The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, November 7, 2011

Goldfish Syndrome

Maybe the Lack of Leadership We Perceive Is Due to a Lack of Followers

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou will be leaving office, following a no-confidence vote in parliament. The affair has thrown his already beleaguered nation into even more chaos. The vote resulted from Papandreou’s startling decision to subject a bailout deal negotiated with the European Union to a public referendum, followed by his equally abrupt decision to withdraw the referendum. These twin moves were like political shock and awe on the Greek parliament, Greece’s EU neighbors, and the world economy.

“We are like goldfish, waiting with our mouths open,” lamented writer Petros Tatsopoulos on Greek television, about the ongoing drama.
Carassius auratus auratus  –
the common goldfish

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson sees it as a microcosm of poor leadership in response to harsh economic realities across the planet. “The global economy is faltering and no country has assumed leadership in organizing recovery. There is a loss of control, a vacuum of power,” he frets. “Time was when the United States automatically assumed the leadership role . . . [but] America’s capacity and desire to lead have flagged.”

In many ways, Papandreou’s ill-advised maneuver was not surprising to me. Last Sunday, the center-left Greek newspaper To Vima reported that a majority of Greeks viewed the EU bailout deal negatively. Papandreou was making a desperate populist bid to save his political hide. It failed because different concerns motivated parliament, including his own Socialist Party, than those motivating the public.

When politicians are out of sync with the public, conventional wisdom usually puts the blame on politicians. In this case, the Greek public is out of sync with reality. The EU bailout is not so much an escape as sufficient forgiveness of Greek loans as to allow that country to solve its debt problems with hard work. However, the Greek public has made it abundantly clear they do not want to undertake that hard work and they hate the EU for making them face it.

It is unlikely that the European Union hates Greece any less than Greece hates it at this point. However, the EU is in sync with reality and appreciates a default by Greece would prove far too damaging in today interconnected world. In contrast, the Greek people cannot see beyond the fishbowl of their own selfish concerns. They float at the top of that bowl, mouths agape, watching national events that seem almost alien to them and unwilling to participate in any solution beyond griping about government.

Some might argue that government has imposed the fishbowl upon them and Greece would do much better in the wild (i.e. free markets and default). The real problem, in my opinion, is isolation. Carp are a naturally gregarious species, as far as fish go. Fond of schooling, they seldom fight or compete in ways that harm one another. Goldfish may still retain these qualities but get little chance to practice them when swimming alone in their small bowls.

The situation is no different here at home than in Greece. Both Parties agree unemployment is a huge problem facing this country. Two job stimulus bills proposed by President Obama have died in the Senate. The latest failed, in part, because Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, felt their personal conservative principles could not allow them to vote with the rest of the Party they normally caucus. Fifteen jobs bills passed by the Republican House have died in the same Senate because Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada places partisanship above negotiation and compromise.

If you hope for salvation from a Third Party, the current candidates are uninspiring. Occupy Wall Street is a fledgling movement that is still too preoccupied over its outrage about problems to construct and offer solutions. Its lack of leadership is a point of pride for its members. The Tea Party is a more mature movement but stresses small government and individual liberties so absolutely that they seem to see constructing metaphorical fishbowls as the solution to most national or global problems.

David Brooks summarized the situation nicely in the New York Times. “The United States is a country that has received many blessings, and once upon a time you could assume that Americans would come together to take advantage of them. But you can no longer make that assumption.”

In this sense, I agree that we suffer from a lack of leadership but not necessarily from a lack of leaders. There is a plethora of idea offered from both sides of the political spectrum. What we appear to be suffering from, in my opinion, is a dearth of followers. The latter is just as critical an input for leadership, after all.

Great leaders inspire others to follow them. In this case, Samuelson notes how “leaders can emphasize policies that encourage recovery and reject policies that retard it. Demonstrated leadership instills confidence that accelerates economic expansion.” Yet I wonder how easily any familiar leader – contemporary or historical – would fare with most modern Western societies.

The old saw runs that a leader without followers is just a guy out taking a walk. Conversely, I maintain that a school of carp that can not/will not swim together is nothing but a lot of goldfish in fishbowls. Our desire for results and benefits combined with our lack of will to commit, bear burdens, and even endure hardships leaves me thinking that far too many of us, like the Greeks, suffer from goldfish syndrome. Perhaps the time has come for us to stop waiting, shut our mouths, and learn to start swimming together again.


Anonymous said...

The only rational course for Greece is to make a serious threat of default and force the EU to either offer better terms than is now the case or to accept the fallout from a default. The notion that the (non-monolithic) Greek people in their tens of millions have an obligation to embrace a decade or more of mass unemployment and a dramatically degraded standard of living to atone for the sins of perhaps a few thousand bankers and politicians in their country and across the EU is appalling.

Further, the Greek bailout plan isn't to bail Greece out, but to bail out banks and other creditors--you cannot save a country by destroying its economy. Almost none of the people whose actions precipitated the crisis are paying a price for it; the suffering is the near-exclusive province of workers and those who rely heavily on government services to get by.

As for the Occupy movement, the very last thing they should do is come up with some concrete plan at which supporters of the current inequalities and inequities can snipe. What they are doing is exactly the right thing: highlighting the problems and exerting steadily growing pressure upon policy makers to address them. Anything else and the movement will fracture over details and, as I say, those who seek to undermine it will have concrete policy targets.

Reid and Democrats have much to answer for, but the refusal by congressional Republicans to consider any tax increases and the Republican adoption of the filibuster as a daily matter of fact in the Senate are quite literally the only obstacles to the pathetically anemic jobs bill proposed by Obama. Democrats suck, but the overwhelmingly largest share of responsibility for our legislative box canyon lies with the GOP.

Congressional Democrats at the moment occupy the territory once held by moderate Republicans and points right, with a relatively small contingent operating in the traditional labor-friendly--which is to say, working people, not only unions--environmentally conscious and socially liberal Democratic territory. There is no left-right divide; only a moderate right and a radical reactionary right one, and the inhabitants of both sides cater far more to the desires of corporations and the wealthiest Americans than to the needs of the rest of us. That lack of identification with the circumstances of most Americans is among the large issues that Occupy is attempting to address.

David Brooks is an idiot, albeit a generally well-spoken one. If Americans are not taking advantage of the country's blessings, it is because the people who control the wealth of the country are winning their battle to hoard those blessings and prevent anyone else from enjoying them, and there are precious few people with any power who speak and fight for the great mass of us--the 99% to whom Occupy refer.

According to me, anyway.

James(firstphone) said...

I like your carp analogy but the greek carp have unions and look more like this..

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