The Folly of Fog-onomics

David Stokes
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Posted: Mar 29, 2009 12:01 AM
The Folly of Fog-onomics

The week I was born – at the end of July in 1956 – the big news was the sinking of the Italian luxury ship the SS Andrea Doria.  It had collided with the MS Stockholm of the Swedish American Line off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts.  The Stockholm eventually limped into port, but the Andrea Doria found its way to the bottom of the Atlantic, following a famous lingering list.  

The Andrea Doria had been traveling in heavy fog for several hours before the collision.

When the surface is shrouded by cloud-like mist, the prudent thing for anyone trying to navigate is to exercise caution.  Fog is not favorable to a full-speed-ahead approach.  You crawl cautiously through fog if you hope to emerge safely.  The fog can be especially disorienting, so it calls for the clearest thinking and decision-making.

In his classic treatise On War, Prussian military analyst Carl Von Clausewitz noted:

“The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not frequently – like the effect of a fog or moonshine – gives to things exaggerated dimensions an unnatural appearance.”

Thus was born the concept, the fog of war – the idea that decision-making is, at best, marked by ambiguity while a conflict or crisis is raging.  Of course, leaders don’t always have the luxury of prolonged periods of reflection while bombs are dropping, and instinct must kick in.  But generally the best decisions made in the heat of battle have been thought through earlier.  

Using the warfare metaphor for dealing with economic crisis is nothing new.  FDR invoked it during his 1933 “fear itself” inaugural.  LBJ declared war on poverty and Jimmy Carter talked about “the moral equivalent of war” during a pre-malaise address on the energy crisis in the early days of his soon-to-fail administration. 

The current economic crisis is certainly a war of sorts – a battle of ideas, strategies, and tactics.  It is also a very confusing time for many Americans, because some appear to want to proceed with ambitious agendas, even if that means going full-throttle through the fog.  Wisdom would seem to dictate a certain measure of prudence – a sense of caution – until the fog recedes some.  It is counterintuitive, not to mention probably counterproductive, to try to chart new political territory when we can barely see our economic hands in front of our faces. 

It’s the folly of fog-onomics.

Some apparently see the fog of economic war as an optimum context for sweeping change.  But will we emerge from this cloud-covered period only to face the reality of the national furniture having been moved and the ceilings lowered, not to mention the mother of all mortgages?

In the classic movie from the 1960s, The Great Escape, there is a scene as the POWs start making their way out of the tunnel – though far short of the tree-cover they thought they had.  As it happened, a bombing raid led to the lights of the camp being turned off, and Steve McQueen and the others saw this as a great opportunity to move many men out under cover of darkness.  In other words, sometimes when others can’t see too clearly, the moment is right for some to make a move.

This is what seems to be happening these days.  And to make matters worse, some of us actually realize what’s going on.  But so many are not watching or listening.   They seem to be comfortable with power-players like Rahm Emanuel, who remarked famously last November that: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.  And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

So the ability to get certain things done can be accelerated when a crisis-driven fog impairs the ability of people to see clearly.  A foggy day in Washington town, seems to be the best political weather for yes-we-can change.  Who goes through fog at full-throttle?  Only those who know for sure where they are going.  It’s about more than confidence; it’s a matter of potential hubris.

During his recent White House press conference, after his opening from-a-big-television-not-a-teleprompter remarks, President Barack Obama fielded questions.  His answers tended to drone on.  This, I think, is the reason he prefers the teleprompter.  He doesn’t scramble too well out of the pocket.  The extemporary Obama also has a thinner skin than the Barack who reads well.  And he, well, can come across as “lecturing” – like the professor he once was.  There’s a certain ponderous “Wilsonian” quality to how he talks when away from the script.  Of course, Woodrow Wilson was another thin-skinned professor-president.

The one thing that sticks with me from the press conference a few days ago has not been widely covered.  It is in something he said almost matter of fact when describing in glowing terms his hopes for a recovered economy.  As he looked down the road, he talked about such and such a thing being accomplished “before the end of my first term.”

Not “before the end of my term? Or “before the end of this term” – but “before the end of my first term.”  It’s almost as if he sees the next four years as a political pre-season.  If this is what the first term looks like, the mind fairly boggles at what is ahead if and when Mr. Obama wins a second term.  Term two is usually when hubris kicks into overdrive.

“Before the end of my first term.”  Where is that darn teleprompter?

This is a very confident president.  He knows exactly what he wants to do and he’s doing it.  To underestimate him right now would be a political mistake.  But only time will tell whether policies worked out in the midst of a pervasive national fog will translate into another term.  And if he has somehow managed to conjure up some second-term-like hubris early on in term one, he might do well to read up on recent presidential history – say, about 30 years ago. 

There once was another president who had populist tendencies and the wide support of people fed up with politics-as-usual and who craved change.  He even did a “call-the-president” thing with a toll free number, so he could listen to the people.  He also had a tendency to lecture and could come across as a bit pompous. And his skin was thin.  He tended to be too generous in his opinions of ultimate adversaries, and too critical and unsupportive of real-world allies.  He was an activist who, in the end, didn’t really accomplish much of anything constructive.  He did, however, do a lot of damage.

Instead of getting a chance to share a second inaugural, he was sent packing back to a small town in Georgia.

Then a new leader rode into town on a horse and we all lived happily ever after – at least for a while.