Actually, I’m taking a pass this week… I was just pointed to Limericks Économiques, which, logically enough, is a collection of limericks on economics, markets, and current events. It is outstanding and deserves to be browsed for several minutes.
a pair of robots
dance to exhaustion–a bug
but how they jitter
their spent, steaming frames
were not built for this, no–but
let them be repaired
Today’s mystery: Roseanne. Brilliant!
The past few weeks have been rather Busy for your humble correspondent, which is not to say that they have been Unpleasant but rather that they have allowed precious little time for reflection and synthesis. I can’t tell when I’ll be able to resume a more regular schedule, but rest assured that I will feel at least some pangs of guilt the next time an evening is spent with America’s Next Top Model on DVR instead of with my Dear Readers.
During one of these recent Busy weeks, I had the pleasure of taking a brief business trip to Dublin, a place I last visited as a student just under a decade ago. It was a treat to be back, not least of all because I now had the novel combination of comfortable lodging and disposable personal income. I realized that this was the first time I had revisited an international travel destination after any meaningful gap, so it was impossible to resist the temptation to compare notes with my memories and seek out familiar streets and sights. I was pleased to have retained enough of a sense of the geography to project that typical city-kid confidence and purpose even in aimless wandering; within an hour of my first adventure outside the hotel, I was asked for directions by American tourists. (My guess would have been correct, but I punted.)
I don’t at all mean to downplay the distinctiveness of Dublin, but my overarching conclusion was that it felt vaguely more “American” than I had remembered. Some of the parallels were superficial and amusing (e.g., gourmet burger franchises, white people with dreadlocks) but others more ominous (e.g., foreclosed houses, moth-balled construction projects). I remember how shocked I and my fellow American students were at the lack of conspicuous obesity that is such a hallmark of travel within the States. Based on my extremely non-scientific observation from a few hours of walking and pubbing, however, I’d posit that the gap has narrowed as the Irish, perhaps, have widened.
And of course there was the economy. During my summer as a student, the Celtic Tiger was somewhat wobbly on the back of the post-Dot Com global contraction (particularly in IT, which had become one of the country’s strengths) but it was still fundamentally sound. Now… well, even the cab drivers wanted to chat about negative home equity. My reception at the border could only have been more palpably chilly if instead of describing my profession as “Finance” I had opted for “Smothering Cute Animals.” Young Americans are often wise to pretend to be Canadian if they happen to be abroad during moments of geopolitical instability. I think from now on I may offer something squishy and believable in lieu of my actual business purpose; aren’t I, after all, part of the new media by virtue of this site?
I haven’t studied Ireland’s public finances (it’s hard enough to analyze enterprises that aren’t run by politicians) but the contours of their situation will be familiar to most observers of the developed world: gross misallocation (in hindsight!) of capital to housing and construction, whose asset values kept rising until they didn’t; insufficient capital to absorb losses at highly-leveraged financial institutions; sudden structural dislocations in labor markets; prohibitively expensive entitlements but no dry powder for countercyclical fiscal policy; etc etc. Some sort of rationalization is inevitable, but I don’t have a view on when or what will trigger it, or how it will play out in practice.
I would, however, caution against counting Ireland out. In my occasional conversations with businesspeople and with Joe Soap (again, an extremely non-scientific set of data) I was struck by how not-angry it seemed that people were about the situation. Their tones were generally sober and pragmatic – certainly not optimistic – but inflected with a sense of collective responsibility. The narrative was not that the country was screwed by, take your pick: greedy bankers, incompetent government, reckless consumers, or some other Other. It was more like that the country had had a grand old bender and now everyone needed to clean themselves up. Assuming that my reading is fair, this wouldn’t change the vast scale of the problems that Ireland (and many of the world’s governments, i.e., people) have ahead, but it would give me more hope that a solution might be reached there before it’s reached in a country where folks take to the barricades to protect the social entitlements that they refuse to pay for.
Slogans and economic dogma aren’t going to fix the massive structural problems with the world’s economies. Patience, pragmatism, and a sense of collective responsibility, however, seem like constructive places to start.
I’m not sure why, but it feels a bit tacky to write about the news that Osama bin Laden was finally killed – I think it’s possibly too fresh to be suitable for reflection. On a personal level, it’s hard to write something that doesn’t sound trite. The adjectives that leap to mind (cathartic, unifying) are rather obvious, but in this case I don’t think it makes them less apt.
I may come to regret writing this if I’m ever up for a Senate confirmation hearing (heaven forbid) but it has been unusual to feel such a sense of “us vs. them” American-ness. I’m extremely grateful for the rights and privileges (and, yes, the baggage) that come with being an American, but I tend to feel divorced from the concept of American-ness when it comes to realpolitik. We’re pretty hard-wired (and/or conditioned) towards tribalism and group identity, so it’s hard for me not to be skeptical when those levers are deployed to exert power over individuals – particularly when they become pretexts for death and destruction.
And yet, as we say in New York, I’m really fucking happy we got the bastard.
I really hope that this moment of national cohesion can be put to constructive use, although I’m certain our political culture will waste no time in defecating all over it. It would be nice to see the Left retire the conceit that it’s possible (let alone desirable) to always have ethical purity when fighting enemies who don’t. There have been suggestions that critical intelligence for this mission came from detainees at Guantanamo Bay. We may never know if this is true, or if so, what methods were used to acquire this intelligence. The Left should confront the fact that this victory may well have been tainted by connection to Guantanamo. A certain ideological purity would demand rejection and hand-wringing that, to me, initially seem pretty ridiculous. It would be nice to see the Right retire the conceit that liberals are all pantywaists who can’t be trusted to make hard calls that put tangible national interests ahead of vague national ideals. Obama deserves credit for pulling the trigger. And it would be really, really nice to avoid the fruitless debate over whether Dubya or Obama deserves “more” credit. The reality is that each pursued policies that had some successes and failures, and that those of us outside the West Wing have no idea how little we probably know about the complexity behind any policy call (let alone a grand strategy).
One extremely constructive step would be to evaluate the size, scope, and cost of our global military ambitions from this position of relative triumph. We have an extraordinary opportunity to claim this modest victory as a pretext for accelerating our withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq if we think that’s an inevitable outcome, or for doubling down if we think there’s an opportunity to ride momentum for peace-keeping and institution-building. I have no idea what’s the right answer. But I do know that we have a clear need to repair our public finances. It is not at all obvious to me that maintaining a military that is capable of engaging in trillion-dollar campaigns is the smartest way to invest scarce public dollars, relative, say, to education and infrastructure. I think it is going to be much easier to have a real debate about this now that the abstract need to “get Osama” is off the table. I doubt this debate will actually happen to a meaningful degree, but at least there is a window for it.
In the meantime: score one for Team America.