Monday, December 08, 2008


One of the problems with hiring a Harvard Law School graduate as president is that you're likely to find someone steeped in precedent and shallow - even skeptical of - possibility.

The law, after all, represents the rules of the existing order. It favors the past over the future, the tested over the experimental, the documented over the imagined.

It is necessary, of course, but it is, in the end, a skill rather than a philosophy and is based on reviewing old records rather than opening new windows.

There are plenty of lawyers who understand this and use the law as a tool rather than as a product, which is why, for example, we have the ACLU or the countless volunteer legal advisors to worthy non-profit organizations. My lawyer father used to advise my friends to go to law school but then do something different.

Barack Obama, however, seems one of those attorneys who pride themselves in turning reason into a religion rather than as a road to some place else, the sort who either pompously or pedantically elevate their belief (often self-serving) in caution, the status quo and elite consensus into a god, ignoring Jim Hightower's wisdom that there is little to be found in the middle of the road other than a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.

This is not a political problem, but a cultural one. Here we are, at a moment screaming for new ideas, imagination and reasonable risk and we find ourselves stuck with a Harvard Law School grad whose appointments and pronouncements have been, to date, almost pathetically conventional.

Obama, of course, is not alone. What is truly scary about this crisis is that no one in power has offered a single exciting or appealing idea as to what to do about it. Not Paulson, not Congress, nor the Washington media.

A major part of the problem is that we are run by a generation highly educated in the skill of coming up with approved answers according to the standardized tests of our culture. The current fiasco is a grim warning to those persisting in the mechanical solutions of No Child Left Behind: they produce the sort of adults who are now leaving us all behind. And at the top of the list are the huge number of lawyers that have come in recent decades to control Washington, people who have never had to start, invent, convert, salvage or create anything. At a moment crying for massive change, we are guided by those trained in the art of keeping things as they are.

This struck home when, on the same day, I read the latest frustrating news on the bailout and then this from the Maine Life website

Maine's lobstermen are in such dire straits that many fear the industry won''t survive this recession. But Mainers and Maine businesses have pulled together and are doing everything possible to help out. . .

Downeast Toyota in Bangor has promoted Maine lobster in its automotive advertising, while a full-scale community lobster bake was spearheaded by Heidi Stevens, co-owner of By George Jewelers in Rockland.

Lobster appreciation events in the coastal Maine communities of Georgetown, Rockland, Stonington and Boothbay Harbor have resulted in the sale of over 10,000 lobsters, with additional lobster bakes and promotional plans in the works in other communities.

Maine state representative Leila Percy of Phippsburg wrote and recorded a lobster jingle featured in the PSA campaign.

Hannaford, Shaw''s and Wegmans supermarkets are featuring Maine lobster promotions in their stores in New England and New York.

Restaurants, including the Weathervane seafood chain and DiMillo''s Floating Restaurant in Portland, also have launched lobster promotion efforts and advertising campaigns.

Lobster retailers are donating back proceeds from their sales to the Maine Institute and Grudens, who make the foul weather gear and overalls worn by almost every lobstermen, is donating a portion of the proceeds from their "eat lobster" t-shirts back to the institute as well.

Recently, we've been invited to and have eaten more lobster dinners than I care to count. Everyone is buying lobsters having friends over and doing what they can to help out. Others are shipping lobsters to friends and family far and wide.

Such behavior is in the old Maine tradition of "fix it up, make it do, wear it out, use it up, do without," a spirit that is almost entirely absent from Washington. Lobstering is also a complex form of competition and cooperation totally foreign to free marketers. I once knew a lobsterman in Maine who was badly injured. With a few days, all of his traps had been hauled and neatly stored - a service to him, his competitors and the lobsters, a communal act totally alien to the way Washington thinks and acts.

While Obama's public works program will undoubtedly help, it is a sign of how far the capital is from reality that the new administration is being compared to FDR's New Deal. As Steve Fraser wrote in Tom Dispatch, it is no such thing:

A suffocating political and intellectual provincialism has captured the new administration in embryo. Instead of embracing a sense of adventurousness, a readiness to break with the past so enthusiastically promoted during the campaign, Obama seems overcome with inhibitions and fears. . .

