Shakespeare, The Bible, and America's Shift Into a Punitive Society

Everyone in Washington now wants to be caught trying to do something about the jobs crisis. But what the country needs are leaders who will do more than just be caught trying. This isn't just about helping those in need; this is about helping keep our society strong.
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I spent the weekend of the Great Ice Storm of 2011 in New Haven for Parents Weekend. In spite of the conditions, I had a great time, having the chance to spend time not only with my two daughters, but also with two of my all-time favorite professors: Professor (and extremely popular HuffPost blogger) David Bromwich, and Professor (and fellow Greek) John Geanakoplos.

There were two things we discussed that are still haunting me. One was a passage from Ron Suskind's Confidence Men, in which Paul Volcker questions whether Obama and his economic team are really serious about the financial crisis:

"They say they're for it, but their hearts are not in it." And this gap between word and deed, between stated intentions and so little action, made Volcker think of a phrase that he knew Summers sometimes used -- a couple of people had told him -- "that the important thing is just to be caught trying."

"Be caught trying." Is there a better description of the mindset of so many of our political leaders at this troubled moment in our nation's history? The fact that there's a crisis, and that people are hurting -- or at least that the people are angry -- has finally sunk in around official Washington. And everyone there wants to be caught trying to do something about it. But what the country, and especially the millions who are suffering, needs are leaders who will do more -- much more -- than just be caught trying.

There are, of course, dozens of ways to capture the misery millions in our country are going through every day -- depressing statistics on unemployment, poverty, declining educational opportunities, bankruptcies, etc., etc. But the stat that Professor Geanakoplos quoted while I was in New Haven took on even greater resonance when juxtaposed with the Summers line. By the end of the year, close to four million homes will have been repossessed since 2008 -- a number that could double before the crisis ends. When you consider how many people each home housed, those are truly devastating numbers.

When I thought of eight million families out on the street in conjunction with the belief that the important thing is to be caught trying, it occurred to me that you can now divide not just politicians, but everybody into two categories: those who are genuinely alarmed when they hear those kinds of statistics, who are overwhelmed with the feeling that we cannot let that level of suffering happen, and those whose main concern is being caught trying to seem concerned.

We all know what the difference between taking action and being caught trying looks like. If you saw a child drowning, your first thought wouldn't be, "I probably can't do anything to save him, but the important thing is just to be caught trying." No, you'd take action and dive in.

Same in politics. Remember Richard Clarke's memorable phrase about how he and others were running around with their "hair on fire" about the threat from al Qaeda in the summer of 2001? Well, there are not many political leaders in danger of burns to the head and face these days. Instead, we have a lot of politicians who have already accepted failure, and are laying a paper trail so they can later prove that they had been trying: "Don't be angry with me. As I stated on Meet the Press, I was 'very concerned' about unemployment and even introduced a worthless bill to that effect!"

This is not to say that changing things is easy and that there are simple solutions to the mess we are in. But if those in charge cared the way you care if someone you love is in danger -- when you get that shot of adrenaline that allows a parent to lift a car off her child and do things no one thought possible -- we would see an empathy spike that would lead to results now considered impossible.

When we're moved to act, we're capable of tapping into amazing ingenuity and creativity. And though we're not slaves to our leaders, the tone set by them matters. And instead of empathy, it's notable how much the tone of our political discourse has become about punishment. Instead of helping those suffering in this financial crisis, there's a substantial segment of the population that now believes they got what was coming to them.

Last month, Herman Cain put it very bluntly in an interview with the Wall Street Journal: "If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself. It is not a person's fault if they succeeded, it is a person's fault if they failed."

Two weeks later, asked about the statement in one of the GOP debates, Cain doubled down to cheers from the audience. Left unexplained is why -- if it's the fault of the unemployed that they're unemployed due to laziness or some form of low character -- there's been such an uptick of laziness since 2008. Hand in hand with this attitude is the idea that those who are doing well have only themselves to thank -- that they are simply smarter and harder working than those who have failed.

