It Reminds Me Of Iraq

I was a reporter in Baghdad right after the end of the ground war, right after Saddam's statue came down.

This week feels a bit like that week, strangely.

Let me explain.

I mean this in a very specific way.

When the U.S. and the coalition took over Baghdad, the Americans running things set up in the Republican Palace in the Green Zone. If we reporters wanted to know anything about the U.S. plans, we couldn't actually ask anyone in charge. There were no working phones. There was no email.

You just had to go to this one side gate, off to the left side of the palace, and there was an Army Private, named Frank or something, dressed in civilian clothes.

Frank had this clipboard with a questionnaire. You'd ask him something, he'd write it down. He'd walk into the palace. He'd be there a long, long time. Then he'd walk out and say, "I couldn't find anybody."

There would be a long line of American reporters and Iraqi civilians. He'd get the next question — he never took more than one at a time — and then go inside the palace, take a long, long time, and come out: "I couldn't find anybody."

For weeks, we reporters and, more importantly, the Iraqi people knew pretty much nothing about what was going on inside, who was running Iraq and what they were doing and planning for the future.

Sometimes you'd accidentally run into an American official somewhere in Baghdad and you'd find out some huge piece of news — the oil fields are operating or the entire Army has been disbanded. Most of the time, you had no idea what the people in charge were doing.

I have that same frustration this week. There is a group of people making massive decisions about all of our futures and we get little snippets, but we don't really know what's going on.

I want to make crystal clear: I am not accusing anybody of deliberate malfeasance or some secrete conspiracy to ruin our lives or anything. I know that everyone involved is insanely busy and reacting to the crisis as best they can. I am certainly not saying that our country is occupied or that an insurgency will take shape or anything else to do with Iraq.

I just mean two points:

1. We have an enormous desire to know what is going on and what it means and we're looking at it through a tiny pinhole in a greased up can (or some other metaphor that is better than that).

But there's something else:

2. We will almost certainly know everything or close to it, some day. There will be books and articles written, Congressional testimony and historical papers. This story will come out.

And not all that many people will care about the details.

I reported for months on corruption in Iraq. I would spend weeks to get the barest hint that maybe, just maybe, some weird stuff was going on at the Ministry of Health. I had no details.

These days, through court cases and inspector general reports, we get such rich detail spelling out massive corruption. I've seen stories on the front page of the New York Times with details that would have won me fame and every award in journalism in 2003. In 2008, I bet hardly anybody reads the stuff.

My hunch is this will be similar:

In, say, 2011, the economy — we hope — will be back on track and doing well and people will be bored with stories about that scary time a few years ago.

Or the economy will be a disaster and people will be focused on their own lives and the overwhelmingness of it all.

There will probably be a few scapegoats sent to jail. There will probably be some grand legislation passed designed to make sure this never happens again.

But few people will want to know about the details. Few people will care who made what decision back in that crucial week.

And Congress and regulators will be able to work, as they usually do on financial matters, without the careful scrutiny of the public.

I'm the same way. I lived in Iraq for a year. It was all consuming. These days, I don't even read those articles with all those details. Do you?



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Adam - interesting thoughts. We Americans have shorter and shorter attention spans. We're distracted by everyday problems. Keeping an interest in politics requires you to ignore the wheel-greasing and back-scratching of politicians. Macroeconomics isn't something the American people understand, by and large. If you look at the savings rate in America and the dependence on credit, we don't even know how to manage our own personal finances. You hit the mark - we are overwhelmed and focused on paying our bills, taking care of our kids and keeping our jobs. We're swimming upstream. We want to trust our leaders - we desperately do. We just end up acquiescing because that car payment is due next Tuesday. We're overextended.

Sent by Chris | 8:34 AM | 9-25-2008

Adam, I have similar emotions. I can't pull myself away from the events that are unfolding. I have real work that I should be doing but feel compelled to try and make a difference in this discussion. I have participated on your blog to try and find purchase on moving the discussion to the issues I see as relevant to the crisis. I wonder if economists take physics. I think they should. Economies are in the physical world and behave in ways that can be understood through basic physical principals. The discussion so far has avoided talking about what actually happened in the 1920's through the 1930's. Our focus on October 29, 1929 is blinding us from seeing the changes we must make. We can let the stock market crash, lose our retirement and still save people from starvation and social collapse. The average American citizen feels the wall street CEO has taken over the plane of our economy and would rather run it into the ground than let them do further damage to the civilization at large.
Now to the physics.

I was listening to Sound Money pod cast this weekend and when the player finished the show the next selection played from my son's high school physics chapter reviews. (I will send you the 2 minute MP3 if you want.) It explained the physics of our economics succinctly through the laws of thermodynamics.

