Belmont Club

The pits

Comments in some of the most recent Belmont Club posts have been haunted by what Scott Johnson and Victor Davis Hanson have called depression.  No longer do people put forward solutions as much as despair of solutions until the prevailing conditions change or the national mood shifts.  Afghanistan? Well it’s no good discussing it until someone serious is in office. The economy? We’re all doomed so let’s just measure the rate of our decline. Dr. Hanson attributes the gloom to the loss of the old certainties. The world has been turned upside down by recent crises, and things no longer work in predictable ways. The present only seems to confirm the worst suspicions of some and they await the rest of the sentence with a kind of masochistic glee. In contrast to VDH’s focus on zeitgeist as the source of passivity, Scott Johnson puts his personal source of malaise down to one thing: Barack Obama.  “I feel utterly powerless to do anything about the fellow in the Oval Office who combines infantile leftism and adolescent grandiosity in roughly equal measures. It seems to me that every day he is responsible for assaults on the freedom and well being of the American people. I can’t keep up and I can’t stand to pay attention.”

He can’t bear to watch. In a depressive mood we watch things fall apart, helpless to affect the outcome. Depression, whatever its source, has the same enervating effect. There’s a loss of interest in rational policy debate. We no longer feel we can stop the train and just want to know where it goes; we just want it to get to Yuma.  Glenn Reynolds observes that even liberals are starting to feel their gizzards churn as they look down into the vertigenous depths, but in their case it is perhaps with a kind of recognition, a sense that it was always going to end this way. The Left has finally gotten its gal, even though deep down they knew she was poison. The true mark of a real femme fatale is that she offers corruption and the doomed hero takes it. The dialogue in a dark drama is mostly falsehood; you have to listen hard for the truth. The progressive version of depression is knowing that it’s all “infantile leftism and adolescent grandiosity”, but with the lights low in the hotel corridor they can’t help leaning forward for a kiss, despite hearing the old noir dialogue in their heads.

“If you’re thinking of anyone else, don’t.
It wouldn’t work.
You’re no good for anyone but me.
You’re no good and neither am I.
That’s why we deserve each other.”

Or if something more lyrical is desired, you can put it this way.

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

What probably keeps the world from being hijacked by the melancholy of intellectuals are its ordinary people. The world’s sanity is upheld by people who haven’t watched the movies and haven’t attended Harvard. The BBC reported a survey showed that Nigerians were the happiest people in the world.  Mexico, Venezuela and El Salvador are not far behind. The New York Times recently described the rapturous mood in Angola as Pope Benedict completed his visit through it. One crippled old man walked miles for a glimpse of the Pope. That was all he wanted, and it was enough.

Manuel Domingos Bento, a 62-year-old farmer with a paralyzed right leg, had journeyed 50 miles to the outskirts of Angola’s capital and slept here under the stars beneath a thin blanket. A faithful Catholic, he did not want to be late for Mass on Sunday. Pope Benedict XVI was going to lead the service on the last full day of his first trip to Africa.

Even with the help of a crutch, Mr. Bento was too unsteady to venture into the mammoth crowd that had gathered along the expansive dirt of a vacant lot near a cement factory. When the pope finally arrived, the farmer was 200 yards away, able to see only the top part of the “popemobile,” a sparkle of glass under the harsh glint of a powerful sun.

Still, his eyes welled up with emotion. “This is the greatest moment of my life,” he said, awed by the pope’s presence, no matter how distant.

Maybe the NYT thinks it’s all superstitious mumbo-jumbo and maybe it is; but they should never forget the one role that hope and optimism plays in Third World countries. The one reason why the poorest countries in the world are the happiest: the knowledge that if you lost optimism, if you succumbed to depression; if you abandoned faith; if you sought from the shrink what you could otherwise gain by laughing and drinking with your friends then you would be truly lost.  Natural selection militates against the gloomy Guses of the world. A winner never quits and a quitter never wins.

Whoever is in the White House and whatever happens, believe this even if it isn’t true: we will survive.


Paul Krugman has joined the growing ranks of the depressed. Even though it’s Bush’s fault (of course), he now believes that the Geithner plan will lead to catastrophe. Krugman argues in a NYT article called “Financial Policy Despair” that America will get one shot at fixing the crisis, and that by all indications, Obama’s shot will miss by a country mile.

If the reports are correct, Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, has persuaded President Obama to recycle Bush administration policy — specifically, the “cash for trash” plan proposed, then abandoned, six months ago by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. …

It’s as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street. And by the time Mr. Obama realizes that he needs to change course, his political capital may be gone. …
But the fact is that financial executives literally bet their banks on the belief that there was no housing bubble, and the related belief that unprecedented levels of household debt were no problem. They lost that bet. And no amount of financial hocus-pocus — for that is what the Geithner plan amounts to — will change that fact. …

You might say, why not try the plan and see what happens? One answer is that time is wasting: every month that we fail to come to grips with the economic crisis another 600,000 jobs are lost.

Even more important, however, is the way Mr. Obama is squandering his credibility. If this plan fails — as it almost surely will — it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to persuade Congress to come up with more funds to do what he should have done in the first place.

All is not lost: the public wants Mr. Obama to succeed, which means that he can still rescue his bank rescue plan. But time is running out.

Whether or not you believe Krugman it’s undeniable that there has been little, if any, attempt to rigorously identify the problems with the system — what I’ve called the processes which corrupted its information store — before restarting it. I’ve compared this to bringing a database online before fixing the problems which caused it to crash. Now Krugman says they haven’t addressed the housing bubble. Well why not get Barney Frank, Christopher Dodd and Rahm Emmanuel to do it? Why not get Barack Obama to critique “affordable housing”? Because it isn’t going to happen. The foxes run the henhouse. Krugman is asking himself all the right questions in all the wrong ways. Now “despair” is not quite the same as depression. Technically it is worse. “Dante passes through the gate of hell, which bears an inscription, the ninth (and final) line of which is the famous phrase “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”, or “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” Before entering Hell completely, Dante and his guide see the Opportunists, souls of people who in life did nothing, neither for good nor evil.” And doing nothing had its cost.