Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That Delicate Balance

After the Obama administration announced the ouster of Rick Waggoner, the embattled CEO of once-proud carmaker General Motors, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said on National Public Radio that Mr. Waggoner was being made a “scapegoat” for the company’s — and our economy’s — problems. On one level, this is obvious hyperbole, trying to ascribe victim status to a very highly compensated executive who will decidedly not need to worry about where his next meal is coming from, much less being put to death as a symbolic sacrifice for our collective gas-guzzling sins. Digging deeper, however, it seems to me that Gov. Granholm’s statement hints at a mythological level beneath America’s current economic crisis.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche speculated about how the art form of tragedy may have grown out of opposition between competing Dionysian and Apollonian elements in nature and culture. The wild revelry of the Dionysian, with festivals and the fermentation of strong drink, is at odds with the austere Apollonian order of law and reason. (How music fits into this schema is yet another question.)

Nietzsche’s conceptualization reamins controversial, but the basic tension between Dionysian and Apollian elements can still be applied to today's issues. For too long, year after year of Greenspan’s tenure at the Federal Reserve, the spigot on the national kegger stayed open as the Dionysian dance of derivatives and other dubious financial instruments continued. Despite Enron and numerous other corporate scandals, Apollonian regulation was often treated with outright scorn (as Thomas Frank details in The Wrecking Crew). In Adam Smith's theory, the free market has an invisible hand, but in practice an orgiastic economy based on excessive credit, lax oversight, and rampant Ponzi schemes is not providential. When the bubble burts (as it always does), Dionysus moves on to the next party, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

As we do this, with compassion for those suffering from the economic fallout, finding the right combination of Dionysian and Apollonian elements is crucial. As with the Constitution itself, it's a matter of striking "that delicate balance." The dynamism we’re depending on to lift all our boats won’t come with too much top-down regulatory order. But going back to an unsustainable spending spree isn't a viable option, either.

Criminal justice reform will be an important part of the broader balance-striking cum national renewal that is now our task. With more than one in every one hundred adults behind bars, America has been on a Dionysian incarceration binge undertaken under the fa├žade of Apollonian order. Senator Jim Webb has introduced a bill in the Senate for a national commission to grapple with the issues, and The New York Times opines (rather too sweepingly) that it’s time to stop “wast[ing] money by putting the wrong people behind bars.”

No one says change will be easy or that it is assured. For a generation, charges of being “soft on crime” have silenced those looking for a more thoughtful approach. But as Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller asked at a meeting of his state’s sentencing commission in the summer of 1999, “How about tough AND smart on crime?” Liberal ideology doesn’t necessarily have all the answers about how to do this, and The Times overplays its hand by asserting it’s merely a matter of putting the right people away — presumably the proverbial “worst of the worst.” In practice, much of the problem of the expanding prison population has to do with the length of stay in prison, not solely who should be sent there in the first place. The debate is joined, however, and here’s hoping someone steps forward soon in the House to offer a companion bill to Senator Webb’s.

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