Greater Than the Great Depression?

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The Day the Earth Still Stood
What Will Obama Inherit?
By Tom Engelhardt

Inauguration day!

Gazillions of Americans descended on Washington. The rest of us were watching on TV or checking out streaming video on our computers. No one was paying attention to anything else. Every pundit in sight was nattering away all day long, as they will tomorrow and, undoubtedly, the next day about whatever comes to mind until we get bored. And in the morning, when this post is still hanging around in your inbox, you’ll be reading your newspaper on well, you know the same things: Obama’s speech! So many inaugural balls! Etc., etc.

So I’m thinking of this post as a freebie, a way to lay out a little news about the world that no one will notice. And all I can say — for those of you who aren’t reading this anyway, and in the spirit of the clunky 1951 sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still — is: Klaatu barada nikto!

Okay, no actual translation of that phrase (to the best of Wikipedia’s knowledge) exists. We do know that, when invoked, the three words acted as a kind of “fail-safe” device, essentially disarming the super-robot Gort (which arrived on the Washington Mall by spacecraft with the alien Klaatu). That was no small thing, since Gort was capable not just of melting down tanks but possibly of ending life on this planet. Still, I remain convinced, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the phrase could also mean: “Whew! We’re still here!”

Though I skipped the recent remake of the film, which bombed (so to speak), I consider this post my remake, though with a slightly altered title:

January 20, 2009: The Day the Earth Still Stood.

Klaatu barada nikto has, by the way, been called “the most famous phrase ever spoken by an extraterrestrial.” After watching the final press conference of George W. Bush, I wonder.

Now, whether Bush was the extraterrestrial and Dick Cheney the super (goof-it-up) robot, or vice-versa, is debatable, but whatever the case, let’s celebrate the obvious: We’re still here, more or less, and they’re gone. Dick Cheney to fish and shoot. George W. to think big, big thoughts at his still-to-be-built library. Let’s face it, on the day on which Barack Obama has taken the oath of office, that constitutes something of a small miracle. But a nagging question remains: just how small?

Or rather, just how large is the disaster? If the Earth still stands, how wobbly is it?

In fact, our last president — in that remarkable final news conference of his (“the ultimate exit interview,” he called it) in which he swanned around, did his anti-Sally Fields imitation (you don’t like me, right now, you don’t like me!), sloshed in self-pity while denouncing self-pity, brimmed with anger, and mugged (while mugging the press) — even blurted out one genuine, and startling, piece of news. With the Washington press corps being true to itself to the last second of his administration, however, not a soul seemed to notice.

Reporters, pundits, and analysts of every sort focused with laser beam predictability on whether the President would admit to his mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere. In the meantime, out of the blue, Bush offered something strikingly new and potentially germane to any assessment of our moment.

Here’s what he said:

“Now, obviously these are very difficult economic times. When people analyze the situation, there will be — this problem started before my presidency, it obviously took place during my presidency. The question facing a President is not when the problem started, but what did you do about it when you recognized the problem. And I readily concede I chunked aside some of my free market principles when I was told by [my] chief economic advisors that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression.

“So I’ve told some of my friends who said — you know, who have taken an ideological position on this issue — why did you do what you did? I said, well, if you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act too, which I did. And we’ve taken extraordinary measures to deal with the frozen credit markets, which have affected the economy.”

Hold onto those “worse than the Great Depression greater than the Great Depression” comments for a moment and let’s try to give this a little context. Assumedly, our last president was referring to his acceptance of what became his administration’s $700 billion bailout package for the financial system, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. He signed that into law in early October. So — for crude dating purposes — let’s assume that his “chief economic advisors,” speaking to him in deepest privacy, told him in perhaps early September that the U.S. was facing a situation that might be “worse than the Great Depression.”

