Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lowering the Bar

I've been told — mostly by optimists, seldom by pessimists — that whether something is good or bad often depends on how you look at it.

Is the glass "half full" or is it "half empty?"

Of course, there are times when the situation is clearly good or bad, with little, if any, wiggle room.

On September 11, for example, you would have been hard-pressed to find someone in the United States who saw a silver lining in the hijackings of four jets, three of which were crashed into buildings, resulting in the total collapse of two of those buildings and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people — unless that silver lining was the short-lived surge in patriotism and the eagerness most people seemed to have to be courteous to their fellow citizens that arose in the immediate aftermath.

In some parts of the Middle East, however, September 11 was viewed as a good thing. I clearly remember seeing some people in that region celebrating upon hearing the news.

In the current recession — or depression or whatever it is that most people are calling it these days — Frank Ahrens is probably correct when he writes, in the Washington Post, that we are living in "the era of low expectations."

Ahrens wrote an interesting piece about the economy and Cisco Systems' quarterly earnings report from the middle of last week — before yesterday's unemployment update was announced — but it's even more relevant when one takes the new unemployment figures into consideration.

"Has 'not as bad as we thought it would be' become the new 'good?'" Ahrens asks. "Has the economy really come to that?"

Prior to the release of the latest unemployment figures, I heard a lot of people saying the economy would lose 600,000 jobs in January. As it turned out, the economy didn't quite lose 600,000 jobs in January. It came close, and the numbers were the worst they've been since 1974, as I observed in this blog yesterday.

Yet the fact that the economy didn't shed 600,000 jobs in January — as it was, the latest jobs report was labeled "brutal" by Alexandra Twin of — seems to have been greeted as good news in some quarters. Wall Street, for instance. The Dow Jones was up more than 217 points. Nasdaq went up more than 45 points. And S&P was up more than 22 points — increases of more than 2% in each instance.

The fact that the economy lost 598,000 jobs in January — and more than 3.5 million jobs have been lost since December 2007 — should not be considered good news. But it is, as Ahrens wrote, "not as bad as we thought."

That, however, is merely a game of semantics.

Barack Obama has tried to be conciliatory, searching for ways to make the government's response a truly bipartisan effort, but he has been taking a stricter stance on the economic stimulus package in recent days, as many have observed in blogs and columns.

It's a bad situation all the way around. Here in Texas, it was widely believed that, although the situation has been bad, it wasn't as bad as it's been in many states. Yet, the current outlook — at least through the first half of 2009 — is dismal here.

In an editorial, the New York Times said it was hard to argue with Obama about the urgency for a stimulus package, then noted that "[o]ur only objection was that he didn't go further: In fact, the jobs report underscored the need for an even bigger boost than is contemplated by the measure, now clocking in at roughly $800 billion."

Senate leaders seemed intent on congratulating each other yesterday for reaching a compromise on the overall cost of the package. In my view, the cost is secondary. We're in this mess because the government, which was entirely in the hands of George W. Bush and the Republicans in the first half of this decade, decided it could accomplish its goals on the cheap and without the intrusion of regulation and oversight.

It's time to abandon the notion of pinching pennies.

Now, those who still have jobs must bear the burden of repairing the damage. Whatever the political philosophies of the individual lawmakers, their choice is clear — do something or sit back and do nothing while their fellow citizens go under.

Look at it as the economic equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. The government must respond now — not a week or a month or a year from now.

It will cost a lot to salvage an economy that supports a nation of more than 300 million people. It isn't pleasant, but it must be done.

It's like ignoring that annoying sound coming from your car. You could save money in the long run by addressing it when you first hear it and pay a minimal amount to replace whatever part it is that is wearing out — or you can pay a lot more later when that part finally gives out and causes more extensive damage.

Our leaders ignored the annoying sounds coming from the economy. Now that more extensive damage has been done and continues to be done, they complain about the cost.

In fact, many members of the Senate — mostly Republicans — still preach the mantra of tax cuts. Well, the Bush era tax cuts were largely responsible for the mess we're in now. Passing more tax cuts under the pretense of using that to repair the economy is like throwing gasoline on a fire.

As is often the case, I am reminded of the message from an episode of a TV series. I refer to an episode of "M*A*S*H," in which Hawkeye, frustrated by new Pentagon directives that extended surgeons' tours of duty, went to the peace talks and barged in, telling the representatives that they couldn't wait any longer to come to an agreement.

"You know what to do. Why can't you just do it?" he implored the delegates. "You can't wait anymore. People are dying out there. You've got to stop it."

We need a Hawkeye to barge into the Senate.

In the meantime, there is something we can do. Obama will hold his first presidential press conference on Monday (8 p.m. Eastern). I presume he will devote much of it to the economic crisis. I hope he will encourage people to contact their senators and urge them to vote for the package.

You can get started on that yourself. Today. Go to the web address for the U.S. Senate and find the senators from your state. Once you do, you should have no trouble finding the e-mail addresses (as well as traditional mail addresses and landline phone numbers) for those senators. Contact them. Express your views.

Tell them that you haven't lowered the bar. Tell them you expect a lot from the people who have been sent to Washington to represent you — including having the guts to make tough but necessary choices.

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