All of these people [of FDR's administration] -- the corporatists and the Keynesians, the planners and the anti-trusters -- were there at the creation. They often came to blows. A genuine administration of "rivals" didn't faze FDR. He was deft at borrowing all of, or pieces of, their ideas, then jettisoning some when they didn't work, and playing one faction against another in a remarkable display of political agility. Roosevelt's tolerance of real differences stands in stark contrast to the new administration's cloning of the Clinton-era brainiacs.

It was this openness to a variety of often untested solutions -- including at that point Keynesianism -- that helped give the New Deal the flexibility to adjust to shifts in the country's political chemistry in the worst of times. If the New Deal came to represent a watershed in American history, it was in part due to the capaciousness of its imagination, its experimental elasticity, and its willingness to venture beyond the orthodox. Many failures were born of this, but so, too, many enduring triumphs.

Of course, failure is a dirty word these days in national politics, Far better to simply spend a lot more money doing things the same old way. Then, when you fail, it will be harder to notice.

The mere fact that Obama, his aides and the Washington media speak of rebuilding "infrastructure" is a clue. No one outside of politicians, think tankers, and media uses this term. Real Americans call it bridges, roads, and schools or, if you want to be really abstract, public works. The term "infrastructure" reveals both the distance of the capital from ordinary people and the ability of the city to turn even the most visibly tangible object into an invisible, intangible gossamer.

A major portion of his plan involves roads and bridges. As Obama puts it, "We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s.

Clearly roads and bridges need rebuilding. But why at a time when people are so ready for change - they even thought they voted for it - is Obama limiting himself to something so cautious? Here are a few of the things that appear to have been ignored:

- Why not provide money for parallel mass transit rail lines or exclusive bus lanes on roads being rebuilt?

- Why not provide money for creation or expansion of such services within cities as well as intra neighborhood transit as we move towards more self-sufficient and less transportation dependent communities? Americans are already voting with their fare cards: transit and rail ridership is going up while road use is down.

- Why not provide for a major expansion of rail service in the US? How can such a self-assumed intelligent administration ignore the need for America to catch up with the rest of the world in this area? And we're not talking, Biden like, about sexy high speed trains that will serve the elite but freight lines and ordinary passenger routes that are desperately needed.

- Why not spend money on facilities that will reduce the need for people to commute, such as neighborhood business centers where workers can hold video conferences, such as with their colleagues at suburban headquarters?

- Why not spend money on facilities that will reduce the need for people to travel longer distances by helping to change the general migratory culture of business? Much of this movement - such as for conferences and conventions - is ritualistic, while it remains unnecessarily difficult for colleagues on a specific topic to come together because, say, one is in Denmark, one in Thailand and the other in Des Moines.

In short, why is so little of this money being spent on two of our most pressing needs: stopping people from having to move around so much and finding cheaper ways of doing it when they must?

One reason is that the modern, well educated, legalized, corporatized and bureaucratized official finds it hard to think this way. The other answer is that we need results in a hurry and we don't have time to plan.

That would be an appealing argument if it were not for a bit of history that doesn't get enough attention - not the New Deal depression years but the massive conversion of the country as a result of World War II. Christopher J. Tassava described it for Economic History Services . As you read it, ask yourself: could we do this now and if not, why not?

"Conversion" was the key issue in American economic life in 1940-1942. In many industries, company executives resisted converting to military production because they did not want to lose consumer market share to competitors who did not convert. Conversion thus became a goal pursued by public officials and labor leaders. In 1940, Walter Reuther, a high-ranking officer in the United Auto Workers labor union, provided impetus for conversion by advocating that the major automakers convert to aircraft production. Though initially rejected by car-company executives and many federal officials, the Reuther Plan effectively called the public's attention to America's lagging preparedness for war. Still, the auto companies only fully converted to war production in 1942 and only began substantially contributing to aircraft production in 1943. . .

Merchant shipbuilding mobilized early and effectively. The industry was overseen by the U.S. Maritime Commission, a New Deal agency established in 1936 to revive the moribund shipbuilding industry, which had been in a depression since 1921, and to ensure that American shipyards would be capable of meeting wartime demands. . . The entire industry had produced only 71 ships between 1930 and 1936, but from 1938 to 1940, commission-sponsored shipyards turned out 106 ships, and then almost that many in 1941 alone. . .

