely irresponsible actions on Wall Street...the people on Wall Street still don't get it. They don't get guys are drawing down $10, $20 million bonuses after America went through the worst economic year that's it's gone through in decades, and you guys caused the problem.

But he's not just all talk. He's also taking action! He's so furious he's going to have an hour-long meeting with Wall Street executives. Dear god in heaven!

Phillip Swagel was Assistant Treasury Secretary for the final two years of the Bush administration, and wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution called "The Financial Crisis: An Inside View" that came out on March 30th this year. In it he predicted the Obama administration would use essentially the same strategy as Bush's Treasury Department, but with one difference—the Obama people would:

...use populist rhetoric and symbolic actions to create the political space under which the implicit subsidies involved in resolving the uncertainty of legacy assets can be undertaken.

"Implicit subsidies involved in resolving the uncertainty of legacy assets" means, of course, "hundreds of billions of dollars given to Wall Street."

Like many professional conservative apparatchiks, Swagel comes across as tremendously angry that the Democrats do just about the same things they did—but with a different PR veneer that gets them treated by the world as somehow better people. Based on the Obama administration's actions so far, both in domestic and foreign policy, it's hard not to agree they have a point.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at December 14, 2009 10:07 AM

You mean, he's not a socialist?

Posted by: grimmy at December 14, 2009 11:09 AM

If a capitalist, a socialist, a member of the Taliban, my cousin Swede, and the GEICO caveman all sit down to play Monopoly, they will all play by the rules of Monopoly or they will lose, notwithstanding whatever game they would rather have played if it were up to them.

Our national game is Capitalism, with a fractional-reserve banking system controlled by private banks being the linchpin of the whole system, so big banks are even more important to those players who want to win than Board Walk and Park Place are in Monopoly, whereas people collectively don't even have a crappy little square like Meditteranean Avenue and individually aren't worth a damn thing. It doesn't matter who is playing the game, even the some-call-him Obaminator, 'cuz that's the game fellas.

So change the game.

Posted by: N E at December 14, 2009 11:18 AM

You tell 'em. Fight the power, N E.

For my part, I don't care, so long as I get the top hat.

Posted by: grimmy at December 14, 2009 11:44 AM

So change the game.

In other words, a revolution. Glad to see we agree NE!-Tony

Posted by: tony at December 14, 2009 02:26 PM

But Jonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn!! Our God-king also said:

"If they wish to fight common sense consumer protections, that's a fight I'm more than willing to have," Obama told reporters in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the executive mansion.

That means he's finally going to rip off the mask and quit playing 12-dimensional chess! He's going to take the gloves off! He's going to show the banksters and America and the world what Barack Obama is really made of!

Posted by: Duncan at December 14, 2009 02:48 PM

"Dear God in heaven."

Ah, you make me laugh, even though it's not funny.

Posted by: catherine at December 14, 2009 03:10 PM

so do swagel & his ilk also just employ faux annoyance/outrage at obama's faux outrage? all just rhetoric & symbolism?

yeah, i thought so too.

Posted by: anonymous at December 14, 2009 04:27 PM

How much do you normally have to pay for an hour long face time with the US president?

Posted by: DavidByron at December 14, 2009 05:16 PM

Shit, this is almost as convincing as when Rick Warren suddenly decided to backpedal his support for the homosexual death penalty in Uganda.

Posted by: Jenny at December 14, 2009 05:16 PM

How much do you normally have to pay for an hour long face time with the US president?

David, I'm shocked -- shocked, I tell you! -- at your insinuation that the time of President Obama is for sale! But be that as it may, it appears that the answer is about $50,000:

It looked like it was business as usual for President Barack Obama on the first day of his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, as he spent five hours golfing with Robert Wolf, president of UBS Investment Bank and chairman and CEO of UBS Group Americas. Wolf, an early financial backer of Obama’s presidential campaign, raised $250,000 for him back in 2006, and in February was appointed by the president to the White House’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

But then you have to figure in the price of membership on the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, though that may be an additional special free gift if you order now. Our operators are waiting for your call. Have your Visa or Mastercard ready.

Posted by: Duncan at December 14, 2009 10:50 PM

At least Obomber scathingly denounced Rick Warren and apologized for letting him speak at the inauguration.

