‘White swans’

There are societies that don’t see challenges coming, so they never take the time to develop solutions. There are other societies that see challenges coming, but they lack the skill and wherewithal to craft solutions.

And then there are societies that see the challenges coming, and know exactly how to respond, but still falter due to an ineffective political system and misguided ideologues.

With this in mind, Ezra Klein had a great item the other day about “white swans.” It’s more common to hear talk about Nassim Taleb’s “black swans” — unforeseen developments that do widespread damage — but “white swans” is a label intended to describe predicable, preventable disasters. In the contemporary discourse, we have more than our share.

It’s been less than three years since the fall of Lehman. The financial crisis remains lodged in our minds, and in our jobless rate. And yet, as ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger has pointed out, the Federal Reserve lacks a vice chairman for banking supervision. There’s no one officially in charge of the Treasury Department’s Office of Financial Research. The seat marked “insurance” on Financial Stability Oversight Council is empty. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a leader but not a director. No one has been confirmed to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. And Republicans are still saying Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond is underqualified to serve on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.

Meanwhile, the House GOP is fighting to starve financial regulators of the resources they need to do their work. Both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission needed extra money to scale up to their expanded roles under the Dodd-Frank law, but the Republicans’ 2011 budget proposal whacked them with sharp cuts — and then their 2012 proposal repealed most of Dodd-Frank, with no vision for what should go in its place. The irony? All this is being pursued under the guise of deficit reduction. And why do we have such a gaping deficit? The … financial crisis.

This is one of the more glaring examples of a white swan, in large part because the near-collapse of the global economic system just happened, so it should still be fresh in our minds. Wall Street isn’t exactly popular with the American mainstream, but congressional Republicans just don’t care, instead pursuing a strategy that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. They’re counting on the public not knowing the difference, and it’s a pretty smart bet — the GOP is paying, and will probably continue to pay, no price whatsoever for their financial industry antics.

But as Ezra went on to explain, it’s not the only easily preventable crisis area in which the United States fails to act, due entirely to Republican intransigence and foolishness. We face a climate crisis and routine volatility in the energy sector, but GOP refuses to even consider sensible solutions — even solutions they used to support a few years ago. If we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we risk a crisis of Congress’ own making, but Republicans don’t care about that, either.

We’re not unaware of the national challenges that threaten our collective futures. We’re not at all confused about the best solutions. We simply lack the ability to respond because our political process has placed enormous power in the hands of incompetent ideologues who prefer inaction to action, and crises to stability, even when the threat is staring us in the face.

To borrow a phrase, winning the future is awfully difficult when American governance is this dysfunctional.

Several months ago, Kevin Drum wrote a line that stuck in my head: “Every once in a while I feel like I’ve succumbed to partisan madness and need to back off and assume a bit more good faith and sincerity from thinkers and activists on the other side. I need to treat conservative arguments with a little more respect and a little more generosity. But then….”

I occasionally have the same thought, only to have the same follow-up: “But then….”

The repeated “white swan” phenomena only helps reinforce the broader concerns.