Don’t Panic About the Economy

Dont Panic About the Economy

Unlike many of my colleagues in the mass media, I am suffering from outrage-deficit disorder. It’s not that I’m not angry. I am, in fact, frustrated that we’ve civilized ourselves out of really satisfying scapegoat rituals: The ancients would have staged a mass immolation of the AIG casino pigs in their private jets or crucified Bernie Madoff on the 18th hole at the Palm Beach Country Club, preceded by a public show trial with Jon Stewart as chief magistrate. You probably need an over-the-top catharsis or two like that to get the popular rage under control. As it is, guilt and anger are being splashed about chaotically and inefficiently–and people like Barack Obama, who had nothing at all to do with the creation of this mess, are being blamed. That is very dangerous at a moment when there is a desperate need for patience and rationality.

Over the course of too many years in this business, I have discovered that my two worst sins are anger and impatience. Anger is a double-edged sword–sometimes it is entirely justified . Impatience, though, is a subtler problem, and it is chronic in the mass media. Indeed, it comes with the territory. There are columns to fill, commentaries to spew even when a new Administration has just begun its work and it is way too early to make definitive judgments about its policies. The worst judgments I’ve made as a journalist were the result of impatience. In early 1993–a moment not unlike this one–I joined the mob jumping all over the unseemly sausage-making that attended Bill Clinton’s economic plan. Firmly fixated on twigs and branches–not even trees!–I missed the forest: Clinton’s budget discipline led to the economic boom of the 1990s. And so, older and marginally wiser, I’m taking the path of least crankiness in the early days of this new Administration. Sure, I’m worried that Obama isn’t dealing decisively enough with the banking crisis–but, on the other hand, this is uncharted territory and maybe a cautious, case-by-case strategy will prove to be the right one. And yes, I’m worried that Obama is deferring a bit too much to the snails and toads in the Congress–but, on the other hand, savvy aides like Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel and congressional liaison Phil Schiliro will focus and massage the legislative packages that will be forthcoming. It is entirely possible, as this magazine surmised last week, that Obama has taken on too much, too soon. Or maybe not. The public hasn’t even seen the benefits of the tax cuts that were embedded in the stimulus bill yet. The shovels are barely ready for the new infrastructure spending.