Posted by: Marcus at December 15, 2009 02:57 AM

Well, that's different then.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at December 15, 2009 06:27 AM

Duncan quoted Paul Goodman a while back for having said this in the mid-1960s in his book People or Personnel:

"But in the system we have been describing, the Executive also is not a governing person nor group of persons, any more than the baronial corporations are persons except as a fiction. During the activist Kennedy regime, frustration was continually expressed because, somehow, the Cabinet and the President himself were powerless. Just so the heads of giant corporations and of apparently autonomous universities claim that they are powerless to alter policies that they say they disapprove of. It is inherent in centralization that powerlessness spreads from the bottom to the top. There is certainly a structure of power in the country, but it seems to be a misnomer to call it a power elite."

Even the complaints about our system are maddeningly immortal.

Posted by: N E at December 15, 2009 05:27 PM

More wisdom from Goodman at page 189. (On quick review, I couldn't find the quote Duncan cited, though it certainly is consistent with Goodman's view.)

"Even if an excellent man happens to be elected to
office, he will find that it is no longer a possible instrument for social change on any major issues of war and peace or the way of life of the Americans. Indeed, as the members of the Liberal Project have complained, office does not give even a good public forum, for the press does not report inconvenient speeches. . . . So we must look, finally, not to this kind of politics, but to direct functioning in what concerns us closely in order to dispel the mesmerism of abstract power altogether."

Posted by: N E at December 15, 2009 05:56 PM

"How much do you normally have to pay for an hour long face time with the US president?"

Maybe that's the real reason people were so upset at the Salahis. They got in this exclusive fancy private house without paying the cover charge or belonging to the club.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at December 15, 2009 10:33 PM

It is comforting to be back to business as usual . . .
"Back in Business"

Posted by: Murfyn at December 16, 2009 11:42 AM

From a song I wrote in the 80s:

A company can do things
a good man would never do
like change its name and move,
and leave behind
folks who count on you.
Leave behind just a skeleton crew.

When money gained personhood was the beginning of the end for this country.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at December 16, 2009 04:32 PM

Paul Goodman, in his book People or Personnel, 1968

Indeed, as the members of the Liberal Project have complained, office does not give even a good public forum, for the press does not report inconvenient speeches.

An example

SUMMARY: Discussing the run-up to the Iraq war on Hardball, David Gregory said, "If there wasn't a debate in this country, then maybe the American people should think about, why not? Where was Congress? Where was the House? Where was the Senate?" In fact, a majority of congressional Democrats voted against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq in October 2002. Of the 258 Democrats in Congress at the time, 147 voted against the resolution, while 110 voted for it. One Democrat did not vote.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 16, 2009 04:34 PM

Sorry about the date error - I now think Goodman's book was first published in 1965

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 16, 2009 04:36 PM

Alleged bumper sticker - any sightings?


Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 16, 2009 04:39 PM

mistah charley

I haven't seen that bumper sticker anywhere. It certainly is succint. I doubt I can think of an equation I like better.

The copy of People or Personnel that I checked out of the library lists the first edition as 1963, followed by other editions in 64 and 65. So I guess it was a hit.

Thank you for introducing me to Michael Hudson. His introduction to the 2005 edition of Global Fracture is excellent. He makes a pretty compelling case that the bankocracy we now have goes back in substantial part to the dissolution of the Breton Woods system in the early 70s, which also corresponds to the decline of the rate of profit in the manufacturing sector in the US and Europe and Japan since that same time (which Robert Brenner has analyzed so well). I think Hudson argues convincingly that the ascendance of the banking sector was a way to re-assert control over the rest of the world as we were faced with losing economic dominance and control of natural resource asset values.

All in all, Hudson has a very good understanding and explanation of how banking has become king, and why the US has continued to maintain dominance for a few decades and counting despite balance of payments deficits and, lately, despite burgeoning public debt. That is a huge question to have a trip on, so its a little funny that Kucinich, whom Hudson advised, was regarded as non-serious. Conventional theory and wisdom each suggest that our persevering global economic dominance isn't really possible, but it's been going on too long for that to be true. Theory needs to bend to facts.

By the way, neither Hudson nor others to my knowledge have connected the dots to attribute the ascendance of the bankocracy to the activities of the intelligence agencies, who have always worked for Wall Street. But it looks to me like the intel agencies have had a hand in almost every dirty deed of the past fifty years, which shouldn't really be too surprising since, as Allen Dulles actually wrote, there is no better vehicle for conspiracy than an intelligence agency. (That is their JOB.) There has been so much covert mischief involved in our ascendance to dominance over the Middle East since 1970 that it's hard to imagine the parallel history for the region without it.

