Political Animal


May 29, 2011 11:55 AM ‘White swans’

By Steve Benen

There are societies that don’t see challenges coming, so they never take the time to develop solutions. There are other societies that see challenges coming, but they lack the skill and wherewithal to craft solutions.

And then there are societies that see the challenges coming, and know exactly how to respond, but still falter due to an ineffective political system and misguided ideologues.

With this in mind, Ezra Klein had a great item the other day about “white swans.” It’s more common to hear talk about Nassim Taleb’s “black swans” — unforeseen developments that do widespread damage — but “white swans” is a label intended to describe predicable, preventable disasters. In the contemporary discourse, we have more than our share.

It’s been less than three years since the fall of Lehman. The financial crisis remains lodged in our minds, and in our jobless rate. And yet, as ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger has pointed out, the Federal Reserve lacks a vice chairman for banking supervision. There’s no one officially in charge of the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research. The seat marked “insurance” on Financial Stability Oversight Council is empty. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a leader but not a director. No one has been confirmed to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. And Republicans are still saying Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond is underqualified to serve on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.

Meanwhile, the House GOP is fighting to starve financial regulators of the resources they need to do their work. Both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission needed extra money to scale up to their expanded roles under the Dodd-Frank law, but the Republicans’ 2011 budget proposal whacked them with sharp cuts — and then their 2012 proposal repealed most of Dodd-Frank, with no vision for what should go in its place. The irony? All this is being pursued under the guise of deficit reduction. And why do we have such a gaping deficit? The … financial crisis.

This is one of the more glaring examples of a white swan, in large part because the near-collapse of the global economic system just happened, so it should still be fresh in our minds. Wall Street isn’t exactly popular with the American mainstream, but congressional Republicans just don’t care, instead pursuing a strategy that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. They’re counting on the public not knowing the difference, and it’s a pretty smart bet — the GOP is paying, and will probably continue to pay, no price whatsoever for their financial industry antics.

But as Ezra went on to explain, it’s not the only easily preventable crisis area in which the United States fails to act, due entirely to Republican intransigence and foolishness. We face a climate crisis and routine volatility in the energy sector, but GOP refuses to even consider sensible solutions — even solutions they used to support a few years ago. If we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we risk a crisis of Congress’ own making, but Republicans don’t care about that, either.

We’re not unaware of the national challenges that threaten our collective futures. We’re not at all confused about the best solutions. We simply lack the ability to respond because our political process has placed enormous power in the hands of incompetent ideologues who prefer inaction to action, and crises to stability, even when the threat is staring us in the face.

To borrow a phrase, winning the future is awfully difficult when American governance is this dysfunctional.

Several months ago, Kevin Drum wrote a line that stuck in my head: “Every once in a while I feel like I’ve succumbed to partisan madness and need to back off and assume a bit more good faith and sincerity from thinkers and activists on the other side. I need to treat conservative arguments with a little more respect and a little more generosity. But then….”

I occasionally have the same thought, only to have the same follow-up: “But then….”

The repeated “white swan” phenomena only helps reinforce the broader concerns.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Al on May 29, 2011 12:06 PM:

    If people recognized the sanctity of marriage and had respect for our armed forces and the flag, all our other problems would solve themselves.

  • stormskies on May 29, 2011 12:20 PM:

    And when can we expect to see what Ezra has so clearly stated on, let's say NBC, CBS, or ABC's nightly news ? When can we expect this to be the 'focus' of the Sunday news corporate propaganda loop ? Of course........FUCKING NEVER as this could 'wake up' the American public to the actual reality that is taking place versus the lies and deceptions created by the Repiglicans and megaphones repeatedly by the Corporate Media in their allegiance to the corporate agenda

  • zeitgeist on May 29, 2011 12:35 PM:

    Theyre counting on the public not knowing the difference, and its a pretty smart bet the GOP is paying, and will probably continue to pay, no price whatsoever for their financial industry antics.

    I hate to sound like a lazy commenter who simply hits a macro a couple of times a day, but seriously. . . the public doesn't know the difference and the GOP pays no price because (a) the Dems don't explain it to the public and (b) the Dems don't extract any price from the GOP -- or more important, from the handful of Blue Dogs who give the GOP "bipartisan" cover.