[Another] wartime socioeconomic trend was somewhat ironic, given the reduction in the supply of civilian goods: rapid increases in many Americans' personal incomes. Driven by the federal government's abilities to prevent price inflation and to subsidize high wages through war contracting and by the increase in the size and power of organized labor, incomes rose for virtually all Americans - whites and blacks, men and women, skilled and unskilled.

Despite the focus on military-related production in general and the impact of rationing in particular, spending in many civilian sectors of the economy rose even as the war consumed billions of dollars of output. Hollywood boomed as workers bought movie tickets rather than scarce clothes or unavailable cars. Americans placed more legal wagers in 1943 and 1944, and racetracks made more money than at any time before. In 1942, Americans spent $95 million on legal pharmaceuticals, $20 million more than in 1941. Department-store sales in November 1944 were greater than in any previous month in any year. Black markets for rationed or luxury goods - from meat and chocolate to tires and gasoline - also boomed during the war.

As observers during the war and ever since have recognized, scientific and technological innovations were a key aspect in the American war effort and an important economic factor in the Allies' victory. While all of the major belligerents were able to tap their scientific and technological resources to develop weapons and other tools of war, the American experience was impressive in that scientific and technological change positively affected virtually every facet of the war economy. . .

Aerospace provides one crucial example. American heavy bombers, like the B-29 Superfortress, were highly sophisticated weapons which could not have existed, much less contributed to the air war on Germany and Japan, without innovations such as bombsights, radar, and high-performance engines or advances in aeronautical engineering, metallurgy, and even factory organization.

Encompassing hundreds of thousands of workers, four major factories, and $3 billion in government spending, the B-29 project required almost unprecedented organizational capabilities by the U.S. Army Air Forces, several major private contractors, and labor unions. Overall, American aircraft production was the single largest sector of the war economy, costing $45 billion (almost a quarter of the $183 billion spent on war production), employing a staggering two million workers, and, most importantly, producing over 125,000 aircraft. . .

Between 1939 and 1945, the hundred merchant shipyards overseen by the U.S. Maritime Commission produced 5,777 ships at a cost of about $13 billion. Four key innovations facilitated this enormous wartime output. First, the commission itself allowed the federal government to direct the merchant shipbuilding industry. Second, the commission funded entrepreneurs, the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser chief among them, who had never before built ships and who were eager to use mass-production methods in the shipyards. These methods, including the substitution of welding for riveting and the addition of hundreds of thousands of women and minorities to the formerly all-white and all-male shipyard workforces, were a third crucial innovation. Last, the commission facilitated mass production by choosing to build many standardized vessels like the ugly, slow, and ubiquitous "Liberty" ship. By adapting well-known manufacturing techniques and emphasizing easily-made ships, merchant shipbuilding became a low-tech counterexample to the atomic-bomb project and the aerospace industry, yet also a sector which was spectacularly successful. . .

Reconversion spurred the second major restructuring of the American workplace in five years, as returning servicemen flooded back into the workforce and many war workers left, either voluntarily or involuntarily. . .

Servicemen obtained numerous other economic benefits beyond their jobs, including educational assistance from the federal government and guaranteed mortgages and small-business loans via the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944 or "G.I. Bill." Former servicemen thus became a vast and advantaged class of citizens which demanded, among other goods, inexpensive, often suburban housing; vocational training and college educations; and private cars which had been unobtainable during the war. . .

The U.S. emerged from the war not physically unscathed, but economically strengthened by wartime industrial expansion, which placed the United States at absolute and relative advantage over both its allies and its enemies.

In brief, as economic historian Alan Milward writes, "the United States emerged in 1945 in an incomparably stronger position economically than in 1941". . .
Will we be able to say something similar four years from now? We might if we shifted automobile production to trains and ecological products just as Walter Reuther got plants to shift to planes or as Budd shifted from building Dodge parts to building railroad cars before World War I. We might if we treated the environmental crisis with the same seriousness was we did WWII. Or if we were willing to use this time to build an exciting, imaginative future rather than just rebuilding freeways we shouldn't really be using anyway.

It clearly happened during the Roosevelt years. In a non-economic sense, it also happened during Lyndon Johnson's Great Society when more good legislation was passed in less time than at any other point in American history.

But it's not happening now, despite all the talk about hope and change, and it won't happen unless we honor innovation, imagination, creativity, reasonable risk and possibility more than we do today - the sort of values that built America until we decided being smart didn't have to include them anymore.