Our ability to use our debt as a weapon by making other nations our creditors without relinquishing substantial control of market prices for resources (oil) or the value of the dollar has been quite an impressive trick. But it requires harsh measures against those who threaten a disruption of the system. Call me cynical, but this makes me wonder if Iran's attempt in recent years to develop nuclear energy would be considered so outrageous if Iran hadn't also been flirting with an oil bourse that would allow oil trading in Euros and other non-dollar currencies.

Posted by: N E at December 16, 2009 06:12 PM

Bob in Pacifica,

True dat. Bad shit went down before this, of course, but after this? Well, what before might have been somewhat personal became "just business".

mistah charley, ph.d.,

Haven't yet seen one of those bumper stickers, but sad to say, the logic is becoming more compelling. Not a big one on bumper stickers, but I might sport one on my car just to piss off the O-bots (and maybe the residual W fans, too).

Missing Mike Meyers' trenchant aphorisms. Anybody know what has become of him lately? Hope he is okay. But maybe he just has a case of outrage burnout. I could relate to that.

Es ist schwer ein Lib zu sein.

Posted by: JerseyJeffersonian at December 16, 2009 06:12 PM

N.E. "Our national game is Capitalism". You are incorrect. Our national game is fascism, "The merging of government and corporate interests" to quote one Benito Mussolini, who reportedly knew something of the topic.

Posted by: Bill Jones at December 16, 2009 08:41 PM

Bill Jones

A rose by any other name would still have thorns. Fascism really did sort of end up giving capitalism a good name, didn't it? Back in the old days people thought capitalism was nasty enough. But I get your point, and you get two points for erudition for accuracy in quoting il duce. If you want good analysis of the "base" of American fascism, I recommend Dave Neiwert who blogs under the name Orcinus, or for a more structural/institutional approach sometime go back and leaf through. Bertram Gross's Friendly Fascism, written back in 1980 or so, just before we gave the banks the keys to everything they didn't already have the keys to. Though frankly I think Michael Hudson's analysis of the sell-off of public resources is more prescient.

My word of the day is "prescient."

Posted by: N E at December 17, 2009 12:20 AM

Michael Hudson wrote a trenchant critique of 'neoclassical' economics on the occasion of Paul Samuelson's Nobel prize in 1970 - it is now reposted at Counterpunch.

O=W bumper sticker is available from Zazzle, but a few minutes rooting around indicate to me that William Lind, who claimed to have "observed" it, actually invented it (the offer to sell you one is later than Lind's claim to having seen it, for example). The article in which he said he'd seen one ended:

The real choice Obama faced was not how many troops to send. We do not have enough troops to commit a militarily meaningful number. The real choice was to get out now or get out later. His duty as chief executive, the state of America’s treasury (empty), concern for the well-being of our troops and their families, and the hopelessness of the situation all dictated he get out now. By punting the decision, he showed America and the world what he is made of. Dec. 1, 2009, was the date the Obama presidency failed.

As is typical of American discourse about military control of foreign countries, no explicit mention is made of the gooks/spics/ragheads/hajjis to be killed/crippled/widowed and orphaned. Lind's article was posted at antiwar dot com, where they sometimes do talk as if foreigners are people. Not this time, though.

May the Creative Forces of the Universe have mercy on our souls, if any.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 17, 2009 09:41 AM

I want to soften my claim that William Lind invented, rather than observed, the "O=W" bumper sticker. I don't know that. I suspect it, and was unable to find any reference to "O=W" prior to Lind's first mention. If there is one, then I'm wrong.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 17, 2009 10:23 AM

mistah charley ph.d.

Another fine article by Hudson. Thanks.

Posted by: N E at December 17, 2009 01:14 PM

Thanks for the information concerning the bumper sticker, mistah charley.

If I were to affix it to my bumper, though, I am running the possibility that my car could get keyed by both fascists and liberals. Given that both groups would be disapproving, I imagine that I would get the seal of approval from David Broder, established in his fetishism about hewing to the *Center* as he is. That would be a highly ironic outcome, I must say.