    This is not rocket science. We've known the MSM was in the bag for the plutocracy for a couple of decades now. If we haven't adjusted to that reality or developed an effective way around it, it speaks very poorly of us. The Dem committees lead the GOP committees in cash -- so why aren't we buying paid spots? Why aren't we coordinating a message so that any Dem lucky enough to get MSM face time says the same powerful thing? Why aren't we engaged in effective political theater that is "camera friendly" and "sound bite friendly" like the R's often do? Why aren't we going around the MSM to local media, who needs the content and rarely turns down the local Congressperson or Senator? Are we submitting WaPo, NYT and WSJ op-eds that are being turned down? If so, why aren't we making noise about it, the way the right did to work the refs? (and if we aren't submitting them, why not?) are we maximizing social media and clever viral media for our purposes? why isn't the Fairness Doctrine on the table as a lingering threat to keep the MSM honest? etc etc etc etc.

    The Dems crying in their beer that sad, biased state of affairs where the Republican mendacity isn't pointed out by the MSM doesn't help. Developing an effective strategy that assumes no help from the media, on the other hand, would. Lets be honest: part of the problem is that the Dems take a lot of cash from Wall Street, too, so they really aren't trying that hard to make the connection Steve is drawing in this post.

  • SteveT on May 29, 2011 12:35 PM:

    . . . winning the future is awfully difficult when American governance is this dysfunctional.

    Both parties are being bribed by corporations to do nothing that will diminish the profits of the corporations.

    Until we have public financing of elections, no meaningful reform will pass through Congress. The United States will continue its slide toward second or third world status.

    And we won't have public financing until progressives make it a litmus test for Democratic candidates.

  • emjayay on May 29, 2011 12:36 PM:

    It's a failure of leadership. One guy has the bully pulpit. If Obama made a big deal about this sort of problem, not in soft euphemisms and generalities, and repeated it over and over with simple obvious phrasing, enough people would get it. Maybe it would even get on the news.

    By the way, it's the same in any organization, no matter how democratic and complex or simple and authoritarian. The fault is ultimately at the top.

  • tommybones on May 29, 2011 12:43 PM:

    The mistake you keep making is in labeling the process "dysfunctional." Ever hear of "The Shock Doctrine"? Of course you have. We are witnessing it nationwide right now. Disaster Capitalism. Why would the GOP do anything to prevent another financial crisis, with a Democratic President in the White House? The President gets blamed for economic crisis, while the GOP gets to use said crisis to a) bail out Wall Street with taxpayer money, b) push forth extreme economic policies which further their right wing agenda under the illusion that it is reaction to that same crisis. It's a win-win for far right extremists. It's not dysfunction; it's completely by design.

  • c u n d gulag on May 29, 2011 12:47 PM:

    What "zeitgeist" said.
    You tell 'em!!!

    Can't top that.

  • DAY on May 29, 2011 1:19 PM:

    but, zeitgeist, there ARE people "screaming and yelling". Thom Hartmann and Amy Goodman on the TeeVee, Bernie Sanders in the Senate, and one or two writers still employed by the NYT.

    Too bad they are facing a MSM the likes not seen since we went to war with Spain to boost circulation.

    Perhaps a replay from the Vietnam era, when a man set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon, would wake the public from its American Idol infatuation..

    unknown lityfri: now batting .980

  • TCinLA on May 29, 2011 1:26 PM:

    Effectively, in terms of the results of their actions, the Republican Party is the party of subversion and treason.

    As much as I may rail at Democrats from a progressive perspective, we all have to recognize that defeating the Republicans is the first order of business, nothing will be possible until they are reduced to a minority with no power in Washington - particularly in the Senate where they have to be reduced by at least six. Whatever it takes to do that will be worth the effort.

    We need to remember that speech about "Chicago rules" from "The Untouchables": "if they bring a knife, you bring a gun..." Unfortunately, we have too often been the ones bringing a knife to a gunfight.

