Thursday, February 28, 2008

What's at Stake

Tim Burke on what is at stake:

The first job for the next President is not Iraq and not the economy. I
don’t really hear any of the candidates talking to the key priority as forthrightly as I might like, . . . Look around at the mounting evidence of relentless and reckless misuse of executive power in the last eight years. . . . Not went wrong in Iraq, or with subprime mortgages, or anything else, though those failures are a good demonstration . . .

This is the crisis that is still unfolding, to which I see no easy
resolution. Everything that works about institutional life rests on the habitus of professionals, bureaucrats, experts, on whether they are stewards or parasites, whether they recognize the fragile possibility of a better world or are just looting the till, whether they are humble in the face of wider and more distributed experience and knowledge or whether they are contemptuous of
anything besides their own immediate power. We all know it: this is Arendt’s banality of evil. We do not need to fear the person at the top, but instead the mass force of institutional action. The libertarian answer, to sweep away all institutions (save those of private capital: a blind spot that I still find baffling), is no answer at all, any more than jumping off a cliff is a way to prevent being in an automobile accident.

Once the world all knew that this was the danger we faced, after 1945 (and have had it demonstrated repeatedly since), there has been no way to trust that some day the state or other institutions could be continually perfected until the danger would pass for all time. It will never pass, it can never pass. For the last eight years in the United States, we’ve gotten a reminder of just how close and ominously it lurks.

Institutional failure is also the theme of this article from Wired, TED 2008: How Good People Turn Evil, From Stanford to Abu Ghraib Zimbardo emphasizes the role of heroes, in a way that resonates with Tim Burke, above, but, curiously (to me), does not address the responsibilities of leadership. It would seem an obvious point, to hold those responsible, . . . responsible.

Tanta, reporting on Calculated Risk, on how Fannie Mae may soom re-write the ruleson how appraisals are done, exposes in a very interesting (to me) way, how corporate conglomeration tended to undermine professional responsibility in the complex business of real estate transactions. (Again, curiously missing is any awareness that some elite managers and executives walked away with millions, for making this mess, and those perverse incentives, and not just the perverse incentives of the small fry trapped in the system, might have something to do with the outcome.)

Jay Rosen tackled the disservice done by political journalism in Tomgram: Jay Rosen, Mindlessness in the Media, Campaign 2008 It is a brilliant essay, incorporating a sophisticated understanding of institutional role-playing and routines, but, once again, no awareness that the Cossacks Work for the Czar. The hullabaloo over the McCain/Iseman article in the N.Y. Times drew attention to the cluelessness of the N.Y. Times editors, Bill Keller and Jill Abramson, but I don't see their role anticipated in his analysis. Jay Rosen does not ask if just possibly, say, the reflects the politics, not just of its nominally non-political hackish principals, but of its wealthy publisher, Robert Allbritton.

The political storm has failed to come. Not with Iraq. Not with Abu Ghraib. Not with the U.S. Attorneys firings. Not with contempt of Congress. Not with Katrina, although that was close. Huge shifts in income and wealth have not done it. The insolvency of the banks hasn't done it.

The punditocrisy of Maureen Dowds and Tim Russerts continue to dominate the public discourse with their ignorance and their complacent self-satisfaction, and the great majority of the public remain "low-information" voters, swayed by bumper stickers.

Now, it is all invested in the election, in the person of Barack Obama -- a messiah to redeem us.

I've seen this movie. It did not end well.

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