Category Archives: narrative

Feeding the Myth

What is the deal with Martin Feldstein?  He’s a conservative economist, but unlike the political funtionairies now operating what passes for a conservative party in this country, Feldstein understands that the government cannot just stand back and let the market work its magic.  He understands  that our economy faces a crisis, that government spending is the only plausible solution, and that we have to do something now.  But he just can’t let go of the Fannie Mae myth.  Here he is being interviewed on Frontline’s “Inside the Meltdown” last week:

Frontline:  The conservatorship of Fannie [Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association)] and Freddie [Mac (Federal Home Mortgage Corp.)], again, a surprise that this step would be taken, or a necessity?

Feldstein:  I think it was a necessity…. Their purpose on paper was to facilitate lower interest rates and the spread of mortgage availability to low-income individuals, but because there were no creditors watching, of course, why would you care what risks they were taking if you had a U.S. government guarantee? They were able to take outrageous risks, and that’s what we saw happen.
Frontline:  And they contributed to the problem in a sort of big and fundamental way.

Feldstein:  They did, yes.

It would have been nice if the interviewer had asked if he had any evidence to support that conclusion.  Yes, we know they are big, government sponsored enterprises involved in the mortgage market.  But if they were not involved in originating or securitizing junk mortgages (or even owning them as investments) until 2007–how exactly did they contribute to the problem in “a big and fundamental way”? Even Alan Greenspan acknowledges that Fannie and Freddie were not prime drivers of this fiasco.

Yet, Feldstein won’t give it up.  I know everyone has a story they tell themselves about how the world works, and we are always looking for ways to confirm the truth of our own personal story.  Conservatives tell themselves that government causes all problems.  Therefore our financial meltdown must have been caused by some government action.  Enter Fannie Mae. Evidence is irrelevant when the Myth Must Be Fed.

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Obama news

I see Michelle Obama is excited about the country. In fact on Monday she said:

“…for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change.”

Of course, hearing this, McCain smelled blood and sent his wife out to say

“I don’t know about you, if you heard those words earlier–I’m very proud of my country”

The GOP of course are all over it. Brit Hume is so concerned that he’s convened a Panel on Comments of Candidates Wives.

In my opinion, I doubt that Michelle Obama actually meant what she said. Its not that she’s never been proud of her country; it just seems like Bush has been president for a lifetime.

In other Obama news, the conservative framing of Obama is taking shape. It seems that Obama is such a dynamic speaker that they’ve decided that they can’t frame him as “wooden” (a la Gore and Kerry). No, his problem is that he’s all words and no substance. An “empty vessel” according to Rush Limbaugh, a blank slate. The Wall Street Journal is asking “where’s the beef’? In today’s Washington Post Ruth Marcus (is she conservative or liberal?) says

“The Obama campaign, after wallowing in New Age-y — dare I say Oprah-esque? — language, is taking the first unsteady steps toward bolstering rhetoric with specifics.”

I know there’s an inclination here to cite chapter and verse Obama’s proposals for this and that, and to “get specific”, but realistically do we have to go that far? Like Hillary, he’s proposing national health care and exit from Iraq. This isn’t beefy enough?

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Tell a story

Surprisingly, liberal Paul Krugman has been relentlessly criticizing liberal Barrack Obama. Krugman’s main point seems to be that Obama’s campaign strategy has been to attack Hillary from the right. That plays into conservative talking points, he says, because it weakens the progressive argument. For example, Obama apparently ran a scare ad in Iowa recently complaining that “Hillary will force you to buy health insurance, even if you can’t afford it!” Obama’s health care plan doesn’t mandate insurance, you see. Although it likely, effectively, will. It’s kind of complicated.

Obama also advocates raising the cap on wages subject to Social Security tax—currently $98,000. Although a tax increase like that would be clearly progressive and conservatives would complain bitterly–Krugman says this proposal plays into the hands of conservatives who want to claim that SocSec has serious financial problems that must be addressed immediately by…ummmm…cutting benefits. Conservative want SocSec “on the table”; Obama helps them put it there.

I think Krugman has a point.

Having said that, I think its important to note that his criticism isn’t about goals, it’s about political strategy. Or—not even strategy–its about how to succeed, how to get there. There being all those things progressives believe in: universal healthcare, solid commitment to SocSec, etc.

And that’s where I think Krugman and so many smart, technocratic, capable, brilliant liberals miss the point. To get there progressive don’t need their political leaders arguing about the the pros and cons of mandates–a minuscule number of voters understand the issue; even fewer care about it. What progressives need is leaders who can tell a compelling story.

Enter Barrack Obama. As Robert Reich puts it, every successful leader in America has told four stories about the…

  1. The Triumphant Individual
  2. The Benevolent Community
  3. The Rot at the Top
  4. The Mob at the Gates

Democrats have ceded numbers 3 and 4 to conservatives since 1980. For example, conservatives have successfully told the story that “The Rot at the Top” is big government. To counter, liberals don’t need a logical analysis of why that’s not technically true, they need a narrative. Obama can tell a story, and more importantly, he intuitively understands the need to tell a story. I’m not sure he has the right storyline yet, but his instincts are in the right place.

While we wait for Obama to find the right story, I recommend reading Robert Reich’s analysis.

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