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Free Liberal: Coordinating towards higher values

Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

The Search for Certainty in an Uncertain World

How the Way of Peace Helps Guide Us In Turbulent Times

by Robert Capozzi

As we enter the final stretch of the 21st century's first decade, it's becoming apparent that our civilization's search for certainty has proven to be hopelessly dysfunctional. The brisk but ultimately unsatisfactory public-square dialog over the Twin Towers of "economic rescue" – TARP and stimulus – revealed the futility of searching for assurance in an obviously wobbly world. Close observation of the dueling theories behind these "rescues" makes it plain just how hopeless the Holy Grail of certitude is, and, in truth, always has been.

We can imagine cave men wandering the land, looking for the richest hunting grounds. North? South? East? West? The answer was not obvious. Did prehistoric man observe herd movements, the terrain, and other natural phenomenon and patterns? Did he extrapolate and interpolate various factors, assess them, consult his "gut," and inductively or deductively take a view as to the most productive course? We can't know, of course, but something like that seems likely.

The Cave Man* no doubt also considered past hunting trips, which tactics worked, and which didn't. He considered in what sorts of circumstances did which tactic work, and which not. He had millions of options, combinations of strategy and tactics, directions to go, etc. Some Cave Men developed a better track record than others. We could view the long-term successful Cave Man as somewhat "superior," although even that seems to be a stretch. The "very best" Cave Man might have been killed in some random circumstances beyond his control -- so much for survival of the fittest. Luck seems to be an inescapable factor. We'll never know exactly how much was luck and how much was better foresight.

Flash forward to now. The rhetoric bound up in the cases made for TARP and the stimulus were phony, contrived. Then Treasury Secretary Paulson told us the financial TARP bailout was "necessary," without qualification. He didn't even have the honesty to append the words "in my opinion." He was the modern day Cave Man, the one who'd developed the "best" hunting track record. Apparently implicit in his judgment that "TARP is necessary," we should assume that with his background and the resources at his disposal, Paulson plucked the "certain" answer from the miasma of uncertainty.

That quickly proved false. TARP – within weeks! – was transmogrified from buying toxic assets to capital injections into financial institutions. Little wrinkles in the law may have allowed that, but Master Hunter Paulson gave weak and disingenuous responses on why the TARP was dramatically altered. Did circumstances change, or was TARP initially ill-conceived? We'll probably never know what was going on in Paulson's head at the time, but we do have a sense that Paulson's initial "necessary" proclamation was incorrect.

Paulson is admittedly an easy target. But this proves to be an extreme example of the folly of certainty. One week, TARP was "necessary." Soon, it wasn't necessary. Another approach was "necessary." Paulson's absolutism was incorrect, or rationalized, or a huge misdirection. We'll probably never know. It does appear that he careened from one triage tactic to another, somberly and soberly positioning himself as savior of the Western World as we know it.

What would have happened if TARP was not passed? What would have happened if TARP in its original form had been instituted? What would have happened if TARP as instituted was half as big or twice as big? We can't know. All answers have to be uncertain.

And yet, how can we escape the same conclusions about the stimulus? The form and size of it seems suboptimal on many, many levels. It was sold to us as directionally correct, not necessarily "necessary" in all its details. But it was positioned as the "least bad" option, at least implicitly.

That does seem to be the burden of leadership. Leaders seem often to overstate for effect, mixing their case for a directional change with arguments that appeal to both pragmatism and morality. Stimulus "will work" because we need to get the "country moving again" and because we need "government to solve pent-up perceived injustices."

Add "Peace" to the Decision Matrix
Have we met the new boss, same as the old boss? Is Obama's stimulus a replay of Paulson's TARP? Are they both just today's Cave Men, taking their best guesses? I'd say Yes. But I'd say they both miss the forest for the trees. I see no evidence that either man has asked the fundamental question: Is this the peaceful solution?