Elizabeth Warren, in one of her first days on the campaign trail, laid waste to that notion:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

This isn't just about helping those in need; this is about helping keep our society strong. When I was talking to John Geanakoplos, he spoke passionately about how important it is for our nation as a whole to come up with a program to help the millions of homeowners who are underwater with their mortgages. His point was that it would benefit not just those in danger of losing their homes, but the neighborhood that home is in and, ultimately, the entire economy. To explain, he cited that great economist William Shakespeare. As he wrote in The Merchant of Venice: "Though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy; and that same prayer doth teach us to render the deeds of mercy."

And mercy is good for both the one who receives it -- and the one who grants it. This notion, of course, didn't originate with Shakespeare. It goes back to the book the Bard often drew upon: The Bible. And not just to the warm and fuzzy New Testament, but to the Old Testament -- the one people think of as the punitive, unforgiving one.

"Every seven years," it says in Nehemiah 10:31, "we will let our fields rest, and we will cancel all debts."

And Deuteronomy 15:1-2 instructs: "At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord's release has been proclaimed."

More famously, in the New Testament, there's the Lord's Prayer, exhorting us to "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."

So, contrary to the tone being taken by most god-fearing GOP presidential candidates, the idea that our reaction to those who are suffering the effects of this crisis should be less punitive and more empathetic is not some hippy-dippy idea being brought back from the 1960s by Occupy Wall Street.

And, make no mistake, the government can do something about the crisis. In September, David Brooks wrote about the "absurd" idea of government many Americans have, that it "has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins."

Their sins? Really? Brooks' argument was ably swatted down by Matt Yglesias:

That something along these lines has become something like the conventional wisdom in Washington is, to me, maddening. Here's a story about bus drivers in Clark County, Nevada getting laid off as a result of state/local budget woes. Are those soon-to-be-unemployed bus drivers really suffering for their sins? Is it really true that a federal government currently able to borrow money at a negative real interest rate can't do anything to protect them? The amazing thing about this crisis is the extent to which suffering and responsibility are completely out of proportion with one another.

Having the power to protect people and exercising that power are, of course, two very different things. Instead of Robert F. Kennedy's idea of dreaming of things that never were, and asking why not, we now have an administration that will, at the drop of a hat, list the reasons why not: Greece, China, the tsunami, the Republicans, the Blue Dog Democrats, etc., etc.

I'm not discounting those obstacles -- especially not the obstacle of an opposition party that has essentially become untethered from reality. But even without a congressional consensus, there is a great deal the White House can do to help struggling Americans -- especially those threatened with foreclosure. As Robert Kuttner put it: "Under the Dodd-Frank Act, they have a huge amount of executive power to press banks to give relief to people with underwater mortgages."

Though it's taken a long and very costly amount of time, the White House finally unrolled its "we can't wait" campaign on the president's swing through western states, announcing a series of unilateral measures designed to go around Congressional roadblocks. "I'm here to say to all of you," declared the president, "that we can't wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won't act, I will."

He then announced a change to the Home Affordable Refinance Program that would help more people refinance their home loans. But, although welcome, the tweak is not enough to deal with the magnitude of the problem we're facing. When HARP began in 2009, the goal was to save up to 5 million people from foreclosure. To date, it's helped less than 900,000. And the eligibility bar for taking advantage of the new rules is still set much too high. "In terms of its impact on the economy or the housing market, I don't think it will be very noticeable," said Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

But as John Geanakoplos has been saying again and again for the last three years, there will be no solution to the mortgage crisis unless we are willing to deal with principal, not just with interest. Yet, the regulator in charge of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which control and guarantee more than 70 percent of U.S. mortgages, remains opposed to allowing underwater homeowners to reduce the principal on their loan -- even as more banks and private mortgage insurers are allowing some measure of debt forgiveness. And although taxpayers have forked over $141 billion to bail out Fannie and Freddie, the White House claims it lacks the ability to force the mortgage firms to do the same.

So the question remains: will the president's new initiatives make a real difference -- or will they be just another marker that allows the White House to be caught trying?

The growing punitive tone of our national debate is not only inhumane, it undermines what needs to be done to turn around the economy for the sake of everyone -- including the 1 percent.

As we head into the thick of the 2012 race, let's be mindful of the chasm between truly trying to make things better and just trying to be caught trying.

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