By then, the Bush administration had long publicly rejected the idea that the country had even entered a recession. As early as February 28, 2008, at a press conference, Bush himself had said: “I don’t think we’re headed to a recession, but no question we’re in a slowdown.” In May, his Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Edward Lazear had been no less assertive: “The data are pretty clear that we are not in a recession.” At the end of July in a CNBC interview, White House Budget Director Jim Nussle typically reassured the public this way: “I think we have avoided a recession.”

By late September, the president, now campaigning for Congress to give him his bailout package, was warning that we could otherwise indeed “experience a long and painful recession.” But well into October, White House press spokesperson Dana Perino still responded to a question about whether we were in a recession by insisting, “You know I don’t think that we know.”

Lest you imagine that this no-recession verbal minuet was simply a typical administration prevarication operation, for much of the year top newspapers (and the TV news) essentially agreed to agree. While waiting for economic confirmation that the nation’s gross national product had dropped in at least two successive quarters, the papers reported increasingly grim economic news using curious circumlocutions to avoid directly calling what was underway a “recession.” We were said, as former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan put it in February, to be at “the edge of a recession,” a formulation many reporters picked up, or “near” one, or simply in an “economic slowdown,” or an “economic downturn.”

At the beginning of December, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private group of leading economists, made “official,” as CNN wrote, “what most Americans have already believed about the state of the economy” (no thanks to the press). We were not only officially in a recession, the Bureau announced, but, far more strikingly, had been since December 2007. For at least a year, that is. Suddenly, “recession” was an acceptable media description of our state, without qualifiers (though you can look high and low for a single major paper which then reviewed its economic labeling system, December 2007-December 2008, and questioned its own coverage.) Recession simply became the new norm.

Now, as times have gotten even tougher, it’s become a commonplace turn of phrase to call what’s underway “the worst” or “deepest” economic or financial crisis “since the Great Depression.” Recently, a few brave economic souls — in particular, columnist Paul Krugman of the New York Times — have begun to use the previously verboten “d” word, or even the “GD” label more directly. As Krugman wrote recently, “Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.” But he remains the exception to the public news rule in claiming that, barring the right economic formula from the new Obama administration, we might well find ourselves in a situation as bad as the Great Depression.

Now, let’s return to our last president’s news conference and consider what he claims his “chief economic advisors” told him in private last fall. His statement was, in fact, staggeringly worse than just about anything you can presently read in your newspapers or see on the TV news. What was heading our way, he claimed he was told, might be “worse” or “greater” than the Great Depression itself. Admittedly, John Whitehead, the 86-year-old former chairman of Goldman Sachs, suggested in November that the current economic crisis might turn out to be “worse than the [Great] depression.” But on this, he was speaking as something of a public minority of one.

Stop for a minute and consider what Bush actually told us. It’s a staggering thought. Who even knows what it might mean? In the United States, for example, the unemployment rate in the decade of the Great Depression never fell below 14%. In cities like Chicago and Detroit in the early 1930s, it approached 50%. So, worse than that? And yet in the privacy of the Oval Office, that was evidently a majority view, unbeknownst to the rest of us.

It’s possible, of course, that Bush’s “chief economic advisors” simply came up with a formulation so startling it could wake the dead or make a truly lame-duck president quack. Still, doesn’t it make you wonder? What if, a year from now, the same National Bureau of Economic Research announces that, by January 2009, we were already in a depression?

I’m only saying that, on the question of just how steadily the Earth now stands, the verdict is out. Recent history, cited above, indicates how possible it is that, on this question, we are in the dark.

And one more thing, while we’re on the subject of recessions and depressions, what if what’s happening isn’t, prospectively, the worst since the Great Depression, or as bad as the Great Depression, or even, worse than the Great Depression. What if it’s something new? Something without a name or reference point? What then? How do we judge what’s still standing in that case?

Standing Questions

If I were the Obama administration, I might be exceedingly curious about a couple of other “standing” questions right now. Here’s one I might ask, for example: Just what kind of a government are the Obamanians really inheriting? When, tomorrow, they settle into the Oval Office — or its departmental and agency equivalents — and begin opening all the closets and drawers, what are they going to find that Bush’s people have left behind?

