“However studiously and conscientiously the bullsh*tter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline.”
— Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullsh*t
When my son was five years old, I introduced him to the game of chess. Within months he had acquired a schematic overview of the board but, naturally, tended to bungle the opening and would stall somewhat in the middle game. Still, he might survive the occasional contest until he reached the complexities of the endgame, which, with its empty spaces and five or six remaining pieces, defeated him utterly.
The first twelve or so moves are relatively straightforward whatever staple opening or variation one adopts. The middle game grows increasingly intricate, as is to be expected. The endgame, however, is a bitch, which may seem paradoxical, given the board is almost Mother Hubbard bare. But that is a delusion. For it is at this vertiginous moment when a giddy array of probabilities arise that do not allow for the slightest miscue. One wrong move in the endgame, writes Garry Kasparov in How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves — from the Board to the Boardroom, and the win can “evaporate.” It takes “precision … to complete a successful move.” The “exercise” is “almost mathematical.”
Accordingly, my son set himself to repair his dilemma by practicing assiduously, distributing a handful of pieces across the board and playing solo as both black and white. Only, his idea of practice, of gaining competence, was not to master the byzantine maneuvers needed to resolve the ramifications of endgame analysis, but simply to change the rules in order to improve his situation. This was his version of hope and change. And it must be said that these attempts at dominating the intimidating vacancies of the finale succeeded brilliantly. Whatever side he identified with invariably won, thanks to an imperial knight assuming the bishop’s role or an insurgent pawn leaping two or three squares instead of crawling forward the requisite one square at a time.
The problem was that his endgame tactics — assuming he got that far — failed miserably whenever he played against someone else and was forced to stick to the standard rules of chess. Reality refused to play by his suddenly invented rules as he surveyed a checkered desert stretching tauntingly before his frowning gaze. My poor boy had not yet understood that, confronting a board of 64 squares, most of them empty, and with only half a dozen pieces or fewer left to advance, the calculations required to queen a pawn and achieve victory demanded strict, logical, relentless thinking, leaving no margin for even a single mistake. That is how a labyrinthine game is won. An unskilled player, however, must inevitably lose when the board begins to clear.
Which brings me by way of extended preface to the current échec on the domestic scene. The present American administration plays the economy the way my five-year-old son played chess. It knows the opening moves at least sufficiently to occupy the appropriate squares, gets itself into trouble as the match heats up, and finds itself utterly at a loss when trying to make sense of the endgame with its bewildering profusion of blanks, abstractions, projections, estimates, developments, and unimagined vacuities.
All good chess players know that a respectable game will not be decided in its early phases or even in medias res, and consequently prepare themselves for future resolutions when things become truly forbidding. They do not plod from move to move but project strategically to the later stages when tactics finally supervene. Grandmasters always prepare for the endgame. The same stricture applies to the economic game if the players are professionals and obviously do not want to find themselves saddled with the debts incurred by faulty, thoughtless, or over-exuberant planning, as happens with wood-pushers. For when they finally arrive at the inevitable conclusion flowing from their initial efforts, they cannot abruptly change the rules to compensate for their antecedent blunders.
A debt must either be paid or paid for. A missed opportunity comes back to haunt. A false calculation wreaks havoc. Defective logic and poor mathematics translate as ruin in the sequel. A player who lacks skill in planning carefully for the endgame or who cannot find his way once he gets there can rely only on some unanticipated fluke to emerge unscathed. But in any momentous competition where the stakes are high, be it chess, economics, politics, or business, nothing substitutes for proficiency. Amateurs pretending to be pros will in the course of time bring humiliation upon themselves — and unhappiness to those who have invested in their performance. Eventually, everyone is checkmated.
In the agon we are considering, Barack Obama is an unskilled player. Timothy Geithner is an unskilled player. Larry Summers, Christina Romer, and Austan Goolsbee are unskilled players. (The jury is out on Ben Bernanke.) The moves they are now making will see to their embarrassment when they try to unkink the sinuosities of the endgame — assuming, as with my five-year-old, that they get that far. Indeed it appears that almost everyone in the administration is either an unskilled player, an old hack player (Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton), or a weirdo player (John Holdren, Van Jones).
This also appears to be the case with the Democratic Congress and its attendant RINOs. Duffers all or most. They cannot adhere, in Harry Frankfurt’s words, to “a disinterested and austere discipline” since they do not understand the game they are playing or are merely incapable of taking it seriously. They do not even read the bills that they pass. They are, in fact, prone to “some kind of laxity,” they are “trying to get away with something,” and they are blithely making up the rules as they go along. Frankfurt would not hesitate, despite his cachet as a Princeton philosopher, to call them bullsh*tters. But when one tackles a vital issue like the economy, there is no room for ignorance or frivolity — or bullsh*t.
As the game proceeds, metaphorically speaking, the players of record will push their wood, lose some pieces and capture others, arrange exchanges, and formulate ambitious plans even if these are half-baked and ultimately prove cumbersome. But when they find themselves approaching or even contemplating the endgame, facing a vast board of question-mark spaces and myriad computations, they will find themselves effectively at a loss. If they are exceptionally fortunate, the game will end in stalemate, but chances are overwhelming that they will lose decisively. They will not forge to the eighth rank like Alice gamboling through her chess game hijinks in Through the Looking-Glass, asking herself how the Queen’s crown on her head could “have got there without my knowing it.”
My son is now in his thirties, married, two kids, and a top engineer for a major industrial corporation, who travels widely across the chessboard of the world. He has recuperated impressively from his nonage tendencies. One of his greatest strengths, which has served him in excellent stead, is his mature ability to envision the endgame and to make exactly the right tactical moves at precisely the right times, ensuring the success of critical initiatives, projects, and contracts. He is also teaching his young sons how to play chess.
But who will teach the fantasists of the current administration to ponder the convolutions of the economic challenge they are presumably trying to meet and the daunting obliquities of the endgame? Who will prevent the bumbling White House Knight from continually falling off his horse, “right on his head as usual,” as Alice remarks? In the fiscal world, as on the chessboard, one cannot triumph by launching brazenly imprudent moves at the start without incurring insolvency at the end, especially if one does not know how to manage the endgame.
In his memoir King’s Gambit, Paul Hoffman, editor of Discover magazine, tells the story of Canadian chess prodigy Joel Lautier, who expressed a certain disdain of a new and arrogant generation of chess players. “With their computer databases, they may know the latest opening wrinkles. But after the opening, the gods have placed the middle game. And after the middle game, the endgame.” For that is when the laws of chess, like those of economics, remorselessly foreclose.
We can only hope that the United States Senate or the American electorate will end the game their leaders are playing before the endgame looms unforgivably before them.