Friday, February 13, 2009

Are Recession's Roots in September 2001?

This blog is nominally devoted to IP and Technology law, but anyone who knows me well has had to put up with my frequent rants over the increasingly-intrusive nature of our government’s efforts to secure our country against future attacks of the type we endured in September 2001.

My views are that much of what passes for security is nonsense, or “security theater.” (Yes, I read and like much of what Bruce Schneier has to say on security measures, but I’m not going to presume that he would agree with anything I might do with that information.) Efforts such as random bag checks and heavily-armored patrols in subways, virtual strip-searching and shoe-scanning by TSA personnel in airports, attempted bans on photographing plainly-visible infrastructure such as bridges and trains, and mass information capture and data mining by the NSA do little to help make us more secure, but much to erode our individual Constitutional rights.

One thing I understand is that many of these efforts have been justified as evils that are necessary in our continuing War on Terror. I also understand that many, many people are satisfied with that explanation, and are willing to part with a little bit of their liberty in exchange for feeling a little bit safer. That willingness implies as well that many, many people trust our government to do the right thing, and not to abuse its power even as it intrudes further into our personal lives. For more that seven years, people have been conditioned to leave much of their personal security, and some of their personal rights, freedom, and information, in our government’s hands.

Two columns in today’s New York Times about our current economic crisis have caused me to wonder whether the government’s increasingly-intrusive security measures on behalf of the War on Terror may have contributed to the crisis of confidence that a number of commentators seem to believe is at the root of this recession.

Now I am not an economist, and frankly am a bit mystified (if not terrified) at the strongly-held, often completely divergent solutions economists of differing ideological stripes are advocating as “the way” to pull us out of this recession. But if there is a common theme that runs through any of the pieces I’ve read, it’s that nothing positive is going to happen until consumers begin to believe in whatever solution is implemented, open their wallets, and begin spending again.

In “The Worst-Case Scenario,” David Brooks looks back from a hypothetical future and analyzes what made the recovery efforts fail:

“The crisis was labeled an economic crisis, but it was really a psychological crisis. . . . Essentially, Americans had migrated from one society to another – from a society of high trust to a society of low trust, from a society of optimisim to a society of foreboding, from a society in which certain financial habits applied to a society in which they did not.”

Did that social migration begin with the September 2001 attacks? Just look at how we reacted: after a brief period of collective patriotism, mourning, and general flailing about, we settled in to a steady state of government-sponsored security warnings, threat-levels, illegal surveillance, and all manner of terror-driven searches and seizures. We started and have continued two wars, and have interred and detained thousands of people in the furtherance of the War on Terror. Against all of that, how could we not have moved from a “society of high trust to a society of low trust,” and become a “society of foreboding?”

Our government has repeatedly justified its efforts as necessary, if perhaps unpleasant, if we wanted to defeat our widely-dispersed enemies and assure our national security. We were asked to trust that the little intrusions as well as major incursions were in our collective self-interest. And the economy? Well, that was the least of our worries, of course. The economy was humming along more or less nicely, and could pretty much take care of itself. Those pesky terrorists, on the other hand . . . that’s where our attention should be focused.

So while we were waging this War on Terror, the economy didn’t take care of itself. In fact, it turned out that nobody had really been minding the store, and here we are scrambling. Who could blame consumers for their current lack of trust? Consumers had been set up.

Moving across the Times’s editorial page, Paul Krugman in “Failure to Rise” says that he has “a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach – a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack conviction, but they seem willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice.”

Layer that statement over the way that we responded following the September 2001 attacks. We didn’t rise to that challenge either. Instead of embracing the principles of freedom and liberty that built this country and made it great, we showed a lack of conviction. We chose safety and security over our rights and liberties; we settled for the illusion of protection as a band-aid applied over the government-induced wound of a potential future terror attack. We forgot that with freedom comes responsibility and risk; we were unwilling to assume the risk, and preferred instead to yield our freedom. We settled, and got used to doing so. And we may be doing so again.

No comments:

Post a Comment