At the top floors, the high and mighty are in denial

It's time for New York magazine editors, Seattle bank executives, and Puget Sound transportation leaders to exit their elevators — at the lobby level.
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It's time for New York magazine editors, Seattle bank executives, and Puget Sound transportation leaders to exit their elevators — at the lobby level.

Most of us live in some kind of denial at least some of the time. Much is harmless. But when denial is heedless, and harmful on a broad scale, it must be noted.

The New Yorker Obama cover

The magazine's editors are the folks in flagrant denial regarding this week's cover featuring Sen. Barack and Michelle Obama, portayed together in the Oval Office. The presidential candidate and his wife are depicted standing in front of a fireplace in which an American flag is burning. Above the fireplace is a portrait of Osama bin Laden. Obama is shown wearing a robe, sandals, and turban, Michelle Obama is seen as an Angela Davis lookalike sporting an Afro, combat boots, assault rifle, and catridge belt.

When the Obama campaign characterized the cover as "tasteless and offensive," The New Yorker countered with a feeble statement explaining that it was satire meant to bring into the open "the prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd" being peddled by Obama critics. Sen. John McCain, the putative Republican presidential nominee, chimed in that he, also, found the cover "totally inappropriate, and frankly I understand if Sen. Obama and his supporters would find it offensive."

Fact is, The New Yorker just does not get it. Its editors truly do believe that hateful right-wingers are out there smearing the Obamas. It is the magazine's job, the editors think, to expose these evil doers through a satiric cover. Yes, there are a handful of folks on the Internet, and elsewhere, purveying nonsense about the Obamas. But they are nothing but a handful; their importance is negligible, as the Obamas no doubt recognize. The New Yorker, through its cover, did everyone a disservice — like running a cover in early civil-rights days depicting lolling black men, boozing and porch-sitting, casting lustful glances at young white girls passing by. A few people will take it at face value. Others will simply see it as dumb and gratuitously offensive.

New York magazine editors, particularly those expressing political opinion, constitute a subculture of their own. I think of this subculture — one among many in New York and elsewhere — as existing in one particular elevator in one particular high-rise building in the city. There are many high rises and, in this building, there are several elevators. The subculture populating this particular elevator is a monoculture. Its members think alike and share the same values. Because they do not leave the elevator, it is easy for them to believe that the people they see in the elevator, and the opinions they express, are representative of people and opinions elsewhere. Nope, not true. This becomes painfully apparent at revealing moments, such as that represented by the Obama cover.

WaMu's continuing peril

Those in denial at Washington Mutual are its board and executives. Bank stocks — especially those overexposed in the current mortgage/credit crisis — took another grave hit Monday, July 14, on financial markets. When WaMu stock at mid-morning reached its lowest point in 17 years, an official spokesperson stated that "nothing unusual" had been noted (he must have meant there was no ongoing run on the bank by depositors). The stock closed down 34.75 percent, at $3.23.

WaMu recently got fresh capital intended to cover anticipated bad-loan losses. But estimates Monday on Wall Street suggested that WaMu remains many billions short of being able to meet these obligations.

Bear Stearns already has been rescued by federal intervention. The federal government has stated its willingness to assure the continuing viability of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Federal regulators seized IndyMac last Friday, July 11. Its failure was the second-largest in U.S. bank history. IndyMac depositors were lining up Monday to get their money. Meantime, the Federal Reserve promulgated new rules applying to subprime lenders — late but better late than never.

These actions have been taken late in the day and expensively. Taxpayers, investors, and customers of the institutions have taken a hit. The credit squeeze has long since spread from housing to other parts of the economy and financial system. Public opinion surveys reveal that, increasingly, ordinary citizens are unwilling to pay for more rescues. Executive-branch and congressional leaders read these surveys.

If and when a WaMu goes down, it is unlikely to get a Fed or other bailout. Too late. If another institution is unwilling to purchase and absorb it — as Bank of America recently did with Countrywide — it will disappear. Unless WaMu can come up with major new capital or a purchaser, pronto, trading in its stock may be frozen somewhere above zero. WaMu, whether its leaders recognize it or not, is about to flatline.

Transportation ballot measuring

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, chair of Sound Transit, remains in denial regarding the prospect that voters will approve this year what they overwhelmingly disapproved last year: a multibillion-dollar ballot measure principally financing light rail expansion through King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties. He is pressing fellow Sound Transit board members hard to vote later this month to go forward with the measure. As this is written, he lacks the necessary votes.

Nickels recently directed Sound Transit staff to expand, rather than limit, the scope of such a proposal in order to bring light rail more fully into all three counties and, thus, attract support from Pierce and Snohomish holdouts who saw the project as mainly benefiting Seattle and its near King County suburbs.

Nickels reportedly faces opposition on the Sound Transit board because many technical and engineering questions remain unanswered regarding the proposed expansion; the numbers attached to the proposal are questionable; and it does not contain sufficient provision for bus and bus rapid transit systems, which are less costly than light rail.

Nickels' push for light rail expansion is analogous to his single-minded earlier push for a waterfront tunnel to replace the creaking Alaskan Way Viaduct. Gov. Chris Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp, and other decisionmakers on the matter saw quite clearly that the tunnel was a no-go. Nickels' tunnel vision resulted in a viaduct replacement being several years' more distant than it otherwise would have been.

Chopp, speaking to a Seattle Neighborhood Coalition meeting last weekend, July 12, was outspoken regarding his frustration with City of Seattle delay and stubborness on the viaduct issue. He made the point that city officials involved seemed to see and hear only themselves.

The New York publishing world is not the only subculture characterized by unrealistic groupthink. We have such inbred subcultures right here in Seattle, inhabiting their own elevators. The first step is to cease denial and recognize that they exist.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of