THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Too big to fail
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, April 12-18, 2009
Barack and Michelle Obama took Europe by storm last week. While the policy accomplishments were limited, most of us were delighted by their grace. Obama's openness to dialogue, his willingness to listen and to be self-critical will go a long way towards enabling the U.S.A. to rejoin the family of nations. His trip marked the end of the arrogant, "my way or the highway" policies of George Bush. In major speeches, small gatherings and town halls, President Obama signaled that he understands the world has changed and that it requires more of all of us than the pursuit of narrow self-interest.
Meanwhile, there has been a subtle shift in the language used to describe the political landscape. The Obama administration will no longer talk of a "surge." It has gotten rid of the term "enemy combatants." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has announced the end of the "War on Terror." Our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are now called "overseas contingency operations," and events like the attack of September 11 will be called "human-caused disasters."
While, hopefully, these last two terms will give way to something a bit more manageable, changing language does not alter policies, and there is much to consider here.
These are more than linguistic shuffles, changing names but maintaining essential practices. Rather, they are opportunities to open up our thinking about situations that have become defined in rigid, counter-productive ways. Changing how we talk about things is the first step in opening us up to thinking creatively about where we are, and where we want to go.
In this connection the Obama administration has been repeating a refrain that we should invite them to change. In talking about the crisis of the bankers and auto makers, we keep hearing the phrase "They are too big to let fail."
We hear that AIG is "too big to fail." Ben Bernake ssid "We have no choice but to stabilize it or else risk enormous impact, not just on the financial system, but on the whole U.S. economy."
Even as President Obama talks of bankruptcy and massive restructuring, he also says of the auto industry: "We cannot, we must not, and we will not let our auto industry simply vanish."
And Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner offers us a two-tiered bank bailout for about 20 banks considered "too big to fail."
This phrase obscures the reality that these institutions have already failed. It deflects our thinking away from an even deeper truth. These institutions are too big to sustain.
We have created a way of talking about the global economy that makes us think that massive economic entities are the only way to produce our needs and to create global connections. In reality, these kinds of global arrangements only made sense in a world where the true costs of production were not considered.
For example, we never considered the cost to communities as factories moved out, people lost jobs. and communities and cities lost the tax base for their schools and public works. Nor have we considered the cost to the environment of the oil spills inherent in distribution and production systems dependent on cheap oil.
Economics of scale made sense in a world still bounded by natural limits. But today's technologies and methods of accounting have given us the false belief that mass production is a virtue.
We need to ask basic questions about "What should we produce? How should we produce it? What effect do our ways of producing and consuming have on our communities and on our Earth?"
We can no longer evade the reality that some questions are now too big to ignore.
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