Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Benjamin Button Moment

We've reached a point in American history where we have to look back to move forward. The economy and job market are a wreck. We've poured about $1 trillion into the financial services industry and things seem to get worse by the day. President-elect Obama is rejiggering his economic stimulus plan every week -- and he hasn't even taken up residence at the White House.

It's time for a "Benjamin Button" moment of reflection.

If you've seen the recent movie starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, you're in for a powerful treat. This is the rarest of American movies that takes a long, epic view of human nature and puts the human tragedy of human mortality into full focus.

Loosely based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the story starts at the end of World War I, when the protagonist is born into a body that's as frail as an 80-year-old. Miraculously, he manages to age backward, getting younger as we move through the 1920s and into the 1980s. It's a double narrative where we have the dying Daisy (Cate Blanchett) -- the love of Benjamin's life -- going back in time through his diary to the highlights of his life and the profound secrets that her daughter discovers. Here's a sample of the original story:

"I like men of your age," Hildegarde (named "Daisy" in the movie) told him. "Young boys are so idiotic. They tell me how much champagne they drink at college, and
how much money they lose playing cards. Men of your age know how to
appreciate women."

Benjamin felt himself on the verge of a proposal--with an effort he
choked back the impulse. "You're just the romantic age," she
continued--"fifty. Twenty-five is too wordly-wise; thirty is apt to be
pale from overwork; forty is the age of long stories that take a whole
cigar to tell; sixty is--oh, sixty is too near seventy; but fifty is
the mellow age. I love fifty."

Fifty seemed to Benjamin a glorious age. He longed passionately to be

"I've always said," went on Hildegarde, "that I'd rather marry a man
of fifty and be taken care of than many a man of thirty and take care
of him."

Fitzgerald fans, be forewarned. The movie little resembles the short story, which is set in Baltimore and pretty much ends around 1920 or so. The heroine is named "Hildegarde" and Benjamin is not left on the doorstep of a nursing home. As much as I revere Fitzgerald, this was not one of his better works and the movie brings to life an imagined Fitzgerald plot without tainting it with overdone special effects. I found the movie much more moving and a triumph of David Fincher's direction and storytelling. "Daisy" is modeled much more after Zelda Fitzgerald or the heroine in Gatsby than the short-story's female character.

Benjamin is really based on Shakespeare's famous "Ages of Man," where we start out helpless and unknowing and end up that way. In a few lines, the bard captures the human condition. Most of us will be born and die with our diapers on.

If you haven't seen the movie, go see it. It's a heartbreaker, but it's a real gem that showcases the talents of the divine Miss Blanchett and the handsome Brad Pitt.

Now back to the Benjamin Button moment. When the movie begins, the "War to End All Wars" ends, resulting in much celebration. At that moment in history, Europe was devastated by the first modern, mechanized war that had claimed 10 million lives and brutally depleted "The Lost Generation." Fitzgerald, who wanted to be a soldier, got into the army right when the war ended.

What followed was a global flu pandemic that took the lives of up to 50 million. We're still afraid of that killer microbe, which is sitting in some government freezer as scientists continue to decode its genome. Then a worldwide recession followed and people were starving in Europe. That brought on the scene Herbert Hoover, who led a truly heroic campaign to feed people and the dreadful Warren G. Harding, one of our worst presidents (until W came along). The roaring 20s really began toward the middle of the decade and made F. Scott Fitzgerald immortal, who created the Great Gatsby in his timeless prose. Scottie, whose "This Side of Paradise" was initially more successful than Gatsby, eventually drank himself to death and ended up a hack screenwriter in Hollywood. His flamboyant and schizophrenic wife Zelda ended up in an insane asylum. Gatsby, though, still sells about 300,000 copies a year, making it a well-deserved bestseller.

