The rhetoric around the ousting of former GM CEO Richard Wagoner has given a whole new meaning to the phrase “moral hazard.”
Interviewed Monday on the Today Show, Governor Jennifer Granholm said that Wagoner is “clearly a sacrificial lamb”. The remark was widely reported; and – what can this portend? – the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal found itself in agreement with the governor, adding that the “anticorporate furies” have been unleashed.
I suppose it’s because we sense that we are not just going through an economic downturn but witnessing the passing of an entire economic and social order that we have reverted to the language of a more primal one: the blood of the Paschal lamb, an innocent (“Rick Wagoner is a good man,” said Granholm), shed on the high altar of industry, to sate the angry god or slake his bloodthirst; winged avengers hover, ready to swoop down and feed, like the Furies in a dark Gustav Doré engraving.
This is economic crisis as miasma. The Blob. The sky darkens and the blood-guilt spreads; the chorus of the people cries out for a cleansing rite, expiation or salvation.
Never mind that Paul Ingrassia can produce a decade-long list of mistakes and bad judgment calls Wagoner made; his loyalty and goodness are now what count. He grappled, says another columnist, with a “cursed legacy” dating back to the Wagner Act of 1935. Never mind that GM’s new CEO, Frederick “Fritz” Henderson, has indicated that he will not depart significantly from Mr. Wagoner’s strategic choices; he has been “anointed,” declares a front page story. (But he makes a strange sort of messiah, one who likes to spend downtime reading novels in the company of his family and their five cats.)
At the very least, this older language of mysteries and rites allows us to express truths our own morally impoverished, wonkish vocabulary of social scientific facts, TV punditry and fiscal policy can’t accommodate.
Look at it this way: the auto industry is the closest thing to an ancient grudge American industrial capitalism has ever known, the archetypal struggle of American workers with American bosses. We’re not out on the heath, crying out to the unanswering sky to tell us what we have done — what could we possibly have done? — to defile ourselves and bring these punishments down upon our heads. We know that we have set our world out of joint, and we know that some old scores are going to be settled in the auto industry shakedown; but we want more than some measly concessions from labor and management.
We want “sacrifice” on all sides — the President himself said it. There will be blood. Or at least that’s the promise. And everybody seems to be groping for words to describe the cosmic hazards we will all face if, in this Easter season, that sacrifice does not appease the wrathful god Economy.