Friday, November 19, 2004

Greenspan and the Ship of Empire: A Parable

Fed Chair Greenspan announced today - profoundly but with curious after-the-election timing - that the national debt cannot stand and that we are now facing a national crisis. The dollar is sliding against the euro, the yen and other not so stellar currencies. This professor of circuitous sentences got a little blunt when he said we won't be able to get big cheap loans forever - and shouldn't. That's a big statement for this man known for understatement, in touch as he is with the deepest currents, the monied ebb and flow - and the undertow. Who's running this ship anyway? How, and from where? Are we steering from behind? Alas, as with every big ship, we are.

We might like to think that if this country were a stalwart oceanliner it would be the handsome U.S.S. United States, steaming into New York Harbor, a man in the gray flannel suit and austere martinis sort of affair. Or maybe one of those sleek new cruise ships looking more like a gleaming lady steaming off toward the sandy and sun-soaked pleasures of the Caribbean, more Lands' End casual and Disney in tone.

Those elements of our culture still exist and thrive. They are still great globe-going juggernauts. But these days people treat airplanes like buses and cruise ships like Vegas without having to stay on solid ground. And everybody eats too much. Hyper caloric intake and fossil fuel consumption are a lot of what it means nowadays to be American.

So no, the ship of our story is not from a Gregory Peck past or a Michael Eisner present. Our Ship of Empire is that most infamous of all ships, a titan, ripe, ready and fresh from the musty Old World, indeed barrowed from another famous and now downfallen empire. Our ship is, of course, the RHS Titanic.

To be renamed the USS Titanic: grandiose, presumptuously boastful, not so invincible or cutting edge as it seems, but with a smorgasbord of passengers from around the world - from the roughcut emigrants and castaways down below to the magnate headliners of oppulence and wealth up above. All headed to the same place.

As on any collective and popular voyage, most of the people on board are not at the bow watching out for things; they're amidships. And relatively few are running the ship, either from the engine room or the helm. Almost all of the staff are doing the cooking and cleaning in the bowels of a big bobbing hotel. Their outfits and tips are better, but the incestuous gossip and the urge for something else a little more anchored eat at them just the same. Most of the passengers are, overcome by the buffet, off in their rooms trying to figure out how the little fixtures work, wondering if people can see in their window, musing on whether the captain has his uniform cleaned and starched before and after every meal. And then, of course, there are those who hope to turn the fantasy of a tryst into reality. What, indeed, can one get on pay-per-view at sea?

Well, folks, we're all on that ill-fated ship, and the man who reminded me of this today was Alan Greenspan, the man in touch with the undertow.

Karl Rove is upstairs manning navigation. Dick Cheney takes the wheel pretty much 24/7. George Bush is looking a little nervous but cheery with 'his base,' pumping the arms of ladies and gentlemen alike just before the stage show - until the curtain rises and he slips out to see if Tom Ridge has spotted any other ships in the night. John Ashcroft (yes, still, even as Justice Emeritus and even as you sleep) is making sure you're in your own room - and making sure that the artwork on your tiny wall and the book next to your reading lamp are appropriate.

But who's watching the bow? Who's watching for obstacles, like icebergs the size of the Astrodome? Freethinkers, mostly, progressives leaning forward into the chill winds wearing extra layers of archaic tweed or mod fleece. (They're outside in the spray, not inside fumbling with the pay-per-view.)

And where is Greenspan then, the supposedly brilliant barometer of our American health and wealth, the God of Capitalist Currents, the seemingly steady seer of deep and slow steerage in this country?

He's at the rudder. He IS the rudder. But as the rudder, he's getting his forecasts from the bow and then the helm with a telling delay, and the ship changes course only with excruciating pause. Greenspan's down under and at the back of the boat, and there are icebergs ahead.

Those looming limits of our posh and powerful capitalism are just water, but they are ice, solid as rock, and we know how even sheets of iron can tear.


At 11/20/2004 7:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved the metaphor! RQM I see it is possible to post a comment anonymously. Let's see if it works. Let's hope the Titanic doesn't crash but VEERS to the left a little. Keep up the good work!

At 11/20/2004 9:48 AM, Blogger Aleksu said...

Time to learn how to swim.

At 11/20/2004 8:22 PM, Blogger Regina said...

Really? REALLY? Do you really think we're going to go under like the Titanic with nothing left afterwards but a few tale-telling surivivors? And what will it look like? The U.S. being attacked by other countries, either as terrorist acts or as acts of war, until we're just a steaming heap of rubble? Or an implosion as the have-nots take up arms against the haves (you and I would count as haves, Lawrence)? Or a languishing over generations as our financial situation decays until no one can afford anything except the very, very rich who then exploit the poverty-stricken masses, who then turn against them (you and I would count as have-nots, Lawrence)?

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