It’s difficult to find a noun or adjective related to the circumstance of disaster that hasn’t been used to describe our current economic dilemma.
It’s been called a "crisis" many times. Sometimes the crisis "deepens." Other times it "cascades." President Obama warns that inaction could turn "crisis into a catastrophe."
Others have called it "a collapse," "a downturn," "a breakdown," and "a meltdown." Bill O’Reilly calls it "Armageddon." Moving further into metaphor, we are in "uncharted waters," and we hang on the "edge of a cliff."
You get the picture. Action is called for. But what kind and how much?
Sometimes the side-by-side placement of editorials and columns on the opinion page of my local newspaper is in itself instructive. For example, last week my paper carried adjacent but divergent editorials, one from the Washington Post, and the other from the New York Times.
When critics accuse the mainstream media of marching in left-wing lockstep, these are two of the newspapers they have in mind. True to conventional expectation, the Times supports President Obama’s stimulus package. Furthermore, it applauds his willingness to deal with health care, energy, and education. Obama is commended for mustering the ambition and audacity to grapple with these knotty issues at the same time he takes on a horrible economic environment.
The Post, on the other hand, favors more caution. In the face of economic, banking, housing, and auto industry crises, the editorial board wonders if the new administration has the capacity — or the money — to deal with the most immediate crisis, the "stomach-churning downturn," at the same time that it takes on energy, healthcare, and education. Perhaps it would be best to leave them for later. So much for reading mindlessly from the same liberal choir book.
And in yet another adjacent column David Broder, usually considered an even-handed centrist, portrays Obama-as-a-gambler for his theme, questioning whether the possibly naïve young president understands the size of the stakes he’s placed on the table and the extent to which he’s "putting at risk the future well-being of the country." Like the Post editorial, he counsels caution on any agenda beyond immediate economic recovery. Prudence suggests waiting on education, healthcare, and energy.
I don’t understand economics very well, but my natural tendency is toward caution, as well: the economic crisis is immediately dangerous, whereas the needs of education, healthcare, and energy have always been with us. And if Obama can solve the economy, his accrued political capital will allow him to do almost anything in these other three areas.
On the other hand, real people suffer when our educational and healthcare systems are inadequate — the impact on a good part of at least one generation of our citizens is both immediate and long lasting; the unfortunate cumulative effect is felt in private lives and in our country as a whole for years.
And energy? Perhaps we can kick this can farther down the road, as well. But the same newspaper that carried the conflicting editorials carried also, a few pages away, an Associated Press story headlined "Antarctic glaciers melting faster than thought." Pesky scientists from 60 countries have been at it again, confirming a fact that we’re desperate to deny: glaciers in Antarctica are melting at a much faster pace and across a much larger area than previous dire reports had predicted.
In fact, the head of the International Panel on Climate Change told lawmakers in Washington that Earth can tolerate about 6 more years of our current rates of carbon dioxide pollution. After that, we’re locked into a downward-spiraling future of severe global warming.
Of course, not everyone allows himself to believe this. But if these scientists are even half-right, can we afford to resolve all of our other crises before we seriously address this one?
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)