Toward the end of Fitzgerald's life, the 20s stock and real estate bubble burst, fomenting the Great Depression. Hoover's efforts to prop up banks was a failure and by the time FDR came into power in 1933, some 10,000 banks had failed and a quarter of the workforce was out on the street. FDR found it politically convenient to blame the bankers and speculators (see Jonathan Alter's splendid account of FDR's First 100 Days). There was even talk of FDR seizing emergency powers and creating a private army to do his bidding. That never came to pass, but the economy was indeed wrecked and few thought that capitalism would survive.

FDR ushered in the New Deal by hiring hundreds of thousands of men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which eventually planted more than 1 billion (yes billion ) trees and rebuilt trails, state parks and other public facilities. He also put in place most of the investor protection laws that lasted up until the "Age of Froth" (our most recent bubble period). Most notably, the dismembering of FDR's Glass-Steagall Act made it possible for investment banks to run roughshod over the financial system with high leverage and package debt that held the toxic waste of subprime loans.

Now our Benjamin Button moment causes us to look back and think "what can we salvage from the New Deal philosophy that will help re-employ some three million people and stop even more job loss?" We're born old on this subject. Leaders from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a scholar on Depression economics, to Barack Obama, have an above-average awareness of history. Historians pretty much know what didn't work in the 1930s and what can be tried -- and so do they.

We can start out seeing history through the eyes of 80-year-olds knowing what happened after 1929, but can regain our youth by trying new things like a 20-year-old with new-found freedoms. We don't have to follow the New Deal all that closely. A lot of it didn't do much for the economy.

We do know that tightening the federal budget (trying to balance it) and raising taxes is a rotten idea. FDR tried it midway through the Depression and it caused more harm to the economy, snuffing a rally in 1937.

Yet will cutting taxes make a difference? Should we raise taxes for the rich? Cut payroll taxes for every salaried employee? Put millions to work rebuilding roads, bridges, tunnels, water systems and the electrical grid? Create a green economy by investing in energy independence?

Infrastructure improvements will pay off over time, but won't necessarily re-employ millions all at once. The green economy idea is essential, but it has to be bold and big. It will require new paradigm thinking that will turn on these themes:

-- Instead of every home, factory, and commercial building remaining a persistent energy consumer, they should become energy producers. Every building can produce its own energy and heat. Solar collectors and geothermal heat pumps can store and re-channel heat into interior spaces and hot-water heaters. Solar panels and windmills can generate electricity. You can even turn any kind of waste into methane, which produces more heat and free natural gas.

-- The economics of the utility industry needs to be reversed. Instead of utilities making profits by selling energy, they should make money by conserving it. Give them tax incentives to do that. Mandate net metering so that any consumer of electricity knows when they get the cheapest power and can adjust accordingly.

-- Invest in biomass energy production. Ethanol was wrong-headed and wasteful. There needs to be a way of channeling all of the waste from our homes, factories, restaurants, schools and commercial buildings into biogas producers that produce methane (for heat or electricity) on sight. It's possible if we invest.

-- We need an efficient, long-term means of storing energy long-term. That means batteries that can store solar/wind-generated power for weeks or months. That will mean less reliance on the grid, fewer power plants, less CO2 and other poisons in our air and water. Why can't every building have its own battery bank that's constantly being recharged by solar, wind and geothermal energy? During the night, the electrons flow back into appliances, furnaces and recharging all-electric cars. Every building in the future would come standard with its own power plant and storage capability. A smart network would manage the entire building's energy use. This is all possible! It only takes political will, taxpayers dollars and vision.

-- The money we save from energy consumption and waste can be better spent on health care, research and education. What if we took all of that money we pay for imported oil and spent it on free college educations or universal health care? Mr. Obama is in a position to at least advance the idea.

Unlike Benjamin Button, none of us is getting younger. We're born with a certain amount of wisdom in our souls and the benefit of history as a guide. Let's not waste this invaluable moment in which we are still young at heart as a country and wise in our outlook on what we can do with our lives and country in the future.

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