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Michael Winship: Don’t Believe Everything the Oracle Tells You

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Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

"Don’t Believe Everything the Oracle Tells You"
By Michael Winship

ATHENS, GREECE – Last Sunday, we visited the ruins of ancient Delphi, two hours or so from here in the Greek capital, an extraordinary site at the base of Mount Parnassus overlooking the Pleistos Valley, almost half a mile below. You could see the acres of olive trees there. The Ionian Sea shimmered on the horizon.

Legend has it that Zeus released two eagles from the opposite ends of the earth. They met at Delphi, determining that it was the center, the so-called navel of the world.

Delphi and its temples were where the famous Oracle lived, uttering its often ambiguous and mysterious predictions through a priestess who spoke on its behalf – but, our guide claimed, only after inhaling sulfuric vapors from a hole in the earth and chewing laurel leaves to get into the proper psychotropic mood.

During the Persian Wars, the guide said, Athenians asked the Oracle how to protect themselves from being attacked by the enemy. The Oracle replied, “A wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured.” Many of the Athenians figured that meant they should seek protection behind a formidable wooden barricade. Makes sense, but the Persians seized the city anyway. Such is the price of being logical – in my experience, it’s always a mistake to take a priestess imbibing laurel leaves and sulfur too literally.

Others, the guide continued, interpreted the oracular message in a different way; believing that “a wall of wood” was a reference to the mighty Athenian fleet of wooden ships. This time, they got it right – their navy went to sea and defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.

All of which is a scenic route around to my reaction when reading last Tuesday night’s election results back home. People were interpreting the Oracle of the Ballot Box in what seemed like very odd and exaggerated ways.

The Associated Press reported, “Independents who swept Barack Obama to a historic 2008 victory broke big for Republicans on Tuesday as the GOP wrested political control from Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey, a troubling sign for the president and his party heading into an important midterm election year.”

And the lead sentence of the LOS ANGELES TIMES read, “By seizing gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans on Tuesday dispelled any notion of President Obama's electoral invincibility, giving the GOP a lift and offering warning signs to Democrats ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.”

Without resorting to chomping on leaves and sniffing fumes, we should look at that a little more closely and not let the tide of the mainstream media and the 24-hour news cycle sweep us away. Were those GOP gains in Virginia and New Jersey really an indication that the entire nation’s shifting away from the President? True, President Obama campaigned for both Democrats, but exit polls showed voters in both states were more interested in local issues than him. What’s more, in Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds was a terrible candidate, and in New Jersey, although for a while it seemed incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine might rally, his dismal popularity numbers and a whopping state deficit and unemployment rate could not be surmounted.

And look at those two special races for House seats in the California 10th and northern New York State’s 23rd – the Democrats picked up both, for a net gain in Congress of one. Upstate Democrat Bill Owens beat back an onslaught from right wingers and tea partiers – including Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Dick Armey – who spoke out on behalf of Conservative Party candidate Douglas Hoffman and bullied Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava out of the race.

Owens is the first Democrat elected from that district in well over a century. In fact, as the Web site reported, with his victory, “The GOP lost its fifth consecutive competitive special election in Republican-friendly territory.”

As for that independent vote that went for Barack Obama last year and seems to be shifting back to the right (in New Jersey and Virginia they went for the GOP candidate by a large margin), it may not be as monolithic a bloc as the media would have you believe.

Steve Benen of the WASHINGTON MONTHLY blog Political Animal noted a 2007 study conducted by the WASHINGTON POST, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University:

“Strategists and the media variously describe independents as ‘swing voters,’ ‘moderates’ or ‘centrists’ who populate a sometimes-undefined middle of the political spectrum. That is true for some independents, but the survey revealed a significant range in the attitudes and the behavior of Americans who adopt the label…

“The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics.”

Bottom line: instant analysis of election results from a handful of races in an off year election is not very significant one way or the other. We’d be wise not to buy into the tub-thumping or doomsaying of pundits posing as priestesses claiming to speak for the Oracle. Or to be the Oracle.

From a distance here in Athens, perhaps the more balanced headline was the one that appeared in the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE on Thursday: “Election Results Give Both Sides Optimism.” The paper could just as easily have written, “Election Results Give Both Sides Pessimism.”

Ask any Athenian with knowledge of history – you have to take your Oracles with a grain of salt.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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I agree with Michael J Ahles. He brings it to the point.

Alvin 12-10 10:21pm Greenspan proved to threaten our way of life more than any international spy! If he is Jew, that would be the only common factor with Jesus.

PBS' FRONTLINE "The Warning", by Michael Kirk, which aired 10-20-09, showed former chairman of the CFTC, Brooksley Born, testifying before Congress next to Greenspan & buds that CDSs threatened the wealth of our citizens & all she got was outed from her position & Congress once again turned a deaf ear to its duties of protecting Mainstreet!

How did a few old, incompetent Congressmen (ex. B. Franks)get control of Congress? Stupid Mainstreet?

Billy Bob Florida

Michael Winship makes a lot of sense.

Whether the Oracle predicts things from Mount Olympus or Jesus preaches from Mount Eremos, people want to believe in something or someone. Even Barack Obama giving speeches on Capitol Hill can create a kind of fundamentalist rapture.

In the end it is all double speak and it is the ordinary people who get hurt by not being sceptical about the people they put on a pedestal.

And here is another Oracle that hurt a lot of people:

Referring to his free-market ideology, Greenspan said: “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) then pressed him to clarify his words. “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working,” Waxman said. “Absolutely, precisely,” Greenspan replied. “You know, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.” Greenspan admitted fault in opposing regulation of derivatives and acknowledged that financial institutions didn't protect shareholders and investments as well as he expected. Source: Wikipedia.