Try my analogy.
Our economy is like a bunch of cars connected together by ropes of our financial system. Each car has or at one time had some power to pull the economy in a positive direction. (more order)
The financial system is the ropes connecting the cars. The credit markets can allow slack or pull the cars close together. If the rope breaks then the cars in the front lose the ability to help the ones in the back. The ones in the back may crash or have enough fuel to move with the economic system independently.
The ones in the back may still affect the ones in the front by crashing into them violently. (more disorder)
The cars are not the energy, it is the work that people do that fuels them. The cars are the machines that use that work to get us from one place to another. The ropes have all been shorten or cut, and there are cars running out of fuel and cars that are so close if one crashes there is going to be a huge pile up. The fed is trying to give the cars more rope. But it is ignoring the need for more fuel. The cars that have been cut loose need to be reattached to the system or they may crash into the rest. (Social breakdown) Work is the fuel, taxes provide public fuel and the rest is private fuel. Civilization is keeping the ropes connected. Government cars are connected to corporate and private cars.
When the ropes stretch and contract people in our financial system are getting a little energy to fuel their car. We are at a point where there has been a lot of change in the ropes and much energy has gone to the financial cars. Some of them are attempting to cut loose the rest of the cars. And some of the other cars are trying to crash into the financial cars. We are headed for a big pile up because we are focused on a single point in time. What we should focus on is the energy that drives the cars. That work is anything that makes the system stronger. We must focus on the cars and fuel, not the ropes. We need to keep the system tied together to avoid crashes and to keep people adding fuel. Cutting to many people lose through home foreclosures, job loss, moving assets off shore, crime and other disorder causes civil collapse.

I am looking for new thread to this discussion that looks past the crash event and toward keeping people tied together. It is a difficult one to have in our partisan polarized environment. World war two was a result of the conditions created by the system in place during the 1930's. Hungary people will do crazy things for someone who offers them hope of food.
Just as I watched the TV while Iraq citizens looted their own government building I cringe at the elected few looting our treasury to provide gains for the few at the expense of us all. That is the reason I feel a tax plan must be part of this solution. A am afraid we just don't have any more rope. Can we learn and do something different? That is why I have spent my time in this discussion.

Sent by ray | 10:09 AM | 9-25-2008

Bush's salespitch reminds me of Iraq: "these are special circumstances" so the usual rules don't apply.

Sent by Matt Kaye | 12:22 PM | 9-25-2008

I would agree with you that "not all that many people will care about the details" in 2011 if this event were simply of the moment, like books on the OJ Trial. For instance, when Marcia Clark's $4 million memoir came out years after the trial, no one cared because the moment was long over.

But the bailout is an ongoing and evolving situation that will shape the American economy and politics for years to come, seeing as we seem ready to replace Bush's "democratic capitalism" with socialism and, as one of the people on your podcast put it earlier this week, to transfer the power of America's purse strings from the legislative to the executive branch.

Look at Thomas Ricks' FIASCO and Rajiv Chandrasekaran's IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY, published in 2006. Booksellers were telling publishers, "No one wants Iraq books. Certainly no one wants negative Iraq books." Nope. Huge sellers because they came out right when the effects of the occupation were truly becoming known. The aftermath of the invasion, not the invasion itself, had become and continues to be the big story.

In addition, it's a story with angles suitable for several shelves in the bookstore. Most publishers, from what the Observer noted yesterday, are aiming books at the business shelf. But in my opinion this is a political story destined for the current affairs then the history shelf. Think of the story as that of the corruption in Iraq simply transported to America.

I also think you're confusing the needs of one trade, journalism, with another, publishing. Journalism thrives on the instant, first always being best, whereas publishing, with the exception of quickie books or books rushed back into print, thrives on the long lead time and the chance to plumb every depth of a story.

Consider Eichenwald's CONSPIRACY OF FOOLS, which came out three and a half years after Enron went belly up and also after several other Enron books had been published. It was far more detailed than earlier books, "epic" as PW described it, which was half the appeal.

The writer, I would argue, is the other half, and a great writer's appeal doesn't date either. Look at Bob Woodward's last few books, which are a chronicle of White House malfeasance long after the melfeasing--long after anyone could even imagine they could be more malfeasant.

One category of detail is particularly important when it comes to those on the bailout: people to blame. Used to be, there'd be a trial or commission where the guilty were effectively hanged in the public square. That doesn't really happen anymore. As the Gonzalez hearings showed, even the most corrupt and incompetent person would still be shamelessly championed by his political allies. It's the books that reveal the truth today, people will want them for closure, seeing as tar and feathering is no longer socially acceptable.

Sure there will be books on the crisis and the bailout that will fail. The key is finding the right story and having the right person take the time to do it right, then publishing it at the right moment in the evolution of the story.

In 2011, for instance, the next presidential campaign will be gearing up, which will likely make the aftermath of the bailout very relevant.

Sent by Stephen | 1:49 PM | 9-25-2008

Let's hope we are heading into an era of De-Bu'ushifcation when we learn the truth, or at least the scope of what we will never know.

Adam, you and the Planet Money team are doing a great job. You've got my attention.

Sent by Mark Willis | 2:19 PM | 9-25-2008