Wednesday, December 24, 2008



No doubt it will, and the anticipation is mounting.  But the idealization -- the glorification, in some places  -- is mounting as well.  Some can't wait for it to happen, some dread the moment, some believe it will never occur.  Obama, as Newsweek put, is "the one," inheriting the legacy of every great historical figure:  Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy.  We seem to need a Saviour right now, and he is the inevitable candidate.

He himself, I suspect, it too smart to go for this, and consciously we are too.  But I suspect we don't know how much we are coming around to buying into into it.  A number of pundits thought his choice of Hillary Clinton to head the State Department was the mistake, but that has died down amid the choruses of praise for most of his appointments.  More recently, his invitation to the evangelical minister Rick Warren to speak at his inaugural aroused a storm of protest among gays, but that too has died down, as we are reminding ourselves of the importance of tolerating a diversity of voices.  In one way, of course, Obama is showing really thoughtful leadership, but how long before he stumbles?  Or we allow him to stumble?  Or we want him to stumble?

Perhaps I am not the only one to have wondered if the widespread anxiety about his being assassinated masked an underlying desire for him to fall.  To be sure, inspiring and charismatic leaders have been assassinated, including, of course, Lincoln and Kennedy.  But it would be a mistake to underestimate the role of envy in politics, or simply the underside of idealization and hope.  In investing so much in Obama, we might wonder who are we protecting?

He will make mistakes, and we will be disappointed.  That simply can't be helped, and with so many overwhelming problems to solve it is likely to happen soon.  But it is not too late now to think about protecting him and us from the backlash of denigration and rage that will accompany those failures and, perhaps, spoil the realistic leadership he is able to offer us.

Monday, December 15, 2008


"Something is Happening Here"

Our minds are boggled by the recent scandals.   What is so hard to grasp is how Governor Blagojevich's could think his attempts to sell Obama's senate seat would not be uncovered?  How could Bernard Madoff's believe his 50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme could succeed.  Where is reality in this?

It is not as difficult to grasp how others are deceived by such acts.  The persistence of old perceptions and the desire to believe can easily override normal doubt, particularly in a group context where the group sets up norms to which members silently conform.  But how can the "perpetrators" come to believe that they will not be found out?  Are they sociopaths, without the regulating influence of conscience?  Are they in a state of manic denial?  Could they be psychotic?  Clearly, they seem to be narcissistic, but that is hardly enough to account for such extravagant misbehavior.

These are the kinds of explanations we tend to use to account for such individual acts of self-deception, but none of them seem to fit what we know about the personalities involved.  How does fraud lose touch with reality?

First of all, there must be something about our culture that supports such audacious gambles, such extraordinary ambitions.  We have seen again and again over the past decades a number of people who seemingly arise out of nowhere to possess great wealth and fame.  It has become something of a norm, and because we tend to assume that people are responsible for their own achievements and celebrity we discount the collective efforts that lie behind such accomplishments.  In effect, we encourage a kind of delusion about what it takes to succeed.  False expectations and standards are set up.

But while that may explain how such unrealistic expectations are established, how they become goals for many to aspire to, that is not enough to explain these scandals.  I suspect that what happened here is a more gradual process.  Each man, aiming for great success, no doubt, ventured to break the rules bit by bit, starting small and then venturing more as they found they got away with it.  A little graft, to test the waters, a little cooking of the books.

Their beginning successes, no doubt, then convinced them to venture more, to up the ante -- and that seemed to work as well.  At some point, they must have become convinced that the old realities just did not apply.  And it must have been that they found supporters and assistants who seemed to confirm their new beliefs along the way and they lost touch with or severed connections with those who might have challenged their judgment.  As they ventured further and further out on the thin ice, it did not break;  they became more and more confident.  Maybe the ice wasn't so thin after all.

Another analogy:  if you put frogs in a pot of cold water and then turn on the heat, the frogs will stay in the pot until they die.  There is no signal to warn them of danger, and so they stay put until it is to late.  Indeed, they may well be enjoying their warmer environment as they lose touch with it.  Similarly our consciousness can fail to warn us about a significant shift in our environment, until is too late to change.   

In both cases, it seem clear that there were warning signs;  suspicions were aroused.  Perhaps the lesson here is that others need to be more vigilant in following up the signs of fraud, but also that we need to be more careful to speak up in the presence of delusions.  Fraud of such magnitude requires assistance if not outright collusion.  It remains to be seen who will stand accused or convicted in these cases.  But it cannot be that these were simply individual acts.

Monday, December 8, 2008



For two hundred years our economy has endured vicious cycles of boom and bust, huge surges of capital accumulation followed by devastating contractions.  This not only profoundly affected investors (formerly known as capitalists) but shaped the lives of workers and all those who supplied them with food, clothing and shelter.  Looking back, if there is one thing which we learned from this was the need for regulation and oversight.  The investors, too preoccupied with the lure of profit,  do not attend to that, and the workers, of course, too dependent on others, cannot change the course of events.

How did we forget what we have learned?  How did we neglect the lessons of our economic history?

Now as we are discovering this lesson all over again, trying to put into place the oversight and controls needed to manage this essentially unruly system, we need to think about why we forgot.  What we don't know we know is how investors cannot be entrusted with the job of overseeing the system.

There are I think two prominent reasons.

1) After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ideology of the free market clouded our collective judgement.  More accurately, those who stood to profit from the expansion of business opportunities, deregulation, and privatization, used that ideology to inhibit any attempt to control their profits.  James Galbraith has brilliantly outlined how this happened in his new book, The Predator State.

2) Gradually we all became invested through pension funds, savings accounts, etc. etc.  As a result we too became blinded to the risk.  Those who took out subprime mortgages or home equity loans, those who ran up credit card balances, who overextended themselves in our new credit economy -- they all lost the objectivity needed to keep in mind our economic history and the risk built into it.

As Obama puts together his new economic team and as we individually struggle to get out of this recession, how can we work to remember what we so easily forgot?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Team of Rivals?


There is so much criticism of Obama's choice of Hillary for Head of the State Department - and of others in his new team. Many believe he was influenced by Doris Kearn's book about Lincoln's cabinet, and very possibly he was. There is an argument to be made for keeping one's rivals engaged and close to the decision making process. On the other hand, rivals can and often do fight to the death, or at least undermine their leader.

The key is strong and determined leadership -- and that may be what Obama has confidence in being able to assert in bringing such powerful people into his cabinet.

There is another precedent and analysis that is relevant to this discussion: the role of Kennedy’s advisors in preparing for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, and a few months later their response to the Cuban missile crisis. As analyzed by Irwin Janis, the Yale Sociologist, the team of advisors went way off course by virtue of “groupthink,” a process in which differences and debate were silenced and a consensus emerged without adequate testing. The next time around, as Soviet ships carrying missiles to Cuba approached, Kennedy encouraged vigorous debate in his team, a process that allowed him to think the problem through more thoroughly and arrive at an effective solution.

The team that Obama is putting together is very strong, a group of capable and independent thinkers – every bit as strong as the team Kennedy had around him over 45 years ago.  Obama appears to have confidence in his ability to tolerate conflict and dissent and to learn from it. Bush is notoriously conflict averse, no doubt a key reason he allowed Chaney essentially to take over his administration by operating behind the scenes and suppress dissent. Obama may see the benefits in the frank and full display of opinions as the run up to good decisions.

Maybe he wants a real team.