There are so many stories floating around right now about the public’s rage over the AIG bonuses putting bailout efforts in jeopardy that it almost seems like they have been planted in an effort to browbeat Americans into laying off of the Obama administration for a while, so they can "do their job" in peace. As if the financial meltdown we are all in the middle of is a golf match, where the nation should behave like proper spectators and be absolutely silent while the players are taking their shots at the green.
But we're not playing golf - we are gutting dead fish.
If you're going to gut a fish, you've got to cut his belly open first. The mess that pours out all over your hands and stinks up the place is a part of the gutting process.
The articles that I've read presume that the public can only focus on one thing at a time, like we are a swarm of two year olds, as if we aren't capable of keeping one eye on the bonus fiasco and the other on those trillions that are flying out of the Fed. These articles suggest that our sixth senses are not operative - that we haven’t already braced ourselves for the next call for a another hundred billion, or another two hundred billion, to stanch the bleeding at AIG.
Our government officials sound as if they've are the kind of people who would tell their children that grandma "went away" instead of announcing that she had died.
I was at a neighborhood gathering a few years ago when the conversation got around to pets and the lengths their owners were willing to go to keep them alive. S.'s dog had recently been put to sleep, and I was recounting the difficulties of doggy grave digging when my next door neighbor abruptly said, "when I was growing up, everybody shot their own dog when it was time to put them down."
The room went silent. With all eyes on her, my neighbor continued. "We were on a farm. You didn't take a dog to the vet for something like that. When your dog got to sick to go on, my father would get his pistol, hand it to you, and tell you to make sure to shoot him in the head."
The suburban crowd was mostly taken aback. I remembered my own grandfather's farm, something about an old mule, and a gun shot or two. I wondered, as the conversation began to regain its footing, how big the hole must have been, and who dug it.
There is something visceral about that image of a hand holding a gun, and a beloved animal being shot to death, something visceral and repulsive and honest, all at the same time, that makes me wonder how much of our modern lives are actually connected to reality.
My neighbor's father didn’t beat around the bush, or hem and haw about life and death, or drag his feet in an effort to avoid having to deal with the unpleasant facts of death – he simply did what was necessary and went on about his business.
Our government is having trouble dealing with the unpleasant facts surrounding the bank bailout. Unfortunately for the president, it is not as simple as shooting a dying dog. Shooting one dog doesn't kill any other dog. But putting one of our mega banks out of its misery will most certainly result in significant harm being done to some of the other mega banks that hold our financial lives together.
Our real problem is complicated further by the idea that full disclosure of the dire straits we are in will damage the entire world banking system, an idea that may not hold water much longer if much more information is leaked or forced out in the open. This idea of keeping us mostly in the dark is starting to backfire, because the protestations of "all's well" are not jibing with the never ending rivers of money that seem to pour out of the Treasury and into the banking system.
I don't have a dog of my own, but I'd be willing to shoot the dog we've got myself if he got to the point that he couldn't go on living much longer.
I am willing to become a student again, if that is what it will take to better understand the nuances of the financial calamity we are in.
Most of us don't want the details, though. We want the synopsis. We want the Cliff's Notes version. We want the soundbite that we can digest while we are flipping channels during a March Madness commercial break.
For most things that we form opinions about in life, you can get by with that approach. Moral righteousness alone is often enough to validate your position, even if you have no understanding of the actual mechanics underpinning a controversial situation.
But to even voice an opinion on this, you have got to be able to grasp the importance of a few key financial and legal details in a way that allows you to understand how this alternate universe of high finance has completely upended the "positive outcome equals good, negative outcome equals bad" mantra we use to gauge whether or not an action is to be labeled "good" or "bad."
Outflank the media at their own game. Hit them with a barrage of cogent, well thought out emails everyday for the next two weeks that point out how they could do a better job of providing real information in a way that gives us context. Ask them questions on these radio and TV shows that show we've done a little bit of homework.
And shoot an email or two to the White House, to let them know they can get more leeway from the public with better thought out explanations about what is going on. To ask them if someone on their staff can spare the thirty minutes it would take to craft a Powerpoint for the web that can give an official overview of what is happening, with weekly updates to insert, delete, or correct information.