Inching Down the Limb

by Shaun Kieran

I’m big on humility since,  in addition to having lots to be personally humble about, it turns out that being humble is also when the best learning  occurs.  Right now is a good example.  I used to think I was pretty decent at sensing the Zeitgeist, had a good early handle on the likely public “take” on an issue, then could predict pretty well how it will play out politically – whether I agreed with it or not.

But in the current economic crisis, I have no clue what most people are thinking and feeling about how we got here and where we should go from here. I certainly do see the screaming, the accusations, and the denunciations.  Obviously, I see political paralysis. I’m aware of what people want me to think. I endlessly hear the drumbeat of the “narratives” – and I note well the supposedly sophisticated point of view that reality is nothing but competing narratives. That’s why there’s so much shrillness: people fear the “wrong” narrative will manage to prevail if it isn’t denounced and scorned out of existence.

Because I try to converse with smart (but humble) people of all political stripes, I still do encounter honest Democrats who admit to worrying privately that massive deficit spending, in the midst of a massive public debt, isn’t succeeding at righting the ship and returning us to that good old, reliable prosperity – 3% GDP yearly increase – anytime soon.

Likewise, I know Republicans and conservative-types who do actually worry that slam-the-brakes austerity may indeed exacerbate the recession, as so many fear – even though they otherwise still strongly believe that mindlessly funding the government sector and piling up debt is stupid and self-destructive.

Sadly though, they’re minorities within their own ideological groups. Moderation, reasonableness, and acknowledging the valid concerns of people with whom you disagree is mostly seen as vacillation and weakness by the swath of our fellow citizens fortunate enough to possess the correct narrative.

What I’m not sure about, what I don’t have any “feel” for this time, is what the majority of people in the middle – centrists, independents, as well as those above and below the political spectrum who avoid politics – really think has happened to the world.

Is it even possible to arrive at a tentative, essentially intuitive “take” on the current crisis that doesn’t, by virtue of the words used when it’s expressed, automatically place someone in one camp or another? Greedy bankers, big government liberals, the Nanny state, profits over people.  People barely get started thinking out loud, yet they’re jumped on right away. Can an adult conversation even happen?

As a current affairs guy I’m all for talking about any and all of the issues: the size and role of government, how big a military can we have, how best to cut the debt, etc., and I never expect everyone to be fully informed on everything, but I’m struck by the ignorance and incoherence people reveal with zero humlity as they go after the villains inhabiting their thought-free narratives – the very last thing we need with so much at stake.

This is the group I always counted on in the clutch to finally, reluctantly, start paying attention to what it really thinks, not what others want it to think, and then throw its weight so that we’re all nudged onto the difficult, but necessary path.

Even for me, that last sentence seems laughably naïve.

I’m seeing so many overwhelmed people, too “busy” to think, let alone do much about the mess we’re in.  I see everyone’s eyes glued to cell phones.  It’s a tough world out there. The most angry and certain among us have political religions and are required by their political faiths to “take action,” but most regular people have too much on their plate now and would rather be able to take a nap.

Normally what happens next politically would reflect the broad middle’s response to what it thinks is the real problem – and therefore the best solution to that problem – even if the constituent groups of the Left and Right don’t like it and scream bloody murder.  At least that way we make higher quality mistakes from which we might learn.

I admit it, though. I’m not that optimistic.

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