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The plague of swans

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Ten disasters were visited on Pharoah and not incidentally on Egypt. First was that which turned the Nile waters into Blood. This did not persuade Pharoah to free the Jews as he deemed this event a souped-up parlor trick or possibly an ugly coincidence. So then came the Plague of Frogs. Then of Lice. Then Flies, Pestilence, Boils, Hail, Locusts, three days of unbroken Darkness and finally the Death of the Firstborns; spared of the Jews who marked their doors with ram’s blood. Then Ramses let those people go though as we know, he soon reneged.

Pharoah had it easy. His opponent was nothing more than the nameless god of the Jews and he could tap out at any time. Greater sympathy is due Barack Obama. His opponent is apparently all the vile machinations of Republicans and every other spectre on the world scene blended into one relentless scrum. Recall the list that a week or two ago was invoked to explain your melting investments and exploding living costs. The big one on the global scale was a three-headed beast; the earthquake, tsunami and nuke plant accident. This crippled just-in-time delivery schedules which put a crimp in Government Motors’ operations with knock-on effects that trickle down, up and sideways. Then there is the troubling news from Europe of riots and desperate austerities that still offer no real promise except to drag down the entire currency system. Hurricane Irene and her little brother Hurricane Ike have only just breathed their last leaving bills and destruction in their wake. As biblical plagues go, these are pretty standard and no one accuses Obama of having a malign hand in them. Bush clearly blew up the N.O. levees but Barack did not inundate Vermont so he has a point there.

Certainly disasters of any variety create burdens on the economy. However none of these events are on the order of a black swan. Have you ever seen a black swan? Probably not. They live in Australia and your back yard is a good long pull even for these long-distance trekkers. But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as a black swan; even less does it follow that a black swan is an impossibility. It was an old, old saying that such and such is “as rare as a black swan” which meant to say that there was no such thing. The phrase was the title of a popular business book that used it to describe any event careening into our world from outside our established perceptions. These metaphorical black swans impact society and culture tremendously, convulsively and unpredictably by definition the way the discovery of ACTUAL black swans on the other side of the world was emblematic of shattering presumptions of all sort in the Renaissance. The rise of the internet was a Black Swan Event. So was 911. There is some trouble with this Venn diagram though, is there not? The internet’s impact on business and our lives has certainly been dramatic, pervasive and sudden but was it unforeseen? And if that, was it unforeseeable? Any StarTrek fan knows it was neither. As for 911, while the event itself was basically unforeseen, the prospect of a mass casualty improvised attack by islamists was not. Those who foresaw it suffered dismissal and despite prior to it though some have enjoyed a just fame and fortune since. The point though is a bit more nuanced. The thrust of the book was to prepare oneself to recognize a Black Swan when it appears or, even better, to see it coming before it does so to profit or at least survive. Would a meteor strike be a Black Swan? We know there are meteors out there. We know we can’t detect many of them. We know the earth has been struck many times and will absolutely be struck again but yes, a meteor strike IS a Black Swan Event in its, um, impact.

But how does the Black Swan concept effect our Second Black President? This is always the first question from responsible Americans. First, as in the litany above, we can see that the Black Swan is being improperly applied, mostly by Jay Carney. The earthquakes and weather are invoked as explanatory of what? Mostly poor economic indicators. When unemployment increases it is always “unexpectedly” isn’t it? When prices rise or confidence falls it is always “unexpected” and waived away as a one-off. You see, there was an unfriendly breeze… headwinds as the President himself says. Yet wind is no Black Swan. A hurricane, or two or six are not either. Spiked unemployment claims are blamed on a blizzard. But there was no blizzard, just a fulsome snow. On the other hand the mildest improvement or even precarious stasis falls to the credit side of the Presidential accounts. The ratcheting effect here is obvious. It is the act of the Raindancer. If there is rain, it was the Raindancer. If there was no rain, that was bad luck. Most importantly: Keep Dancing! Read bad luck as Black Swan.

For Team Obama the economy is much like the weather; fickle, unpredictable and… this may be hard to grasp… immune to man’s alterations. It may be hard to understand how the crowd that believes every farting cow is bringing on a global desert can be so fatalistic to the responses of man at large to government’s actions but this has been a concept many decades in the making. Like so many things, it is the fault of Ronald Wilson Reagan. Few recall and fewer will admit that the namesake of DC’s airport and perennial political grave-robbee of BOTH parties was roundly reviled before his election and during his term as nothing less than a loon, unless that was a dunderhead, and on all issues; on economics most especially. But there is no disputing (for electoral advantage) the superiority of Reagan’s economy to Obama’s. Obama does not publicly do so but rather aspires quite cravenly to a Reaganesque if not Reaganite mantle. So how can you have one without the other? Simple, chalk it all up to good luck. Read good luck as Black Swan.