  • knightphoenix2 on May 29, 2011 1:37 PM:

    @TCinLA at 1:26 PM,


  • In what respect, Charlie? on May 29, 2011 1:38 PM:

    What Tommybones and Zeitgeist said. If we as progressives don't alert the masses to what the regressives are doing (they call themselves 'conservatives'), if we don't use social media and technology to come together, if we don't organize collectively and systematically, if we don't support with our time and money policies and people (like Bernie Sanders, Kucinich, Grayson, et al), if we don't push for easier inclusion of alternatives to the D's and R's in the political process, if we don't support and expand independent media, if we don't take action and just sit here and type away at our computers bellyaching, then what the hell do we expect?!! White Swans til we destroy our country and our planet. We have great minds in our movement, and it is growing. We must force the Dems to do the right thing. I believe that most of them want to, but feel they can't politically and still survive...unless the public demands it.

  • Mimikatz on May 29, 2011 3:12 PM:

    Ezra is quite right about this problem. It is as if we are being led to a crisis. For what purpose? Do the plutocrats just want to enjoy their last years, do they think their money will let them ride it out or do they want to see the population reduced? Will people just put up with more decline or will the powers let there be just enough better times to stave off revolution? Hard to know. But what isn't unforeseeable is the white swans he mentions coming home to roost.

  • jjm on May 29, 2011 3:33 PM:

    GOP=less than worthless. They should be considered absolutely toxic to our country.

    They are clearly working for foreign interests: traitors.

  • Robert Perry Sr. on May 29, 2011 3:50 PM:

    The question is: Will Obama be 'above the fray' on the debt limit issue, as he was during September and October of 2010?

  • pluege on May 29, 2011 3:51 PM:

    Wall Street isnt exactly popular with the American mainstream, but congressional Republicans just dont care,

    EXCUSE ME, but you forget the big fricken stooge in the White House who is supposed to lead, but in matters financial sides with the bankers and moneyed interests every time. Even when he pretends to be doing something by talking tough (while doing nothing) he gets called on the carpet by the bankers or Chamber of Commerce and immediately changes his tune.

    Sure all republicans and many democrats are corrupt corporate lackeys doing the bankers bidding. But the real failure of leadership rests squarely with obama.

  • John Puma on May 29, 2011 5:35 PM:

    The contemporary American conservative does NOT present arguments.

    They demand and dictate.

    The existence of an argument implies whoever presenting it recognizes an obligation to justify whatever it is the presenter is asking - especially in the political setting, where, by definition, there are others with differing opinions.

    The contemporary American conservative does have the respect for our system, much less his/her adversaries, to even remotely consider the concept of an argument.

    Messers Benen and Drum would serve us, and themselves, better and more realistically to drop the notion of the need to "show respect and generosity" for this pack of braying, destructive monsters.

    And, yes, (@pluege), this goes 100-fold for Obama.

  • a on May 29, 2011 6:36 PM:

    hm, Steve forgot to mention the quite prominent and serious forthcoming sovereign debt crisis. I wonder why.

  • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© on May 29, 2011 7:34 PM:

    Wall Street isn’t exactly popular with the American mainstream, but congressional Republicans just don’t care...

    But Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke are on the case...oh wait.

    Obama is trying to raise money from the same people who those goopers are trying to spare, and he's not exactly beating the drums.

    THAT'S why we have this dysfunction. Corporate Democrats (like our Hope and Change Administration) are just as much on the take as the Republicans.

    Our corporate-owned media isn't going to waste their time with cautions from the same liberals they routinely get paid to mock.

  • Bill on May 29, 2011 9:49 PM:

    The republic party is criminally negligent, and should be prosecuted one by one.

  • Crissa on May 29, 2011 10:49 PM:

    Never in the complaints of 'Dems don't explain' or 'Dems don't etc'

    ...How are Democrats, who are a teensy minority on the news shows, supposed to do this?

  • exlibra on May 30, 2011 12:47 AM:

    @11:52 PM

    Looks like Captcha is a great deterrent (shatente mighty) to some of us but not, necessarily, to real spammers...

  • bob h on May 30, 2011 6:15 AM:

    The Republicans are not good faith participants in our government; they are conducting a campaign of guerrilla warfare against it.

  • j on May 30, 2011 7:04 AM:

    Look at the party that is doing all the screaming about the suggestion that any contractor looking for a government contract (license to steal) should make know it's political donations. To me that sounds like a good suggestion = at least we will know who get's the bribes.

  • John R on May 30, 2011 7:45 AM:

    Anyone else see too Big to Fail on HBO. It's a fucking horror movie and the American economy is the victim.