This is no small matter. After all, they are betting the store on an enormous economic stimulus package — approximately $550 billion in pump-priming government spending, and another $275 billion in tax cuts of various sorts, according to the present plan in the House of Representatives. All kinds of possibilities are being proposed from daringly experimental renewable energy projects to computerizing health-care records and building a national “smart” electricity grid, not to speak of rebuilding an infrastructure of bridges, roads, levees, and transport systems known to be in a desperate state of disrepair.

But what if the federal government slated to organize, channel, and oversee that spending is itself thoroughly demoralized and broken? What then?

We know that, after eight catastrophic years, some parts of it are definitely in an advanced state of wear and tear. The Justice Department is a notorious, demoralized wreck. So, infamously, is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So, for that matter, is the whole Department of Homeland Security, as it has been ever since it was (ill) formed in 2002. So, evidently, is the CIA. Who knows what condition the eviscerated Environmental Protection Agency is in, or the Housing Department, or the Interior Department, or the Treasury Department, or the Energy Department after these years of thoroughgoing politicization in which all those crony capitalist pals of the Bush administration and all those industry lobbyist foxes were let loose among the federal chickens meant to oversee them?

In those same years, huge new complexes of interests formed around certain agencies, especially the Department of Homeland Security, and all sorts of government functions were privatized and outsourced, often to crony corporations and often, it seems, expensively and inefficiently. Who knows how well any parts of our government now function?

All I’m saying is that it can take months, or even years, to restore an agency in disrepair or a staff in a state of massive demoralization. In the meantime, how effectively will those agencies and departments direct the Obama stimulus package? The manner in which the Treasury Department threw $350 billion down a banking hole in these last frenetic months should certainly give us pause, especially since the banking system has been anything but rescued. In the end, the U.S. government can order up hundreds of billions of dollars, but applying them well may be another matter entirely. What if, that is, the government now supposed to save us isn’t itself really standing? What if it, too, needs to be saved?

And let’s not forget the world out there. If you watched Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton breeze through her confirmation hearings, she seemed like the wonky picture of confidence, mixing the usual things you say in Washington (“We are not taking any option off the table at all”) with promises of new policies. Looking at her, or our other new and recycled custodians of empire, it’s easy enough to avoid the obvious thought: that they are about to face a world — from Latvia to Somalia, Gaza to Afghanistan — which may be in far greater disarray than we imagine.

Only the other day, for instance, in a hardly noticed report, “Joint Operating Environment (JOE 2008),” the U.S. Joint Forces Command on worldwide security threats suggested that “two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse.” One — Pakistan — was no surprise, though all sorts of potentially catastrophic scenarios lurk in its nasty brew of potential economic collapse, tribal wars, terrorism, border disputes, and nuclear politics. The other country, however, should make any American sit back and wonder. It’s Mexico.

Here’s the money passage in the report: “The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press[ed] by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.”

Of course, it could just be a matter of part of the U.S. military looking for new arenas of potential expansion, but let’s remember that we’re no longer in the frightening but strangely orderly Cold War world, nor even on a planet any longer overshadowed by a “lone superpower,” the “New Rome.” No indeed. Events in Mumbai reminded us of this recently. There, ten trained terrorists armed with the most ordinary of weapons and off-the-shelf high-tech equipment of a sort that could be bought in any mall managed to bring two nuclear-armed superpowers to the edge of conflict. Ten men. Imagine that.

We don’t know what the world holds for us in the Obama years, but it’s not likely to be pretty and some of what’s heading our way may not be in any of the familiar playbooks by which we’ve been operating for the past half century-plus. We don’t yet know if whole countries, even whole continents, may collapse in the economic, or environmental, rubble of our twenty-first century moment, or what that would actually mean.

I’m no expert on any of this, but on this day of anxious celebration, here’s my question: Is the world still standing? Do you know? Really? Does anyone?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years now ending.

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt