Friday, November 14, 2008

Seldon Crisis

Barack Obama got lucky last week.

What makes it interesting, though, and justifies talking about it in this blog, is the sort of luck he had. Any Democrat with a pulse, and perhaps without, would have won a presidential election six weeks after the worst economic meltdown since the Great Crash. Yet when the financial crisis suddenly altered the political landscape, Obama's campaign troops were already on the ground in states like Indiana and (God help us all!) South Carolina - safely red states, so everyone thought, that would hardly turn blue this side of the Second Coming.

When this kind of luck happens to a general, we call him a genius. Lady Fortune, as old Nick Machiavelli said, is a fickle dame who must be wooed brashly. No one can accuse Barack Obama of being Miles Standish. Since he arrived on the national scene four years ago he has wooed Lady Fortune brashly indeed, and no one can say she hasn't come across for him.

I did not support Obama in the primaries. No serious issues of principle or policy separated the Democratic contenders. Obama's rhetoric, pitched to the reformist/insurgent wing of the Democratic Party, did not especially move me, and I was mainly concerned to have a candidate tough enough to take on the GOP campaign machine, and familiar enough with the DC political machinery to manage it once in office.

Obama ended up proving his political toughness by beating Hillary, which turned out to be much tougher than beating McCain. And in the early going he is showing that he learned from Bill Clinton's early mistakes - and has the shrewdness, wisdom, and confidence to draw on people who went through that experience.

But in some broader, nearly cosmic way this has turned out to be Obama's moment. The chances of history - the twin upheavals of the financial crisis and the election itself - have suspended the usual laws of political physics in Washington. Hillary's greater experience of the old political physics suddenly matters less, and Obama's freedom from identification with yesterday's battles matters more, than I could have imagined a few months ago.

In fact, Obama comes to office in the midst of what feels like a Seldon crisis. The analogy is not perfect, of course. In Asimov's scheme of psychohistory, a Seldon crisis was not a moment of expanding possibilities but of foreclosed ones - when the circumstances of history so converged that the Foundation had only one possible response to the challenges it faced, and so was compelled to take it. Statesmanship, in Asimov's future history, could smooth the transition but not change the new synthesis that emerged.

Real historical transition crises, of course, are not quite like that. (So far as we can tell.) The Reagan era in American history has come an abrupt, dismal, and so far as I am concerned an unlamented end. What follows might be recovery, collapse, or just more muddling along. Obama's opportunities, and risks, are correspondingly greater than those face by Salvor Hardin or Hober Mallow.

No similacrum of Hari Seldon will speak to a crowded room or an empty one to explain the crisis and its solution. Barack Obama will have to figure that out for himself, and history will render its verdict in its usually messy way.

Go to it, Mr. President-Elect!

Read my more formal commentary on the election and transition at the European Courier.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. While I'm reserving judgement on the next administration, I do agree with most people about the historically significance of Barrack Obama being elected.

The President-elect made a lot of promises to a lot of people. How well and how soon he delivers on those promises will be an important measure of how the people gage his success or failure, as fair or not that may be. How he and Congress try to solve all these problems will also be telling. The Congresional elections in 2010 will be another where the main question being asked of the voters will be, "Are you better off then you were in 2009?" Let's hope the answer will be "yes"

Rick said...

Ferrell - actually Obama made surprisingly few promises ('change'?) and gave essentially no hostages to traditional Dem interest groups. He promised nothing to anyone, except - what drove me nuts in the primaries - the vague rosy glow of feeling proud to be American again.

So he isn't under the pressure of promises, but he is under the pressure of circumstances. He and the congressional Dems have to deliver a sense that the country is back out of the ditch. But if the downturn is severe, the question may not be 'are you better off' so much as 'Do you believe you WILL be better off.'

Obama plays big ball. It seems pretty certain to me that especially in this situation he is going to swing for the fences. That is why he is lining up power hitters, like apparently Hillary for Secretary of State.

I don't know what Obama planned to do as president. He has been totally cagey about that. But whatever he intended has been overtaken by events and he knows it. He has an about a one year opportunity to reshape American politics by pushing through what people are already calling a New New Deal.

If he flubs it, Dems will be in deep shit in 2010, but that will be the least of it, because so will the country. If he aces it, it's the Obama era.

I don't think it will be as 'lefty' as the original New Deal, because this is, um, a different century. It will probably be more of a government-business partnership, but the government will be in the driver's seat, because American capitalism has basically already capitulated. They got in over their heads, and needed We the People to bail their asses out.

Adam Smith isn't dead, but Ludwig von Mises and libertarianism are. Markets in some form are universal - else where do space pirates fence their merchandise? But perfect free markets do not exist, and the imperfect ones of the real world are fundamentally institutions of the commonwealth. The original marketplace, after all, was literally the public square.

This could be big ...

There's a relevance to space that I'll blog on soon enough, because our space capability is part of our national infrastructure - and currently crumbling along with the bridges.