Waiting for Spiderman: What Would Mike Bloomberg Do? (WWMBD?)

Steve Fraser, who writes about Wall Street, noticed the other day a banner in the crowd there that said, “Jump!”

It recalls an image of 1929 that has become a conditioned reflex: Wall Street bankers, the few and the brave in 1929, losing the fortunes overnight and jumping out of windows.

In the wake of the Wall Street crash of 2008, 1929 immediately comes to mind, and with it comes visions of Wall Street jumpers, soup kitchens and long lines of the unemployed stretching around corners. And it brings a panic call for Spiderman to come and save us again, incarnate as he was in that bygone era in the person of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

We hear it everywhere. Rosa Brooks, the L.A. Times columnist, says it is time for an FDR moment.

“Taking office during the depths of the Depression, FDR didn't just talk, and he didn't just tinker,” she writes. “He launched the New Deal, the ambitious package of relief, reform and recovery programs that most economists credit with helping steer the nation back to prosperity.”

Joe Biden started it, telling Katie Couric, "When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed." It was an instant Bidenism, as Herbert Hoover was still president during the Crash of 1929 and Americans had no TVs. Tells you something right there. But we get the point.

Today there is a whole army out there of 60- and 70-somethings (and older) who have been waiting for the FDR moment for as long as I can remember — and I can remember at least as far back as 1952, just like Joe Biden.

Two thoughts: First, Roosevelt was the great man of the day because he constitutionally refused to do what Biden and Brooks and probably a few tens of million of others want to do. When the crisis occurred, he ignored the conditioned reflex, which always looks to past scenarios and a world irrelevant to the changing and continuing circumstances. It would be to try to solve a problem using the wrong paradigm. Like trying to solve the military issues of World War II by asking, What would Stonewall Jackson do? Or trying to solve issues in the tribal war in the deserts of Iraq by asking, What would Eisenhower do? Roosevelt looked to current conditions in the new world order, which evolved out of the end of a long labor-based industrial cycle with its own unique conditions and the rise to global prominence under Woodrow Wilson.

It is inconceivable that Roosevelt would look to solutions of 80 years past as we are asking leaders to do today — that would be 1853 in Roosevelt’s day. That’s exactly what Herbert Hoover would have done.

Second: Roosevelt’s programs did not bring the nation back to prosperity. World War II did. Military victory in Japan and in Europe did. Or better yet, victory in World War II brought the nation to a new prosperity, as America had never been really prosperous in a uniform way before. These two elements — relief in the Great Depression and entry into World War II — cannot be separated. Roosevelt was smart, and, more than anyone in the professions in his era, he was a man of his time. He knew war was coming from his first day in office, and everything else he did was secondary to that.

I can remember back to 1952, just as Biden can, and like Biden, I grew up on the edge of one of the grimiest mill towns in world history. My memory is different. In my town, there were 150 stone and glass cotton mills built in the mid-1800s. A million and a half Irish immigrants and French Canadians came to work in them, including my father and all of my ancestors. They all went out of business or moved away starting in 1929. When I was born in 1946, just at war’s end, all the mills were empty. My father worked in the last cotton mill to close. He was the electrician. He shut the lights out.

It was a grim place to grow up. Many of us looked forward to getting out of town as soon as we could. Because the old economy never recovered. It ended. Then after the war, a new kind of economy started again, but it was a very different economy and it started someplace else.

As a therapeutic exercise it might be worthwhile now to read Nicholas Baker’s book Human Smoke, which in spite of its biases and pacifist bent clearly and heavily documents the rise of Roosevelt and Churchill to prominence, on occasion illuminating their darkest corners. Because if we go into this financial crisis today with the same boyish wonder and idolatry we hold for leaders past, we will fail. It is the same approach we took into Iraq.

Our situation today is entirely different from the crash of 1929. It is one thing to nationalize a nation of factory workers — they are already a kind of army — and something else entirely to nationalize a rich and varied economy of malls and yogurt shops, small manufacturers of high-tech items and niche markets; the primarily local business interests that have evolved since war’s end to fill the American wilderness. We will tend to think globally, as we must have been thinking in 1999 when the Clinton administration repealed the Glass Steagall Act and 90 senators voted to do so, when the time may be coming to begin to think about acting locally and regionally, as Germany did this week when Angela Merkel declared that the nation would not support an EU-wide umbrella for Europe’s savings, but a German one. The EU is an abstraction and an avocation; its fate still to be determined. Germany is a real place.

Already, our usual rush to judgment and ill-conceived action based on conditioned patterns of thinking in crisis appear to have amplified our initial failure. The $700 billion bailout of Wall Street looks, as Mark Lander phrased it in The New York Times, like “a pebble tossed into a churning sea.” That is why it is called a crisis: because the conditioned patterns of thinking no longer work.

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been interesting to watch this week. Like Merkel, his first instinct was not to look to the vast external economic abstraction, but instead to look homeward. This week Bloomberg decided to seek a third term in New York, apparently abandoning any intentions of working on the federal level in a new administration. It is the right thing to do as it concretely addresses our first problem: New York needs to be cured, because if New York fails, we as a nation will fail.

Maybe it’s only because we are from different local but interlinked tribes in the same place — Red Sox Nation — that I identify with Bloomberg’s style of leadership. On purely the tribal level as it plays up here, I’ve always had greater confidence in his ability to govern than other prominent local people like John Kerry, and even Jack Kennedy. Bloomberg has old soul as well as new soul, as some in Boston’s currents do, so he isn’t blinded by novelty, and when the shiny new toy fails it isn’t the end of the world. And I wouldn’t expect to see him with the What Would Roosevelt Do? (WWRD?) bracelet or look to Jesus or Spiderman for solutions to current issues of economy and governance.

Bloomberg has a kind of classic managerial character that is the second or third called to solve the task after the first one or two have failed.

It may be our karma or punishment, which is probably the same thing, that we approach what might be one of our greatest challenges — and, conceivably, a challenge to our very existence — just five weeks before a presidential election and neither candidate appears to have a clue about the economy.

But as Bloomberg said recently (but before the economic crisis), the next president will be an adult — a suggestion that I feel implies that we are better off in this than we would have been these past 16 years.

He himself has considered running for president these last several years. I hope he hasn’t ruled it out in 2012, because few have followed the contours of our historical period as it arises to us with such grace and aplomb, abandoning political party identification as these antiquated and anachronistic orders become irrelevant to our evolving circumstances, and promptly leaving one career for the next as soon as the last has been accomplished.

In a speech in London this week, Bloomberg told The Daily Telegraph that the global economy was “facing the worst confidence crisis in our lifetime,” and that "the pain is going to be spread far and wide. ... It is going to affect anyone who wants to borrow money to buy a car or a house or to expand their business or take out a student loan.”

But he rejected analogies to the Great Depression. "We have a short-term crisis that we have to address. If we don't it could lead to something much longer."

How does the future look? "If it rains today I am disappointed that I cannot go out and play golf, but I still think my golf game is good and that is what it is likely to be.”

Sage Taoist advice: We are and will be what we have always been. And to solve our problems, we will have to find among us and bring forth leaders to act on our behalf, not in transformation, to make us something else we want to be or think we would be better off being, but to bring us back to ourselves and to do it successfully.

Visit Mr. Quigley's website at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com.

More in Economy & Budget

Social Security: focus on solvency first

Read more »