“We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”
– Charlton Ogburn
By W.D. Noble
This Tuesday, President Obama made his second State of the Union Address. While no one shouted ‘you lie!’, or did anything else just as egregiously-wrong, I would have almost preferred such a comment – anything but the mind-numbing and seemingly-endless set of feelgood-stories which were the recurring theme behind Obama’s opus, and the endless applause from the paired-off prom-style seating arrangements.
A story of my own is appropriate. Some years ago, I started work for a company in east Portland; they’d sold me on their desire to ‘become great again’, after falling on some hard times. They were a medical laboratory, owned by the international conglomerate, ICN. I sat in a meeting eerily similar to Tuesday’s congressional love-fest, in which the division president put up slide after slide, each with irregular lines starting at the upper-left and descending to the lower-right – sales; margins; profits – and, while pointing to the very small plateau at the lower part of each slide, made the positively-glowing statement that we were losing money at a decreasing rate.
We all looked at each other as if to say, “Did we hear that right?” Later, we all discussed the relative insanity of feeding bullshit to us as if it were caviar -and the further insanity of expecting us all to say “Yum! More; please!”
If we’re to analyze Obama’s speech in a few words, this is what he said: “I’m gonna double-down on my existing agenda. It’s more of the same. I want us to work together on all this, because we’re not gonna get there by fighting each other. Let’s all hold hands, sing ‘Kum-Ba-Ya’ and ignore the nagging tilt of the forward decks – hope and love are all we need.”
He didn’t address the real problems – the utter destruction of the middle class; the fact that the Citizens United ruling had handed the Dems their crushing defeat in November; the continued deficits by way of a complete lack of revenues, thanks to some hostage-taking by the new Republican Congress and their Wall Street puppet-masters; the continued failure of the job and housing markets – all of these were conveniently ignored. Nope – we’re supposed to hold hands and march into a bright, shiny new future.
CEO’s who engage in this sort of insane fuckery eventually get to sign off on bankruptcy court paperwork. Before that, though, they issue glowing reports on how well their companies are really doing, while their stocks tank and their employees (the good ones, anyway) leave in droves for other organizations with positive cashflows. They restate their problems in such a way as to suggest that the problem itself is a solution (see Obama’s commentary on Social Security, if you question that tactic – that’s just what he did.)
Another favorite tactic is reorganization – as employees leave, whole divisions are reorganized to mask the effect of the departures; sometimes managers are shuffled, and oftentimes they’re fired outright as a means of shifting blame. All of these departures are accounted on the plus-side of the ledger; labor is expensive, and it’s always easier to create prosperity from misery when you can force one person to do the work of two for the same pay.
All of this is a big fat warning-flag; a sign that the CEO is in over his head, and has a set of problems he can’t fix – not with the equivalent of a band-aid on cancer.
Those who remain, whether employees or stockholders, are also complicit – they go along to get along, or to draw a paycheck for however-long the company survives. Of course, this behavior – complicity-by-silence – only serves to add gasoline to the fire.
Here are the problems, in case anyone’s still listening:
1. We have been, for thirty years or more (starting roughly with the Reagan Administration) spending more than we take in. This is only going to be solved by reversing the process (taking in more than we spend, and using the balance to pay down the debt and do the other things we really need to do.)
2. The housing market continues to sink (housing prices in every market have declined yet again last quarter with no end in sight. This will place nearly one in three mortgages effectively ‘underwater’ by the middle of the year.)
3. The job market continues to sink. With 400,000+ jobs lost every month, we’re on track to lose another five million jobs this year – added to the thirty-plus million lost already. Any way you look at it, those are depression-level numbers.
4. 10% of the population owns 98% of the nation’s wealth. This inequity was created by successive repeal of regulations and rewriting the tax-code, effectively creating a casino out of Wall Street and giving the keys of the asylum to the inmates.
5. We are fighting two wars which are not doing us a damn bit of good, to the tune of $170B yearly, with an aggregate cost of over a trillion dollars. Add to this the $1T we spend every year maintaining hundreds of bases and thousands of military personnel on nearly every continent, and we have the real Elephant in the Room – the first place we should look to cut our deficits.
(You’ll note that I didn’t mention abortion, gay marriage, DADT, putting the Ten Commandments on the courthouse-lawn, or any of the far Right’s other strawman-arguments. These are not issues. The fact that we have millions living in the streets; millions more hanging by a thread; the greatest wealth-inequality since the Gilded Age, and a gang of bloodthirsty Crusaders creating more enemies than we can possibly ever kill – those are issues. Real ones. They constitute the bulk of the real State of the Union – and they weren’t addressed at all this Tuesday).
It borders on insanity to say that ‘low test scores’ handicapped our economy – while the brightest students in America all dutifully followed the money to Wall Street, where they created the mess we’re in; to state that the economic crisis was ‘avoidable’, when it was the collective result of over thirty years of economic mismanagement; that ‘the worst is over’ – when there are tens of millions who are past all hope of participating in the nation’s ‘recovery’.
Pointing to the relative recent successes on Wall Street as signs that the economy is ‘recovering’ is akin to the fellow who pointed to his slides in that meeting in 1979, telling an incredulous cafeteria full of soon-to-be-unemployed people that our company was ‘losing money at a decreasing rate’ and that ‘recovery was right around the corner.’
As long as we’re willing to accept ‘business as usual’, we’re also willing to accept more of the same. For most of us, that situation is untenable. Egregious fuckery is the order of the day; our government was co-opted by the Supreme Court, by a ruling which gave corporations the same rights as individuals, and by which the Wall Street gangsters were allowed to purchase the lower House outright in the last election. With our government all but bought-and-paid-for and our President engaged in moonbeam-leadership, there isn’t much left to those of us who Stayed Awake in Class and have already connected the dots.
As Chris Hedges said recently, civil disobedience is all we have left. Absent a miracle, this is the last refuge of the patriot. It remains to be seen whether we are all scoundrels by the doing.
(In the spring of 1980, the end had come. Sales had slowed to a trickle; the company was out of money, and I’d had enough. I found a job with another company and left. A week later, the laboratory folded. What was true then, as now, is that glowing speeches, the suspension of reality, and the application of ‘spin’ aren’t enough to turn a business – or a country – around.)