Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Change is gonna come

It's not going to be the same again.  Not for a long time.   But so far, no one wants to tell us.

Over the last couple of decades the developed world became richer and richer and lifestyles became more and more or extravagant.  There was lots of talk of a new economy, but the Internet and globalisation didn't buy Americans all of those robotic vacuum cleaners, skylights, and Ford Expeditions.  Cheap debt - globalisation's real gift - did.

But now, we know we're in trouble.  We hear that half of Americans are worried that someone in their household may lose their job this year.  The UK media is a daily gloom machine, with reason.  The Japanese economy is declining at a double digit annual rate.  We're not buying cars, rich people aren't buying Bolli, and it won't be too long before young, professional couples start putting off starting a family. This we know.  This we are told.  

We are also told about the things that have to be done to help us.  All governments must stimulate their economies.  All governments must take steps to stabilise their financial sectors and get lending going again.  This is all true.  Some of us don't like having to do it, but we certainly hear about it all the time.

Importantly, we're hearing that this mess is going to take a while to sort out.  GDP isn't going to grow again for some time.  The new President's frankness and freedom from culpability allows him to warn us that he won't be able to fix things quickly.  

But there is a problem here.  So far, we aren't talking about how things are going to be different once the 'recovery' comes.  The great expectation problem is not that the public expects things to start getting better again this year, or that they don't think that things will get worse before they get better.  The expectations that aren't being managed are those beyond the horizon.  The problem really is that most of us assume that at some point, things will return to the way they were.  

But for most people, they won't.  Employment may settle.  House prices may stop falling.  But unless something truly remarkable - and most likely truly stupid - happens, access to cheap finance for all is gone for a long, long time.  And when the modest income families that could afford a DVD player for every tv in the house, an annual beach holiday, and a semi-regular refinancing of their mortgage on their nice suburban home realise those things aren't coming back, our society is going to finally confront the transformation this crisis will bring.   

I remember being told that my grandmother was stingy despite her relative wealth because she was "a child of the depression."  Her generation still wears the scars of a crisis of 80 years ago. For them, things never really were the same, even when they got better.  

The interesting discussion to be having right now focuses on how all of us will be permanently changed by what we are living through; not just how our spending habits will change, but how our values and aspirations will be transformed.  At the root of that discussion are the forces and trends that will define our future.  

But so far, we aren't talking about it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Harold loves Maude. And Maude loves Harold.

It's not hard to claim that 2008 has been a year of cultural rupture.  A global economic unravelling has shaken the happy consumerist stability of mainstream life in the developed world.  Fear-driven thrift is all the rage even as our governments urge us to spend up for the common good.  Nice families are losing their nice homes and obituaries are being written for iconic companies from GM to Woolworth's.  

At the same time, the election of the first black President of the United States, and the campaign that preceded it, have made this moment an oddly optimistic one.  In the middle of a crisis and while losing two wars, Americans chose hope over fear, to the applause and relief of much of the rest of the world.  Times are tough, but we haven't yet concluded that they aren't going to get better.

But if we accept the rupture thesis somewhat easily, it's much harder to decide where we're going from here.  Will we bailout our way to short-term relief to find ourselves back in a slump with a mountain of bills we'll never climb out from under?  Will we seize a transformational moment to remake the world for the better?  Will our values change to finally prioritise responsibility and engagement above comfort and isolation?  Will we seek to just repair the rupture and move forward without direction and carrying significant baggage from our experience of 2008?

The year isn't over and it's too early to decide how we will respond to these questions.  But for those of us who are hoping for transformation, it's worth noting that our last experience of cultural rupture may not have turned out exactly as some had hoped.  The events of 1968 have been referred to quite a lot over the last few months, with good reason.  The truth is that it has been 40 years since newspaper headlines reflected as much instability and possibility as they have in the past 12 months.  Where '08 had mass foreclosures and history making candidacies' '68 had mass marches and history changing assassinations.  

But two generations ago we chose Nixon in the year where we saw King and Kennedy die.  We took seven years to end an unpopular war.  Instead of rebuilding communities, we accelerated the exodus to exurban isolation.  We built more shopping malls, ate more food, and largely abandoned the idea that together through government, we can pursue a common good.  

For all the high drama and radicalism, at the end of our last moment of rupture, we turned to the comfort of the establishment.  Marchers who demanded revolution settled for four decades of issue advocacy and tick-box gradualism.  Apathy and cynicism filled the void created in the last rupture.

But might things just work out this time?  For people like me who want to say yes, there is one hopeful characteristic of rupture '08 worth highlighting.  This year, we have found humility in our thirst for change.

The high-mindedness of the change agents of '68 still inspires us.  The  righteousness of their approach was mandated by the starkness of their struggle.  When your leaders are being murdered, it's hard to find compromise and consensus appealing.  But in many ways it was the moral certainty of those who took to the streets in that rupture that was their undoing.  Their crusading scared a middle class that may have been uneasy about the future, but still liked the way they lived their lives.

This year, two things are different.  For starters, the middle class in the rich world has borne the brunt of our economic unravelling.  A critical mass no longer has confidence that the way things have always worked are the way they must continue to be in the future.  The ground is more ripe for change than it was forty years ago.

