I'd heard or seen both speakers before, but this time I heard their talks about a month apart, in person. Galbraith's was just a couple of days ago. Both were excellent, and both were presentations that had been given before, to other audiences. Lessig has since uploaded the particular version I heard and so it is placed below. Warning: this version is just under 40 minutes long. Those wanting a shorter but equally excellent version can see it here at an earlier post on this blog (hit link and go to bottom of that post).
In his concluding unscripted remarks, Lessig posed a rather hopeless view of the money-in-politics problem. He likened our republic to a patient suffering from some horrible and fatal illness (no argument here), and admitted that in such circumstances a doctor might choose to go on treating that patient, even though there wasn't any reasonable hope for a cure. Lessig was saying that he didn't see victory or anything like it on the horizon, but is choosing to struggle on because...it is the only thing he can do. It struck me as a surprisingly pessimistic statement for a liberal leader to make in public.
Galbraith's talk focused on another problem altogether, that of economic policy and the great bank failure of '08. The talk was essentially identical to this one which he first gave about four months ago--just after the disastrous midterm elections. When first given, the piece was ambiguously-titled "Closing Remarks". A few weeks later, it bore the much sharper heading "Whose Side is the White House On?", published at New Deal 2.0. Finally, AlterNet made it personal and published the piece as "Galbraith: Whose Side is Obama On?" It is the angriest talk I have heard or read from Galbraith. Read the entire thing--it's short and absolutely non-boring. Here are some representative bits [bolding added]:
I want to raise a hard question — a question on which Americans are divided. It seems to me, though, we will get nowhere unless we realize where we are, what has actually happened, and what the future most likely holds.
Recovery begins with realism and there is nothing to be gained by kidding ourselves. On the topics that I know most about, the administration is beyond being a disappointment. It’s beyond inept, unprepared, weak, and ineffective. Four and again two years ago, the people demanded change. As a candidate, the President promised change. In foreign policy and the core economic policies, he delivered continuity instead. That was true on Afghanistan and it was and is true in economic policy, especially in respect to the banks. What we got was George W. Bush’s policies without Bush’s toughness, without his in-your-face refusal to compromise prematurely. Without what he himself calls his understanding that you do not negotiate with yourself. It’s a measure of where we are, I think, that at a meeting of Americans for Democratic Action, you find me comparing President Obama unfavorably to President George W. Bush.
The president deprived himself of any chance to develop a narrative from the beginning by surrounding himself with holdover appointments from the Bush and even the Clinton administrations: Secretary Geithner, Chairman Bernanke, and, since we’re here at Harvard, I’ll call him by his highest title, President Summers. These men have no commitment to the base, no commitment to the Democratic Party as a whole, no particular commitment to Barack Obama, and none to the broad objective of national economic recovery that can be detected from their actions.
With this team the President also chose to cover up economic crime. Not only has the greatest wave of financial fraud in our history gone largely uninvestigated and unpunished, the government and this administration with its stress tests (which were fakes), its relaxation of accounting standards which permitted banks to hold toxic assets on their books at far higher prices than any investor would pay, with its failure to make criminal referrals where these were clearly warranted, with its continuation in office — sometimes in acting capacities — of some of the leading non-regulators of the earlier era, has continued an ongoing active complicity in financial fraud.
What happens next? Let’s again not kid ourselves, we have lost a great many seats in the House of Representatives and the House of Representatives isn’t coming back into a Democratic majority in the near future. Simply because of the balance of exposures — the larger numbers of Democratic Senators exposed to reelection in the next cycle, the greatest likelihood is that the Senate will also go Republican in two years time. President Obama has set his course. He has surrounded himself with the advisers of his choice and as he moves to replace President Summers we hear from the press that the priority is to “repair the rift with his investors on Wall Street.” What does that tell you? It tells me that he does not have President Clinton’s fighting and survival instincts. I’ve not heard one good reason all day to believe that we are going to see from this White House the fight that we want, that he could win in two years, or any reason we should be backing him now.
It seems to me that we as progressives need — this is my personal position — we need to draw a line and decide that we would be better off with an under-funded, fighting progressive minority party than a party marked by obvious duplicity and constant losses on every policy front as a result of the reversals in our own leadership.
This isn’t a parlor game. The outcome isn’t destined to be alright. It will not necessarily end in progress whatever happens. What we do, how we proceed, and how we effectively resist what is plainly about to happen, matters very greatly for the future of our country, of our children, and of another generation to come. We need to lose our fear, our hesitation, and our unwillingness to face the facts. If we thereby lose some of our hopes, let’s remember the dictum of William of Orange that “it is not necessary to hope in order to persevere.”
So here are two internationally known and respected liberal leaders speaking within a month of each other in the same city. They both see very deep, possibly insurmountable problems in their respective areas of concern and expertise. (And it should be noted that the list of problems could easily be extended, the list of unhappy and less-than-hope-filled leaders could as well). To hear them describe the problems, the lack of government response, the slack political will, and the general hopelessness of the situation, you'd swear that they had been trapped under a government ruled by their opposition (and perhaps so). But remarkably, both of them have spent the past two years under a completely Democratic government--lock, stock and barrel. House, Senate, and Executive.
It is worth noting all this, I hope, as our current president has rolled out his reelection bid just this week. Obama's sole and entire brand his first time around was "Hope". And to some extent Liberals/Progressives shared in that, at least at first, before the seamless morphing of Candidate Obama into President Obama.
I'm not hearing any hope on the left now. Instead, its leaders (if Lessig and Galbraith are willing to be considered as such), are downplaying hope in their public statements and they're saying things like this: "It’s a measure of where we are, I think...that you find me comparing President Obama unfavorably to President George W. Bush."
I’ve not heard one good reason...to believe that we are going to see from this White House the fight that we want, that he could win in two years, or any reason we should be backing him now.