Thursday, November 18, 2010

In Defense of Actual Reality (as opposed to financial numbers)

Today, a chunk of General Motors shares are going on sale at $33 a piece, which should allow GM to pay back billions of dollars to the Federal Government and cut the government's ownership share to 26 from a previous 61 percent. Good economic news for once.

Which may be why yesterday Warren Buffet issued a thank you note to Uncle Sam, giving credit to the Feds for helping rescue the U.S. (and world) economy from possible collapse. We usually complain about government, but Buffet points out that both the Bush and Obama administrations have done a lot to keep banks and businesses alive. Meanwhile, the citizenry thanked the incumbent regime by electing the Tea Party.

But the supposed good news about GM also prompted author Paul Clemens, a Detroit resident and former autoworker, to reflect on the difference between actual reality and the numbers games of financiers, in a piece on today's New York Times Op-Ed page. As part of the bankruptcy restructuring, a part of GM was shunted off into an "old GM," which is designed to sell off old assets, i.e., the many plants that are being shuttered forever--or being dismantled.

Like Michael Moore, who will forever be saddened about GM's abandoning Flint, Clemens is troubled by the abandonment of Detroit. (Full disclosure: Like Clemens, I was born in the Detroit area and grew up in Michigan during the 1970s and 80s, so I feel deeply for communities devastated by the loss of car manufacturing plants.)

I encourage you to read the whole piece, but the concluding paragraphs capture Clemens' main theme in a powerful way (I'll underline the best part):
ACROSS the nation, as in Detroit, there is an economic disconnect, a split between what the economic numbers say and how things feel on the ground. The economy is growing, but the unemployment rate hasn’t budged. The recession officially ended in June 2009, but more jobs have been lost than have been added since that “ending.”
Handling this disconnect requires political acuity. It brings to mind something Philip Roth once said about those who have little feel for literature and the texture of lived experience it provides and so “theorize” it. Mr. Roth imagined a scene of a father giving his son this advice while attending a baseball game: “Now, what I want you to do is watch the scoreboard. Stop watching the field. Just watch what happens when the numbers change on the scoreboard. Isn’t that great?” Then Mr. Roth asks: “Is that politicizing the baseball game? Is that theorizing the baseball game? No, it’s having not the foggiest idea in the world what baseball is.”
It’ll be fun, for a day or two, to look at the scoreboard, and to see what G.M.’s shares are going for: $26? $29? $33? $35? The numbers on the exchange will change; it’ll be great, and a welcome, temporary relief from the numbers, still difficult to comprehend, of jobs lost and plants closed. Soon enough, though, we’ll have to go back to watching what’s actually happening on the field, where there’s still a blowout in progress, with the home team way behind, and no one, seemingly, with the foggiest idea what to do about it.
Like Clemens, I want to defend those of us who live on the ground, in actual material reality, next door to car plants, on the field, playing the game--as opposed to the financiers who think that their numbers games are more real. (Chapter 3 of the book attempts to make this case.) A purely quantitative analysis of society is like "having the not the foggiest idea in the world" what social life is.

The Pontiac dealership just down the road from me is now closed (due to GM's restructuring plan). Should I celebrate today?

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