Beware politicians who warn of a crisis

We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime, a crisis that has only deepened over the last few weeks. […]

Now, I don’t believe it’s too late to change course, but it will be if we don’t take dramatic action as soon as possible. […]

There is no doubt that the cost of this plan will be considerable. It will certainly add to the budget deficit in the short term.

But equally certain are the consequences of doing too little or nothing at all, for that will lead to an even greater deficit of jobs, incomes, and confidence in our economy.

It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth. But at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the cycle that is crippling our economy.

Barack Obama, in an economic statement Jan. 9, ten days before he takes office.

When politicians use the word “crisis”, it makes me nervous.

We’re just saying goodbye to eight years of crisis talk by the Bush administration. To be precise, seven years and four months:  from Sept. 11, 2001, through to the last days of the Bush presidency.

To paraphrase Obama:  a crisis justifies government in taking dramatic action. Right away!

At least he didn’t add, If you don’t support the government’s plan, you’re a commie faggot terrorist-sympathizing elitist anti-American enemy of freedom!

The p.s. is a paraphrase of President Bush, of course. Aggressive rhetoric was Bush’s standard tactic to suppress political opposition and democratic debate. And for a while, it worked. President Bush’s crisis talk produced a compliant population and a compliant political opposition.

Hence the title of this post:  Beware politicians who warn of a crisis.

We’re just saying goodbye to eight years of crisis talk by the Bush administration, and President-elect Obama is preparing to take office with some crisis talk of his own. It’s worrisome.

I’m an Obama supporter and I think there’s good reason to trust him. There seems to be a consensus among economists that a big stimulus package is the right medicine for this economic, uh … crisis.

The LA Times says that Keynesian economic theory has been discredited, but I don’t agree. What has been discredited is the tendency of certain governments to run massive deficits in times of prosperity. Take another bow, President Bush:

The federal government had a modest budget surplus when Bush took office in 2001, but ran a deficit — funding itself to a significant degree with borrowed money — of 4.9 percent of gross domestic product in 2004 and 4 percent in 2005, even as the economy was growing at a healthy pace.

Moreover, the fact that a bunch of hard-right Republican types are crying foul, and demanding big tax cuts for the wealthy instead, only strengthens my conviction that Obama has the right idea.

But when governments engage in crisis talk, the public needs to become exceptionally alert. The public should have been less credulous post 9/11. We should have grown suspicious when the administration kept changing its rationale for the invasion of Iraq. We should have paused to consider whether it was wise to divert attention to another theatre of war while Osama bin laden was still on the loose. We should have asked whether the prediction that American troops would be greeted as liberators, with flowers, was absurd and utopian. And when things went badly awry, the public should have demanded a change in leadership and a change in strategy — the sort of change that was finally introduced to Iraq only in 2006.

In a word, the public should have been more sceptical.

We shouldn’t forget this lesson now, just because Barack Obama is riding a wave of good will. He has impressed us greatly so far, and we all want him to succeed.

But that doesn’t mean we should avert our eyes, and let him run the show however he chooses. We should consider alternative points of view — unless the alternative prescription is to continue the very policies which have proven disastrous.

In fact, one of the reasons I trust Obama is because he engages with dissenting points of view instead of suppressing them. That may be the single most important metric to monitor. If Obama is engaging with his detractors, transparently and respectfully, we can take considerable comfort in that.

But if a time should come when Obama begins to belittle his political opponents and dismiss their suggestions reflexively — that would be a huge warning sign.

The general principle is, Beware politicians who warn of a crisis. Obama certainly deserves our trust as he takes office — but he deserves our scrutiny, too. That’s how democracy works.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl
    Jan 18, 2009 @ 21:28:18

    Take it from someone who lives in the U.S., and a Republican at that–we ARE in an economic crisis. The number of people close to me who have unexpectedly lost their jobs in the last few weeks is staggering. Here in California, the state is going to be paying vendors with IOU’s in a few weeks because there is no money. Tax refunds and student grants are to be delayed. Schools will run out of money to pay personnel in a matter of weeks. My district, which is pretty financially sound, will run out of money in 60 days.

    I am a tenured teacher, but looking at a layoff for next year because all teachers hired in the last seven years may have to go. There will be no teaching jobs in my state, because this is happening statewide.

    The housing market is at a standstill because people can’t buy. There are “for sale” and “for rent” signs everywhere in my area, where it used to be hard to find an available home. Suburbs in some parts of America are emptying out.

    Does Obama deserve scrutiny? Certainly all of our leaders do. But make no mistake, the economic crisis here in the U.S. if very real, and very frightening.


  2. Stephen
    Jan 18, 2009 @ 21:39:49

    Hi, Cheryl!

    I’m certainly not denying that there’s an economic crisis in the USA. And I’m very sorry to hear that your job may be in jeopardy. My impression is that the kids just love you, so you deserve better than that.

    My point is just that politicians can get away with mischief under the cover of a crisis. For example, we had our own (relatively small potatoes) scandal here in Canada when the Liberal government used the cover of a national unity crisis to spread a lot of money around the province of Quebec. At least some of that money ultimately made its way into the pockets of Liberal Party officials.

    The national unity crisis was real, but it created an opportunity for hanky-panky. Hence the need for heightened scrutiny whenever politicians start talking about a crisis.


  3. Juggling mother
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 14:28:01

    I agree that he’s been a “little” over hyped.

    I’m reserving judgement until I see some actual progress in the US home & foreign policies.

    Although there is a crisis in the US financial world, and he does seem hopeful as Presaident, I don’t have enough info to really judge that as yet.


  4. nebcanuck
    Jan 21, 2009 @ 16:18:34

    Honestly, the crisis talk just seems to me like he’s trying to seem strong. One of the things that lost Kerry the election against Bush in ’04 was the fact that Bush managed to convince everyone that he was too weak to take on the terrorists. There was a time that many people were saying that the terrorists were “just waiting” for Obama to be elected, because he’d be so light on them and they’d be able to take advantage of the situation.

    Well, crisis talk makes him sound strong, all right. No palling around with those terrorists. If you’re not on our side… if you’ll get in the way of our changing America and changing the world, you’ll meet our fist. Oh, and just so you know, we won’t apologize for our composure. We’ll change it, but we weren’t wrong no siree because that would be weak!

    Truth is, Obama hasn’t made clear what action he’s going to take, and chances are it’ll be small and pragmatic steps. That’s all he has to do to appear to be a great president after Bush, and that’s all anyone really can do in light of economic turmoil. I think a lot of the speech was just emotional rhetoric to make people feel comfortable that he’s going to lead the country in a new direction without being weak.


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