Posted by: JerseyJeffersonian at December 17, 2009 04:33 PM

JerseyJeffersonian You're welcome on the bumper sticker info. I never put any bumper stickers on my car, and regret it even when I have to put a parking bumper sticker on it. Any bumper sticker that expresses an opinion exposes you to hostility from those who dislike it, unfortunately. What most interested me about it was the succinctness, and the mysterious origin, of the phrase.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 17, 2009 05:02 PM

"the possibility that my car could get keyed by both fascists and liberals"

I don't even think the car-keyers would get it without some kind of picture.

Posted by: N E at December 17, 2009 11:25 PM

There IS a picture:

tinyurl dot com slash yge8duw

If you're the bumper sticker type, and you agree with it, you might be proud to put one of these colorful and expressive equations on your car - in its ability to economically convey a powerful message, it is a haiku of bumper stickers

I'd talk myself into getting one, except that I still agree with my previous thought - that I don't want to annoy any drivers behind me, traffic cops, or parking enforcement personnel - not only because, as Socrates said, the philosopher strives not to return evil for evil in proper measure, but rather not to do evil at all -

but also for purely selfish reasons - an annoyed person in any of the categories mentioned might negatively impact my own quality of life

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 18, 2009 07:32 AM

mistah charley, ph.d.

I have been looking at America for Sale by "Jerome Corsi, Ph.d." for purposes of seeing what the great right-wing cult is being told to think these days, which I mention only because Corsi also has a dangling degree. Sorry.

Alas, it's honest of you to admit basic timidity as your reason for not putting on a bumper sticker that you like, but your candid concession does incline me to put ANY bumper sticker on my car. Stalin (not someone I care for) once said that he knew there would never be a revolution in Germany because all the German communists were late to an international conference in Hamburg one year because the ticket machine at their train station was broken and they wouldn't jump the gate. Like the old tyrant, I get a chuckle out of that.

Stalin's observation was right. Even though half of Germany was left-wing as late as 1930, they hardly made a peep when the Nazis took over. I guess the vast majority of those thirty million or so German lefties just couldn't bring themselves to do anything too bold, especially once Dachau opened for troublemakers. Not that I'm trying to stoke revolutionary fervor of a lawbreaking kind with this observation, because I don't think that works outside times of open insurrection, but the psychological trip to total acquiescence is surprisingly short. Timidity about social consequences is enough to get us most of the way there.

I'm not kidding either. Even the Nazis listened to public opinion more than we think. There were protests in Berlin in 1942 when some of the anti-jewish laws were enforced against jewish spouses of non-jews, and believe it or not, the Nazis backed off. Of course, that was people carrying signs on the street, not bumper stickers, but it actually had an impact. Right in the middle of the damn war, with all hell breaking lose everywhere and people being killed by the millions to the east, some Berliners standing in the street with placards changed the policy and saved the lives of some of their family members. Go figure.

Of course, that doesn't mean your bumper sticker will do a damn thing, but that's a different reason not to display it.

Posted by: N E at December 18, 2009 11:46 AM

Clearly I endorsed prudential reasons (timidity) for not putting on my car's bumper a sticker some might find offensive. In addition to being easily cowed, I am also hopeless - that is to say, I do not think that any bumper sticker I put on my car will do any good. After doing the cost/benefit calculation, I see no reason to change my personal policy, which is as much aesthetic as it is political.

On the other hand, I have gone to demonstrations, put signs in my yard, written letters to public officials and to publications, and asked questions in public meetings - so I may not be quite as German as I look, although it is true that my mother's mother's maiden name was Schaeffer.

And while we're debating populist rhetoric and symbolic actions, Glenn Greenwald's column today is worth reading: "One's views of corporatism will play a large role in determining support for the health care bill."

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 18, 2009 02:49 PM

mistah charley

I'm glad to hear you aren't a big chicken.

Greenwald's column is very good.

Posted by: N E at December 18, 2009 06:28 PM

LOL @ NE's comment hehe.

Posted by: acuvue oasys at December 18, 2009 09:11 PM

I find your comment interesting, N E, since you generally seem to sympathize so greatly with Mr. Obama's disinclination to go against the will of our shadowy overlords, also known as Them. I mean, not only might They assassinate him, They might call him names! And being called names would be too much to bear; but that's Democrats for you.

But being beaten and tortured by SS goons, being sent to Dachau, this is no big deal and it's cool to giggle with Stalin at the German Left. I guess our American leftists were made of somewhat sterner stuff in those days: some of them went to Spain to fight the fascists, some fought police and company goons in the labor movement, some put their lives on the line for the African-American struggle. More recently, some American leftists faced riot cops at both 2008 Partei conventions and in Pittsburgh.

