Saturday, March 21, 2009

Seeing the Airplane

One day I was sitting in an airport terminal, waiting for a flight, while another passenger stood at the window with her daughter, trying to show her the airplane we were about to board. But the little girl couldn't see it. See could see the fueling trucks on the tarmac, she could see the baggage carts and the airport staff on the ground. But she couldn't see the airplane itself.

"Where's the plane?" the little girl kept asking. "Where's the plane?"

The problem was scale. The child couldn't recognize the shape of the aircraft standing there in plain view, because she was looking for a much smaller shape. She simply didn't have any precedent, or any cognitive model, for an object of the size she was looking at, so she couldn't connect the sight of metal or paint or tire rubber into the larger outline of the plane. She didn't link the bits she was seeing into a picture of the whole because she didn't expect and couldn't imagine that such a whole might exist.

Lately I've been thinking about that little girl every day. She's a good illustration of how we process information, as human beings, and of how difficult the big and unexpected can be to process. When confronted with something too large and too strange, we can fail to apprehend it at all.

Most of our handling of the financial crisis boils down to one real question: who has seen the plane yet, and who has not? There have been furious daily stories in the news about this or that detail of the large, terrible shape overshadowing us. But it becomes increasingly clear in each day's news that most of the players, and certainly most of the journalists, haven't managed to perceive that shape, or even its shadow.

A CEO of a major bailed-out institution who can not only defend exorbitant employee compensation but get self-righteous about those employee's deserts has not seen the plane yet. CNBC pundits trying to defend their own performance and scapegoat others have not seen the plane. Congressmen who obsess about spending cuts or even spending freezes during a massive economic contraction really have not seen the plane. It's not simply denial, although there is a measure of that. It's a basic and all-too-normal failure to apprehend the largest and most important part of the landscape, precisely because it is so incredibly large.

Most people, with the normal human mix of benign and selfish intentions, are trying to keep doing the things that worked for them, and even seemed virtuous to them, before the situation changed, because they haven't yet grasped that this is a new, and very different situation. There need not always be a Goldman Sachs; entitlement spending is not the biggest fiscal challenge the nation faces at the moment; CNBC's business model is not necessarily viable any more. It takes a certain amount of time to grasp fundamental change, perhaps especially for the experts who are trained to deal with intricate details of a large and commonly-understood model. It takes longer to see the plane if you're trained at analyzing tire treads, and you're looking for a car. And once you've seen the plane, you have to begin the long, difficult process of thinking about what it means.

It's very clear from his banking plan that Tim Geithner, for all his expertise, has yet to see the plane. Barack Obama has not seen it clearly either. That's not good at all. Obama planned his campaign, and his administration, for a different set of problems. And like most of the other key players, what Obama tends to say is what Obama tended to say before the crisis. The economic plan that he recommends is the plan he stumped on in the primaries. That's not dishonesty or stupidity: it's simply a sign of not yet having taken on board the basic facts of the new environment.

Obama, to be fair, could not have been elected already seeing the plane; the plane only came into view a few months before the election, and anyone who had been predicting a crisis such as this earlier would not have been able to achieve the nomination. (You can't win a broad-based election based on priorities that the vast majority of the country does not share.) His success or failure will not be linked to his foresight, but to his adaptability. The question isn't whether Obama has a plan. Any plan he might have would be based on assumptions that aren't viable any more. The question is how quickly he realizes he needs to throw the plan away, and think of something new.

The child never did spot the airplane that day. She wasn't ready yet. But she had to ride in its belly, just the same. And so do we.

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