Reagan was a Black Swan to Republicans, Democrats and all Americans. Indeed, he was such to all the world but his foreign policy triumphs are for another day. There was scarcely a politician since the war who did not subscribe to Demand-side economics though, as do we all, they knew their own assertions simply as economics. Not only were Supply-side theories thought daft but the idea that they could be honestly sold to the American public, put into place through a Democratic Congress and then successfully executed was, well, as unlikely as a black swan. Impossible. And yet, there it swims.

Despite marketing claims to the contrary, Barack Obama is no Black Swan. It seemed like it to many an honest if ill-equipped American, believe me, I know. But the man was no messiah of any description. He did, frankly, what anyone out of a coma initially expects a politician to do; ingratiate himself with whatever audience he found himself before. Nothing could be more predictable than that. Was Obamaism then, a true Black Swan? Again, a hearty no. Obamaism is what Bill Clinton would have done if he could have gotten away with it. Obamaism is Carterism cranked up to eleven. The prevalence of Bushies in his administration will tell you that Obama has merely replaced Compassionate Conservatism with Merciless Liberalism, each being a mere flavor of the same conventional wisdom. It’s been the New Deal for eighty years now, not even excepting Reagan. Nothing new to see here, folks, and certainly nothing from political outer space.

But while no Black Swan himself, nor even a Half-black Swan, the President perceives a storm of black wings surrounding him. Every serious market drop makes an impact crater. Every downtick in the polling is a neutron bomb. Every frown where he expects a smile is an insult. Every setback is a calamity but more calamitous still are the successes. From inside the circling flock Obama can see nothing; not the sun, not his diminishing friends, not his emboldened foes. Every event that is less than a rosy fulfillment of his decades long dream of redeeming America from her bilious stupidity explodes in a cloud of dust. Why? Because he has, essentially, no experience of reality until lately. For such a man who has been coddled and groomed by blindly ideological associates, family and opportunists everything is a Black Swan for all of reality is outside his experience definitionally. Now comes the Blackest of Swans. There was a Special Election in New York precipitated by a not-so-special erection. I speak of course of Anthony Weiner’s former Seat in NY-9. Sure, we had the Great Shellacking, devastating Congressional Democrats but that was not a Swan in total, just in scope. Everyone knew Obama’s super majorities had a brief shelf-life. Once the old economic weather turns, as it always must, we’ll make that up. But like Scott Brown’s Special Election in Massachusetts, this turnover happened in peculiarly liberal surroundings. This seat has not gone to a Republican in a century. And this was no squeaker. Jews and Catholics, usually reliable Democrats turned shockingly. Dem gunslingers run to blame it on the sex scandal of Weiner but truly he was almost a non-issue and in any case a Democratic sex scandal is no Black Swan by anyone’s figuring. To make matters worse, the winner here did not adhere to Republican tactical orthodoxy anymore than he promises to be Rooseveltian in office. Turner ran HARD against Obama personally. Personally. And this, the normal MO for Democrats has long been thought poisonous for Republicans; alienating the so-called Center without the media aid any Democrat can count on. Was it the alleged “conservatism” of the Orthodox Jews? Not likely. The Democrat IS an Orthodox Jew. Yarmulke and everything. Demographic parsing can’t dull this blow.

So today Mr Obama faces an Eleventh Plague. Every blink seems to let in another swan from a new direction as every page of the news brings some new fact or statement, shattering to him because it is so unfamiliar but generally mundane to the rest of us who gape at his flailing against what we cannot perceive. The Torah says that god hardened Pharoah’s heart, keeping him from surrendering when doing so would have saved him and his people. That doesn’t seem too fair, does it? Perhaps some outside force also keeps Obama from changing his course though to do so what he really needs is to expand his perceptions; expand his sphere of the possible while also recognizing why so much he has attempted can never work. I implore him to do so though I don’t really know how. Honestly, I begin to feel some sympathy for this man. If you have ever been on the wrong side of a swan you know that they are amazingly belligerent creatures, given that they can always fly away. A black swan must be worse and an endless swarm of them is more than was ever visited on Egypt. In Obama’s world today and for the foreseeable future, they blot out the sky.

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