Wednesday, February 25, 2009
The Day After
When the President gives a speech to a joint session of Congress on Mardi Gras, is it too much to ask that just one lunatic member of the Senate yell "Show us yer tits!"? Or that the Prez* throw beads from the podium, with the Veep and the Speaker wearing creepy post-Venetian masks behind him? I guess they don't need to throw plastic coins like the ones the rich white Krewe members throw from the floats to the poor working people below at the actual Mardi Gras, since they are already throwing so many billions at the problem of the, you know, collapse of Western capitalism.
Today is the day after Mardi Gras, when the streets of New Orleans are deserted as everyone in town sleeps off the hangover of a five-day gluttonous binge. Not a bad metaphor, perhaps, for how things feel today as a citizen of the West. Sitting here today, watching the whole grand edifice crumble to the ground, you can't help but feel like, in some respects, the whole economic-cultural milieu of middle-class American life since World War II has been a kind of grand binge in which we developed an entire economic system grounded in fictions and fueled by militaristic Keynesian fiscal policy that got us out of the last depression, and provided the core economic engine ever since: the great edifice of the military-industrial complex, which pretty much begat the modern technology and automotive industries.
It feels like everything else in the postwar economy has been basically a narrative construct. Sure, if you dig through the contractual labyrinths, you would find the underlying tangible assets like the crappy suburban houses and the office supplies of the Fortune 500. The genius of capital is its ability to take a closet full of paperclips, convert it into money, and create more money out of thin air through brilliantly conceived rhetorical time travel. When you get so far out into the ether that you can't remember what the paperclips are worth, you are about to being playing a very expensive game of pick-up stocks.
When I was in college, I heard the great economic historian (and historian of economics) Deirdre McCloskey (at the time, bearded, dramatically stammering, crazy charismatic Donald McCloskey) present "The Rhetoric of Economics." This brilliant paper from Iowa City's finest borrowed from contemporary critical theory to deconstruct the mathematical constructs of modern neoclassical economics as rhetoric (metaphor, mainly) whose actual moorings to observable physical reality were (are) elusive, amenable to dissection with the same critical tools as one would use on a novel.
I think McCloskey's observations are equally applicable to the contractual labyrinths on which our modern capital markets are constructed: the infinite texts crafted by the armies of smart lawyers who transform the ever-more complex exchange arrangements of entrepreneurial capitalists into narratives designed to serve as the scripts for the conduct of private persons that can be enforced by a court. The distance between the top of that mountain of paper (in itself merely the vehicle for the cartography of the infinite maze of applied symbolic logic that represents the world's financial instruments) and the hard utilitarian asset value that is nestled therein, on the other side of an exhausted minotaur, is longer than we know. For a simplistic example, consider the distance between the market capitalization Google at its peak, and the book value of the tangible assets of Google that could be sold in a liquidation.
That distance seems to be the one we are currently traversing, a psycho carnival ride drop of unknown distance. One that comes at a time of other massive, wrenching changes, like the demise of the media that for a hundred years have been our principal means of the dissemination of socio-economic information, the crescendo moment of climate change, the political realignment of the world expressed through resurgent religious/tribal identity politics, and the cracking of our own genetic code. May you live in interesting times.
Watching our "leaders" mime their way through the same old rhetorical prestidigitation, one can't be faulted for wondering whether any of them really have a freaking clue what's going on. If the guys at the Bloomberg terminals have lost their ability to value the assets of the society, do you really think the politicians have a better idea? You can pump all the plasma you want into the patient, but it helps a lot if you can figure out how to stop the bleeding.
There's a weirder world than any science fiction writer could imagine lurking on the other side of the next fifty years.
* Speaking of which, the 44th president does in fact throw a big shout out to the forgotten DC Comics character Prez: First Teen President. For some reason I have a weird feeling today that this Joe Simon hail mary from the 70s may prove to be weirdly prescient, maybe because the current prez is appearing in so many comic books. Is the appearance of the Watchmen movie, with its alt-Nixon dystopia, portent of some imminent convergence of consensus reality and comic book semiotics? Wikipedia recap:
Prez: First Teen President was a four issue comic series by writer Joe Simon (the creator of Captain America) and artist Jerry Grandenetti, released by DC Comics in 1973 and 1974. It followed the adventures of Prez Rickard, the first teenage President of the United States of America, whose election had been made possible by a Constitutional amendment lowering the age of eligibility to accommodate the then-influential youth culture of the baby boom (a premise similar to that in the cult film Wild in the Streets).
Martha Rickard, of Steadfast, Middle America, named her son Prez because she thought he should someday be President. Having made the clocks of Steadfast, whose towers were so out of sync that the town heard a constant chiming, run on time, he was hired as a ringer for shady businessman Mr. Smiley to run for United States Senator after the eligibility age was lowered. An idealist, he rebelled against Mr. Smiley. With 45% of voters under 30, the youthful Congress passed an amendment lowering the eligibility age for the presidency and Senator Rickard was voted President of the United States. He appointed his mother Martha Vice President and made his sister his secretary.
The most significant supporting character, however, was Eagle Free, a young Native American who has a deep understanding of animals. He lives in a cave well-stocked with books about them, but knows most of what he knows first hand. Prez appoints him director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Eagle Free wears a headband with feather, braids, and no shirt, and is often accompanied by a menagerie of native and non-native animals. Eagle Free trains Prez in multiple fighting techniques. This is never shown, but it is referred to when he utilizes them.
Prez fought legless vampires, a right-wing militia led by the great-great-great-great-great-grandnephew of George Washington, "Boss Smiley", a political boss with a smiley face, and evil chess players. He was attacked for his stance on gun control, and survived an assassination attempt during that controversy.
After four issues, the series was abruptly cancelled. Several years later, Issue #5 was included in Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #2, though Prez itself predated the DC Implosion.
Prez also appeared in issue #10 of the 1970s Supergirl series, cover dated October, 1974. Although the first issue Prez specified that the series was an imaginary (non-continuity) story, this story by Cary Bates implies that Prez Rickard is President of the United States on Earth-One of the DC Universe. In the story, Supergirl (Kara Zor-El), also known as Linda Lee Danvers, saves Prez from two hoaxed assassination attempts to be entrapped into a third by a politician working with a witch who is called Hepzibah, though she looks exactly like Eve, who stabs the head of a doll of Supergirl's likeness in attempt to make her drop him. Kara is able to resist and flies Prez to the Fortress of Solitude, then drops a plastic dummy dressed as Prez into the East River so that they will leave her alone. The story played up Prez's ability with clocks to the point that they seem a predominant interest in his life, and Kara believes he has the precision of a jeweler.