But just as importantly, the change agents of '08 - with Barack Obama, a man I personally doubted for too long, the undisputed leader - are making a virtue out of modesty.  This time around, over-reach is the great mistake to be avoided.  Pragmatism is the war cry.  The goals of this movement - responsibility, sustainability, togetherness - can be supported in equal measure by nostalgia for the past and utopian views of the future.

The message is a call that we need to remember what really matters to us all - family, friends, health, work, even love.  This is what is really meant by 'a new age of responsibility' - a realignment of our wants and needs. The change we are asked for is simple.  And incredibly for the left, the political realignment this simple message has brought is breathtaking.  Universal health care, fighting climate change, and the end of an unjust war are finally at home at the dead centre of our political culture.  

I was reminded of the power of a simple message of change this week when I went to a screening of a film I first discovered in my teens and one borne out of that last rupture in '68. In Harold and Maude, a privileged, depressive young man who fakes suicides with artistry has his world upended by an octogenarian with a love of stolen vehicles.

Maude, we learn, has long been a crusader for 'the big issues.'  Liberty. Rights. Justice.  The umbrella on her wall a relic of her days of radicalism, she tells Harold that she's given up on the picket line and opted to fight for change now in her 'small individual way'.  No longer liberating the canaries from the pet stores and getting into fights with the 'thugs of the opposition', Maude now spreads her quiet brand of celebration and personal chaos.  

She teaches Harold to sing and dance.  She shows him that simple vices can be fulfilling.    

But above all, she teaches Harold what love can do for the world, and changes him forever.  In the film's closing scene - with the last of the parade of Cat Stevens ballads that provide its soundtrack drawing to a close - Harold sends his hearse over a cliff, no longer clinging to death and content to play the banjo Maude gives him.

Harold and Maude is a film heavy on protest imagery, including multiple references to the stupidity of the Vietnam War.  In a flash of a tattooed forearm, we learn that Maude is a survivor of the holocaust.  We are told repeatedly not to get too attached to 'things'.  

In other words, the radical aims of '68 are all present.  But with early hindsight, we are cautioned against certainty and righteousness.  Instead, we are guided to personal reflection, compassion, and love.  

If you are feeling bruised from the headlines of this rupture, I can recommend spending 91 minutes with a film inspired by the last.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Not good

There are times when one can find comfort in being called a 'motherfucker' - even when you're the President-Elect of the United States.

The news that the Governor of Illinois had put Barack Obama's seat in the US Senate on the auction block is the first major test for Team Hope - and here's hoping they pass.  I, like others have nervously read through reports of the Blagojevich arrest this morning for any hint that we may have bigger trouble on our hands.  So far, the worst possible outcome for Obama would seem to be 'tainted by proximity'.

The worries are clearly shared throughout the left, with progressive bloggers aggressively building a narrative that it may have been Obama and his team that helped take the Governor down.  There is even a rumour that Rahm Emmanuel may have provided the vital tip-off in the case (but given that Rod had been under investigation for many months this seems like wishful thinking).

But before we get too focused on how the case will affect the incoming administration, let us take a moment to reflect on the Governor's behaviour.  'Holy shit' seems to be only emotional summary I can conjure.  In the past few years we have seen governors taken down by both secret gay lovers and high-end call girls (both Democrats, sadly).  In each of those cases the initial shock was deeply felt, but in the end sex scandals are what they are.

In contrast, the emerging picture of Blagojevich is truly disturbing.  We have a Governor of a major state who is not only profoundly corrupt, but most likely suffering from acute mental illness. What else can explain the reckless behaviour of someone who knows they are under investigation and that his conversations have probably been recorded  by investigators in the past? His conduct is so brazen that it beggars belief that senior figures in Illinois politics did not know that the Governor was spinning out of control.  Even those who believe that all politicians are corrupt and venal will have been taken aback by what we're seeing today.  Aaron Sorkin would not have dared to write a character who says the sort of things Blagojevich got caught saying.  "Fucking golden"!!?

When on Monday night Blagojevich appeared on national television instructing all state agencies to terminate their dealings with the Bank of America I can't say I thought he looked like a good guy.

Back to Obama just briefly, the truly paranoid among us have room for concern with Obama's correction here where he stops himself from saying "we" - as in his team - had no knowledge of the Governor's actions and instead says "I".  At the very least, it shows he doesn't feel solid as a rock with all of this just yet.

The only silver lining is that the storm may give Obama's unfairly vilified speechwriter some breathing space.  Poor bastard.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

It's Christmas time, in the city

Pre-Christmas political cheer is taking unique forms in the three countries we're following.

In the US, George and Nancy have bought Barack two car companies, with a Bush-appointed car czar as a stocking stuffer.

In the UK, end of year stress is showing as fatigue from the bank bail out, pre-Budget report, and the Queen's Speech turned yesterday's debate over Damian Green into a very un-yuletide affair, complete with hateful spittle.

And in dear Kiwiland, Johnny has played Santa by helping new workers get fired so they stay in work.  All very logical and new conservative of him - and passed through all stages in time for Christmas!

This has been a long year for the politically minded.  My advice is that it is time for a break.  Let us turn our energies to the question of the moral failings of instruction at Hogwart's Academy.  

And for me, it's off to Winter Wonderland this evening.  Ring-a-ling, hear them sing.  Ok-bye.