Words for a Shaken People

By Michael Kinsley
Friday, February 27, 2009

"We're having an earthquake," said my wife. It was early one recent morning, as we sat drinking coffee and reading the day's gloomy economic news. Was she being metaphorical? At this hour? We sat in nervous silence for a few seconds, mentally listing our regrets. (Her: Why didn't we put flashlights in all the bedrooms? Me: Why didn't we sell all these bedrooms and rent?) Then we resumed our day.

"The American Earthquake" is what the critic Edmund Wilson called his collection of reportage (mostly for the New Republic) about the Great Depression, and as a metaphor it's a good one. It captures, as "Depression" does not, the element of surprise, the panic, the remorse and the disbelief as it seems more and more likely that this actually is "the big one."

Wilson's book illustrates that some things never change. He attends the testimony of the president of National City Bank (yup, now Citicorp), one "Sunshine Charley" Mitchell, who "sold [Americans] the stock of motor-car companies that were presently to dissolve into water; . . . he sold them the stock of his own bank, which dropped . . . from $572 to $220, and which was recently worth $20." This sort of experience led to the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, forbidding banks to sell stocks, that was repealed in 1999.

Wilson attends a speech by a Republican politician who could have been Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivering the reply to President Obama's speech this week: "At Trenton, Mr. Morrow tells the people that 'the resources of the United States are not going to help Trenton out of its difficulties. [That] will be accomplished by its people.' "

Jindal has gotten savage reviews for recycling all the tired Republican nonsense about salvation through tax cuts. If that stuff worked economically, we wouldn't be where we are today, and if it worked politically the Republican Party wouldn't be where it is, either. But even more telling, I thought, was Jindal's little opening riff about how all Americans are so thrilled to see a black president addressing Congress. It seemed so stale, so yesterday. Suddenly Republicans are the party obsessed with color. With blinding speed, the country has moved beyond all that. We've got troubles, we need a leader, and if he can just reassure us that everything will be okay, we don't care what color he is.

Obama's speech was (I'm sorry -- I don't gush often -- but this is what I thought) magnificent. Obama explained things like the credit crunch with remarkable clarity, but without any (Bill) Clintonian teacher-teacher-call-on-me.

Americans love being told how wonderful we are and how -- despite appearances -- it is physically impossible for us to fail at anything to which we put our wonderful American minds and spirit. Obama had just enough of that to make his more astringent remarks digestible.

Words alone can't solve a global economic crisis, but they can help, since the central challenge is reviving demand, which means reviving confidence, and the main enemy really is, as the man said, "fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror." When FDR, in his first inaugural address (1933), identified the only thing we had to fear, he was being truer than he could have known. Keynes's General Theory, which laid it all out, wasn't published until 1936. It's interesting to compare Obama's first big presidential speech with Roosevelt's. On the all-important Reassure-o-Meter, I'd call it a tie. Roosevelt wins points for venturing into dangerous areas. For example, he talked at length about "the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success." Can you imagine what Fox News could do with a line like that if a Democratic president (let alone a rich Democratic president) uttered it today? On the other hand, FDR talks about "the overbalance of population in our industrial centers" and calls for a national program to send back home "those best fitted for the land." Not quite sure what that's all about, but Al Sharpton could have a good time with it.

Of course, the crisis Roosevelt was dealing with far surpasses anything we face today -- at least to date. The so-called Greatest Generation lived through the Great Depression (perhaps soon to be renamed World Depression I) and through World War II. My generation, children of the Greatest Generation, has spent its entire adult life waiting for the "big one" -- waiting, that is, for a world-historical challenge. We always figured it would be a war. Guess again.

Oh, and by the way, my wife was right: There was an earthquake that morning. A 4.5 on the Richter scale. Not the Big One. Yet.


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