“He showed us the working man’ s home, all optimism and simple trust, believing every word he read in the papers about Ocean Breeze’s form; depriving his wife and children of food in order to back the brute; going without beer so as to be able to cram an extra bob on; robbing the baby’s moneybox with a hat-pin on the eve of the race; and finally getting let down with a thud. Dashed impressive it was.”
— from Comrade Bingo (The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse)
After the machismo of Shock and Awe in Iraq and Afghanistan, after Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, after Detention without Trail and Eavesdropping without Warrant, after scattering the antiwar protesters of St. Paul, the Daddy State has perforce had to display a feminine side, and reluctantly don the oft-reviled garb of the Nanny State.
To paraphrase Paul Krugman in today’s NYT, a lot of Republicans are suddenly discovering that, contrary to the Reagan Doctrine, government is not the problem but the solution.
With all their worship of Japanese methods in the 80’s, our business elites have studiously failed to imbibe the spirit of seppukku. Running their companies into the ground while simultaneously berating government and politicians as roadblocks, they display no shame now as they depart with fat severance packages and other perks and fade away into the Hamptons. The country is left holding their IOU’s.
I once asked the Magsaysay Award winning journalist P. Sainath, famous for highlighting farm suicides in India, why the farmers commited suicide. Was it because they had nothing to eat? His reply stunned me. He said it was because they felt they had lost their honor — they were unable to keep a promise, unable to repay their loans — this they could not bear. Their defaults, incidentally, are in mere thousands of rupees, a far cry from the billions of dollars (and 1 dollar = 45 rupees) defaulted on by the beautiful people who grace the covers of BusinessWeek, Fortune and Forbes.
F. Scott Fitzgerald observed: the rich are not like you and me.
Less palatable is the truth that in matters of honor, you and me are nothing like the Indian farmer either.
A few months ago, 60 Minutes had a segment on the housing bust. There was the inevitable visit to a home of a couple facing foreclosure. The man and woman, living in a sizable residence in a well-to-do Southern California suburb, were telling the incredulous correspondent that they had not grasped the terms of the loan contract. It was a balloon loan, where the teaser rate suddenly jumped. They certainly did not seem unlettered peasants. But they were quite unembarrassed in saying they didn’t understand the repayment schedule.
Alexander Sozhenitsyn, in his Harvard speech, noted the widespreadness of legalism in America, “Every conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution”. He was referring to the propensity to try and interpret every technicality to one’s advantage. He continued, “If one is risen from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk: this would simply sound absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames.”
Thus the borrowers squeezed the maximum mortgage out on their homes when that was technically allowed. Now they were equally technical in claiming they did not understand the fine print, even as politicians in a political year stand in line to pander to this ridiculous claim.
Yesterday Barack Obama, in an otherwise picture-perfect speech in New Mexico, even went so far to say that the Hispanic community had been a particular victim of bad loans. Certainly the mathematics of balloon interest rates might be too arcane for anyone, Hispanic or not. But some other math is quite straightforward: Colorado + New Mexico=14 electoral votes.
The art of the technical pervades the political sphere, where one might be forgiven for expecting a broader view. Hillary Clinton went to the Primary Gallows sticking to her story that she didn’t really believe the Iraq War Resolution was to authorize a War in Iraq. Joe Biden still says the same. Barack Obama clings to his initial opposition to the Iraq War, after which he progressively lowered his volume on this subject to silence. Of John McCain, it seems with each passing day that he is, well, what’s the equivalent of Legally Blind for lucidity? After talking of the Surge, making a couple of catty remarks about Obama, and saying he can’t wait to introduce his political bride to Washington, he’s a spent force. But the Head of the Class in technicality seems to be Sarah Palin, who appears all set to mute investigation of her Alaskan mal-practices with a series of points of order.
It is this same shield of technicality (“we lack a filibuster-proof majority”) which, if you believe Nancy Pelosi, keeps her from investigating this administration for its crimes and seeking impeachment, as is her duty. But we have grown adept at using technicality as a versatile Swiss Army Knife to dosomething — or not to do it — per our convenience.
In the aftermath of the bloodbath on Wall Street, there has been brave talk among the political campaigners of recovering something from the fat cats, penalizing those who caused all this turmoil and drove their institutions into the sand.
Fair enough. But to get technical about it, why should the high-ups of AIG or Lehman Brothers or Fannie Mae alone pay with their bonuses and golden parachutes when the highest in the land are about to walk away scot-free after failing to safeguard their country, starting an unprovoked war resulting in the death, dismemberment, dispersal and dislocation of millions, and repeatedly violating their oaths to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution?
Niranjan Ramarkrishnan lives on the West Coast. He can be reached at email@example.com.