I'm a big sissy myself, so I'm not going to judge anyone for not putting their bodies under the clubs. But I do judge liberals and center-rightists and crypto-Republicans who are afraid of being called names by the Right.

Posted by: Duncan at December 19, 2009 05:57 PM


The word "interesting" always reminds me of the old (now very old) Laugh-in line "vvverrry interresting!' That distracts me, though you appear to have been following the more recent usage of 'interesting' to mean 'bullshit'.

Some bravery is physical, and some moral, but there are other kinds too. I was addressing the ability of people to break free of comfortable habits of thought, something mistah charley actually sounds quite able to do. As this issue popped into my mind, it's probably more of an issue for me. I wasn't raised to be daring, and though I've done a modestly dangerous thing or two on occasion, and more things that were quite stupid, even now it takes me some effort to feel comfortable with some kinds of noncomformity. So I understand those German leftists I was chuckling about.

A person can have all the physical and moral courage in the world, but if he can't make himself jump a ticket gate when it's necessary, he won't be much use in a pinch. The German left was easily kept in line after 1933, and for most of them it didn't take beatings by SS goons or a stint in Dachau. That was my point. Most of the time, people don't need to risk their lives to make themselves heard, and even the most repressive regimes care more about public opinion than we assume, so speak out early and often even if you think you'll look stupid. Perhaps especially then. (This isn't the same as calling Congress. In my opinion, letting a Congressman know that you are calling others ABOUT him is more likely to get his attention.)

This touches upon the one respect in which my thought is anarchistic. Institutions need to break down when they abuse their power, because if they don't there is no self-corrective mechanism to prevent them from using more and more extreme measures over time to protect themselves from the constantly ongoing process of historical change. That has been going on in the United States for at least the last several decades, with very bad consequences. (Perhaps I should be more direct and say 'The National Security State' instead of institutions, but the principle would apply to other institutions too, as those who hold power always want to keep it.) The National Security States needs to become convinced that there is some risk of responsibility.

If people can find it within themselves to break free of conformity and question authority in meaningful ways, those who hold power may actually feel at least a bit inhibited by risk. At present that is not the case, which needs to change. Criminals and governments have something in common. No government ever intentionally committed a crime for which it felt sure it would be quickly blamed and punished. So the prospect of accountability, however remote,serves a useful social function.

As for history, I applaud the efforts of the American left, especially remarkable people like Mother Jones and Jane Addams, and since you mention it, the Abraham Lincoln brigade is dear to my heart, but the nearly three thousand Americans who went to Spain and fought against fascism came from a country of 150 million even then. It just wasn't enough. I agree that the Democratic Party's abandonment of labor was a major sin, because I believe that the only prospect of a decent society rests on policies that treat all people with respect, but the prospect of being judged standing alone doesn't affect my views, and I don't think it should. No one should be afraid of being called names by the Right OR by the Left. I try to pay a little attention to why I am doing something or, more likely, NOT doing something, because that makes it more likely that I'll do the right thing. But I don't assume everyone who hold different views from me is a bad person. After all, John Rabe was a member of the Nazi party, and I would be pleased to do a tiny fraction of the good he did in his lifetime.

Posted by: N E at December 19, 2009 07:44 PM
Criminals and governments have something in common. No government ever intentionally committed a crime for which it felt sure it would be quickly blamed and punished. So the prospect of accountability, however remote,serves a useful social function.

And it is the culture of impunity that currently exists which has convinced me recently that it's time for a third party to challenge the MICFiC's monopoly. There will be no fair trials for war criminals as long as the Democratic Party and/or the Republican Party is at the helm. My dear spouse thinks that we will not live long enough to see such a day (like me, missus charley, m.d. is 50something, though not quite so much) - but as the Firesign Theatre put it, allegorically speaking, "If you push something hard enough, it will fall right over" - and I think They (the National Security State, or the MICFiC, to call them by the appellation which is slowly sweeping the blogosphere) don't fully realize how hard they are pushing it.

Everything remains the same - until it doesn't.

May the Creative Forces of the Universe stand beside us, and guide us, through the Night with the Light from Above -- metaphorically speaking.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 20, 2009 07:57 AM

mistah charley, ph.d.

The only problem I have with MICFiC is that saying it reflexively makes me chuckle. I'm still trying to figure out how to be bemused and fired up at the same time.

Posted by: N E at December 20, 2009 08:59 PM