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House Caught Between Barack and a Hard Place

U.S. polls indicate Americans remain enthusiastic about their president but not so regarding his economic stimulus plan.  But as a teacher, used to the silence and blank stares of a classroom, I’ve got a different take on their antipathy.  It’s not that they don’t support the plan, they don’t get it.  And what you don’t get-in this case, quite rightly-you fear.

 North Americans-hell, people in general-have become so dumbed down, so coddled by the 15-second sound byte, it’s no wonder the finer points of an $800 billion dollar lifeline get lost in translation.  But in this case, Joe Public’s not alone.  ‘Cause while everyone’s got an opinion-what will work, what won’t-no one knows for sure.  Not you or I, Republicans or Democrates; the brash (unaccountable) media, and certainly not the economists who advise them.  And while the theory of jolting the economy back to life with government spending is a good one-hell, it worked for Roosevelt, right?-that’s all it is, economic theory, like betting red when black’s on a roll . . . or betting black for exactly the same reason.  The streak’s bound to change eventually, right?  Well sure . . . unless it remains the same.

 But here’s where economic theory and gambling “strategy” diverge:  Confidence.  A bold economic plan with everyone on board stands a good chance of success, like any team whose players commit.  But with gambling, it’s different.  All the confidence in the world won’t help you roll 7’s.

 Enter Barack Obama.

 While his contentious stimulus package remains a hard sell, the popular president used his first prime-time conference to start rallying support.  Gone was the incredulity of the previous week, when the president weakly scolded Wall Street for their untimely bonuses. Rather, a strong, intelligent unBush-like Obama discoursed for the press-and millions watching-on the cause and effect of the current calamity.  He did so without teleprompter, notes or advisors-eyes levelled, tone direct; steady calm during crisis-the perfect contrast to “expert” panellists and politicians everywhere, knee-jerk criticism without burden of consequence, second-guessing as a matter of course.

 Consumer spending didn’t cause the problem, he says, but consumer spending can help get us out.

 “What got us into this mess were banks taking exorbitant, wild risks with other people’s monies based on shaky assets.  And because of the enormous leverage where they had $1 worth of assets and they were betting $30 on that $1, what we had was a crisis in the financial system.  That led to a contraction of credit, which in turn meant businesses couldn’t make payroll or make inventories, which meant that everybody became uncertain about the future of the economy.  So people started making decisions accordingly-reducing investment, initiated layoffs-which in turn made things worse.”

 Rekindling investment is what we need to make things better, and in order to that, he says, the government has to ante up.  And while he’s quick to add that immediate action won’t guarantee success, he’s certain inaction will guarantee failure.  Not good money after bad, he maintains, but money well spent.

 “If all we’re doing is spending and not making anything, then eventually the party’s going to be over.  Our immediate job is to stop the downward spiral.  That means putting money into consumer’s pockets, it means loosening up credit, it means putting forward investments that not only employ people immediately, but also lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth.  We have to change our bad habits, but right now we have to pull ourselves out of this economic slump.  We’ve got to restore confidence so that private capital flows back in.”

 Easier said than done.  In a day and age when everyone’s got an opinion, hyperbolic headlines scream for attention and calamity sells, faith is a commodity that’s hard to come by.  But that’s what this president-a basketball enthusiast who realizes that the sum of a team is greater than its parts-seems to be all about.  Whether “Yes, We Can” or “No, We Can’t,” in both cases, he believes, you’re right. 

 So while the plan’s detractors criticize it as reckless, Obama presents himself as anything but a gambler.  “This notion that I came in here ginned up to spend $800 billion, that wasn’t how I envisioned my presidency beginning.”  Rather, he says, he’s trying to “adapt to the circumstances”-intelligent, pragmatic, the very antithesis of media sceptics who confound and confuse.

 So here’s the scenario:  You’re a member of Congress with economic theories spread out before you, like statistics or tarot cards, they can mean what you want.  You’re in a tough spot, between Barack and a hard place, all in or fold  . . . what do you do? 

 Well, in the words of Aetius Romulous, the distinguished-maybe crazy-social commentator:  “Embrace the Debt, America.  It’s the only chance you have.”

 And why not, I think.  We’ve already bet the house.

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