Don’t play with the bad guys. That’s the lesson of dozens of cultural narratives and morality tales, from Pinocchio to Prince of the City. You’d think Americans would have learned the lesson long ago. The tale’s ubiquity, though, signals the lesson is never learned.
"Stuff yourself boys, it’s all free, it’s all free," barks Pleasure Island’s eerie, mechanical carnival clown in Disney’s animated "Pinocchio." It’s easy to imagine that clown hovering over Manhattan, urging on a generation of MBA’s as they caper and dance their way down Wall Street.
The economic devastation inherited by Barack Obama presented him with a bad guy problem. He needed to restore confidence, but the bad guys remained, in the eyes of the media and other elites, the go-to confidence men (so to speak). So total is their domination that those who wrecked the economy could and did extort leading roles in the attempted recovery.
There was seemingly no escape from Pleasure Island without the help of the very people who helped build it. Imagine Timothy Geithner and Robert Rubin as Pinocchio’s "Honest" John and Gideon, hustlers paid to trap the innocent. Lawrence Summers is Lampwick.
Where have you gone Jiminy Cricket? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
There was, of course, another route. Obama could have looked outside Pleasure Island for people to aid in our nation’s escape. It would have been hard, and the reason for the difficulty needs mentioning.
At bottom, the problem is the great and almost un-crossable distance between the American people and elite who govern them while pocketing 90 percent of the nation’s wealth for themselves. Smug and comfortable even as the economy crashed, the madmen at the top knew they could not be forsaken. If Obama turned on them, they’d just show him and the people who elected him what real economic ruin was.
I have never believed it takes experts to run an economy. Just about everything a century’s worth of economic experts believed is wrong, so it’s kind of hard to justify their importance. Humans are not "rational actors" who perform like friction-free machines in pursuing their self-interest. There is no benign invisible hand of the market. There is no such thing as a free market through which such an invisible hand could assert its beneficent influence.
What the elite have done, though, is thoroughly indoctrinate us about the need for (no surprise) the elite. Inexpert as most economists have been, I am not suggesting we don’t need experts in a variety of fields. The mistake is giving experts control. Once they control both knowledge and practice, it’s hard to dislodge them from their aeries.
This is the circumstance Obama faces. There has been a great deal of responsible, important criticism of some of the bad guys Obama chose to play with. Should he have risked the wrath of Wall Street and chosen his team from outside Pleasure Island? We know the mainstream media would have had a field day about such an administration’s "inexperience" and unrealistic idealism.
It would have been tough, and maybe impossible. America was all too happy with its Pleasure Island days. We didn’t listen to the stories our parents told us about hanging out with the wrong crowd. We’ve been too willing to let them tell us what to do, even when they said, "Give us all of your money."
"Give a bad boy enough rope and he’ll soon make a jackass of himself," Pleasure Island’s prefect says in Pinocchio. True, but to the rich jackasses at the top, it hasn’t really mattered. It’s up to us to make it matter.