Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Please— No More Optimism. Enough, Already

Only 52 days on the job, and already President Obama is taking heat for his public attitude about the economy. The rap on him is that he is insufficiently optimistic, and that he fails to reassure us with “happy talk,” and Tim Geithner comes in for the same criticism. The United States is entering another depression, but Americans still don’t get it. They still look for optimism and happy talk in their leaders, failing to understand that these are the very qualities that got us into this mess.

The blame for the economic meltdown has been pinned on “gimmick” financial concoctions like sub-prime mortgages, and credit default swaps, and bundling of toxic assets for foreign consumption, and sale-lease-backs, and derivatives, and CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), and the list goes on and on. The fact is that all of these “deals” were nothing more than the bricks and mortar of the failed economic structure, but the foundation underlying the whole process of economic decay was the mindset of the managers and directors and VPs who concocted these financial instruments in the first place. You can almost hear the echoes of their voices as they went about their work, saying things like, “The market rewards the risk takers,” and “Failure is not an option,” and “It’s just a matter of managing expectations.” They had prepped themselves by reading books authored by management gurus— books that preached the value of unbridled optimism, and that taught the techniques of happy talk. They had advanced through their careers under the mantel of human resource honchos who rewarded them for their optimistic outlook. These were not evil men. They were simply misguided optimists and happy talkers living in an era when these traits were ingrained in American management DNA, and when the genes for critical thought had long since disappeared through the process of natural selection.

And now, even as Americans head for the poor house, they still seem to want the same old fluff. God help us. Maybe Obama is that rare individual who knows only too well that his ideas can fail, and who is too honest to tell us otherwise. He displays something called, “critical thinking,” and fifty years ago it was a trait that was valued more than optimism. Maybe a good old-fashioned depression will bring it back into vogue.

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