Steven Rattner demonstrates an art form
There’s a certain style of commentary one often finds in the mainstream media that we should learn to appreciate not just for its entertainment value but also for its intrinsic worth as an art form. To qualify under this style, the commentary must be written in accordance with a very strict formula in which there can be no deviation. There’s four key components: 1) The author must be a well known establishment figure comfortable with the status quo and possessing an aura of profundity. 2) The title of the article must promise a no-nonsense real solution to an important problem. 3) The body of the article must describe that problem in a serious, truthful and sometimes even radical way. 4) It must conclude with an absurd solution that fully conforms with status quo thinking, doesn’t at all challenge power, and is in fact silly.
The most important element of this form arises from the contrast between 3) and 4), and the artist always seeks to maximize it. Explaining the problem in its true depth can be a radical experience horrifying to any elite audience. The contrast between the serious nature of 3) and the silliness of 4) is where great humor arises and many elites just roar with laughter when it’s done right.
Steven Rattner gives us a great exhibition of this form today in the Financial Times. Let’s look at it in relation to the four components discussed.
1) Rattner easily meets the requirements of authorship. He served as Counselor to the Secretary of the Treasury and was lead auto adviser to the Obama administration, the “car czar”. Prior to his government service, he spent 26 years at several Wall Street firms and was an economic correspondent for the New York Times. At present, he advises New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg with respect to the investment management of all his assets.
2) The title of the article is “Americans need more than small bore initiatives”. Notice the implied criticism of the establishment and the expectations it arouses with the audience for something profound.
3) The body of the article succeeds in gradually raising our tension and then starkly and quite honestly telling us the nature of a key problem in the world. Imagine as you read this the growing nervousness an elite individual unfamiliar with this art form would feel as Rattner weaves his tale. But those in the know sit back in calm anticipation, awaiting the punch line.
But America’s economic problems are deeper than what can be addressed by a dose of Keynesian and monetarist economics that might suppress the symptoms for a time without curing the disease.
Unfortunately, the culprit is not a mere cyclical downturn that is likely to reverse itself; it is the pressure on American workers to cut their wages in order to remain competitive in the world marketplace.
President Barack Obama has searched for “small bore” ideas that might encourage business to hire workers, such as through his proposal for a “heroes’ tax credit” for companies hiring unemployed veterans.
Neither these ideas nor other favourites – such as an infrastructure bank or broader tax credits for hiring new workers – would address the problem of faltering real wages. That would require more radical surgery…
4) And here’s the conclusion, the solution that closes the work. Truly a great piece of humor and an excellent example of how the seriousness of part 3) can be ably transitioned into utter silliness.
That would require more radical surgery – major education and retraining initiatives, better incentives for starting businesses in industries where America can compete. (Let’s be sure to keep protectionism off the list.)
Bravo! Admirably done Steven Rattner! Great humor!