Peace is the one solution that is both right and practical. Resolving conflicts seems to require a commitment to the peaceful path, which often entails taking the least-resistant way. The Cave Man might well find the richest hunting grounds on the other side of the mountain range, but the cost of scaling the mountains is prohibitive. The expense of scaling the mountain – in time, resources, and risk – is too high, even though there may well be twice as much game on the other side. There is likely to be game on this side of the mountain and it's much easier to get to. Perhaps the day will come when we go to the other side, preferably through a mountain pass, but for now, let's hunt the game that's available.

We can't know the internal thoughts of Paulson and Obama, but I wonder whether they asked themselves the question: Is TARP or stimulus the most peaceful solution to the problem, all things considered? I doubt it, frankly. Both men played the "fear" this or the nation will disintegrate. Both catastrophized, using words of an unpeaceful mind. Both plans are grandiose, marked by other-side-of-the-mountain thinking. They represent economic shock-and-awe, radical breaks from the current trajectory.

Peaceful solutions are almost always gradual, for grand plans represent major shifts from the status quo, thereby triggering resistance from significant percentages of the population. It is of course vital to consider history and theory and practicality when advocating policy X, but the peace test is the ultimate one. Can the advocate look into the mirror and say with confidence: I believe this is the way of peace? I cannot imagine that Paulson and Obama have done so, and passed that test. Our conscience is the home of our innate wisdom, and TARP and stimulus both seem profoundly unwise on many, many levels.

The way of peace is not "perfect," not the ideal. It is important to imagine ideals as part of the problem-solving process, but it's probably more important to recognize that ideals are True Norths, directional guideposts. It's a razor's edge: To be humble enough to recognize that we almost never achieve ideals, but to have no doubt that a peaceful direction will improve our situation by removing obstacles to peace. We are on a constant look-out for inspiration, gathering data points as we go, making (peaceful!) adjustments as appropriate.

As economists like to say: All action is on the margin. The margin in this case is the state we currently observe. We bring with us ideas about what is virtuous and what is practical, but we must engage the margin as it stands. Otherwise, we are simply irrelevant. The peace test enables us to suggest the next move along the path with confidence.

Obama seems to "get it" somewhat. He mouths both a willingness to talk, and a hesitation to present "certain" solutions. He seems to embrace a sense of ambiguity, yet he fails to paint his plans as peaceful ones. They of course are not peaceful, for his profligate plan raids generations of wealth creation. Stimulus was crafted by minds that seemed more interested in "getting even" than in truly promoting peace. This may work out, and ultimately will work out in some form, but finding our way toward a new equilibrium has been made harder.

Obama represents a slight improvement over Paulson, who seemed completely trapped in technocratic confusion. Peace seemed to be the utterly lost on the former Treasury Secretary.

There are other times when other-side-of-the-mountain plans make sense...when they are "ripe." Those times generally involve mountain passes, when the way is easy and, yes, peaceful. Now is not such a time, I'd venture to say.

Historically, most political decisions are made based on two criteria: Will it "work"? Is it "fair"? I'm suggesting making the decision-making more three dimensional, more holistic by adding: Will it promote a more peaceful social order, on balance?

Of course, all three criteria can generate differing answers. The peace test is the more confrontational standard, for it more fully engages the conscience. TARP and/or stimulus supporters might believe that both measures were practical and equitable, but they might conclude (as I do) that they principally rely on force, not peace, to achieve their objectives. Looked at this way, I'm suggesting a model for decision making that is more creative and less destructive in solving social challenges.

We will survive TARP and stimulus. We as a people are far too resilient and innovative to allow hasty, destructive decisions from choking off our shared desire for a better, more abundant, more peaceful, life.

But, my goodness, spare me the certainty.

Robert Capozzi is the editor of The Free Liberal. Thanks to Kevin D. Rollins for providing vital, insightful comments to this essay.


*Cave Men probably did the hunting, so Cave Women are not mentioned. Apologies to female hunters.

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