In the final analysis, can ordinary people protect themselves from Oracles? If we can recognize that spin doctors, strategists and PR types manipulate the media (excluding Bill Moyers of course), we as a society may get stronger in recognizing the truth.

Where is Tiger Woods by the way? Still on a pedestal? Perhaps another one bites the dust. We are all just human with many flaws. So take heed when any Oracle speaks, or tries to sell you something on TV.

Kevin Nov 28 12:40pm Spot on! The Mess is Congress. The Seniority System trumpts Mainstreet's votes by denying new members to be heard from until they have been beaten into Washington Form, so, now we have a little guy from Nev. & a Big Mama from Ca. controlling what & how the Legislature functions!

A Mess!

Congress has UNDERMINED our Constitution!

Billy Bob Florida

When Crosus, the king of Grecian Lydia debated if he should attack Cyrus the Persian, he sent emissaries to the oracle of Delphi. "If you attack the Pesians, a great kingdom will fall." At that time, Lydia was the most wealthy country in the world. Crosus' name is synonymous with great wealth to this day.
What he came to find is that his own great kingdom would fall.
It is not the oracle which erred, it was the human interpretation of the oracle. Your example of the wall is incomplete. The Greeks were so busy loosing, that they never identified the wall that was left uncaptured. The oracle was clear..."you're gong to loose". Once again, human error.
Sadly, for all of our intelligence, humans are generally prone to doing the wrong thing. So we will swing from folly to folly, each time falling off the cliff on the right or the cliff on the left. Rarely do we arrive at the correct interpretation.
Perhaps we should not be so anxious to rush headlong into our next fiasco.
Instead, why don't we just clean up the mess we've made?

Ronald Becker wrote, in part, "Having been a Republican for nearly fifty years ( I am ashamed to say ) I watched as they inherited one of the largest budget surpluses in history only to give three tax cuts to the rich and two wars as they spent like drunken sailors..."

Mr. Becker,

HOW did the "party" loose ALL control over the people you all sent to D.C.?

That's the question that needs answers...

The most notable observation I have about Bush Cabal, Part Deux, was that the APPOINTED "buddies" ran the show and NOBODY voted them in...

Having been a Republican for nearly fifty years ( I am ashamed to say ) I watched as they inherited one of the largest budget surpluses in history only to give three tax cuts to the rich and two wars as they spent like drunken sailors oh! maybe it was the leaves or the fumes. Nah if it was that the would have done better !

A political party that is complicit in kidnapping, torture and various other transgressions not limited to foreigners but to its own citizens. Any Republican that can justify the vile and corrupt behavior I am all ears

Thank you, Anna. Sounds like a great story! I'll look for it in the library.

Posted by: Rick Sullivan

You're welcome, Rick.

Now, I'll send 1000 bucks to the person who can come up with a universally funny joke about "...A German, a Jew, and a Pole walk into a bar..."


Thank you, Anna. Sounds like a great story! I'll look for it in the library.

I honestly have a hard time believing in un-intentional cycles when the system is performing as designed and the language we use is misleading doublespeak. Our currency is created from debt at interest, so the notion that bubbles of debt are an unfortunate or unforseen side-effect, when that same debt is used to seize assets and to own our personal wealth, is an impossible system.

Posted by: Rick Sullivan

Some interesting reading to enlarge understanding of the "repitition" that is cut'n pasted from Wikipedia - "Ziemia Obiecana (The Promised Land), possibly Reymont's best-known novel, is a social panorama of the city of Łódź during the industrial revolution, full of drastic detail, presented as an arena of the struggle for survival. In the novel, the city destroys those who accept the rules of the "rat race", as well as those who do not. The moral gangrene affects equally the three main characters, a German, a Jew, and a Pole. This dark vision of cynicism, illustrating the bestial qualities of men and the law of the jungle, where ethics, noble ideas and holy feelings turn against those who believe in them, are, as the author intended, at the same time a denunciation of industrialisation and urbanisation."

Even the "laws of the jungle" have been re-interpreted :-) Now THAT's persistence in "education", trying to cover up how COOPERATION over came the jungle predators...

Ann D wrote:

"And historically, that's when new "money" gets printed's a cycle."

(note: I completely agree with you that fewer are included in each cycle)

The only cycle is the creation and seizure of wealth. The definition of wealth is Land (aka resources) + Labor. Wealth does not disappear in a recession or depression. Wealth and the assets it produces merely move to someone else. What I cannot understand is why we tolerate an institution, namely the banking system, that did not risk any wealth of its own yet purports the right to foreclose or charge interest. The whole idea of the system is that the lender has voluntarily relinquished a portion of their wealth and in doing so, has incurred cost and hardship. That is not the system we have. Loans are not lent from existing deposits. They are lent from money created on top of existing deposits based on bonds that the bank did not buy with any wealth. There is no orignial risk to the institution and therefore no justification for foreclosure or charging interest.

In fact, I would say that currency is only the representation of wealth. Credit, which is what our economy lives on, makes people only temporary custodians of their wealth. That we're in a debt-driven system means that they never really own that wealth.

What we need is a shift in the language used to describe our economy.

For example: Stop calling it "employment" which connotes being employed as a tool might. We 'employ' a hammer, but we 'invest' labor. Labor is a source of wealth. When we go to work, we are investing a portion of our wealth in the final product. And, as with any investment, it implies partial ownership. Calling it an investment raises the value of our labor.

2)Securities = Debt.

3) Labor = Individual wealth

4) Employment = Labor Investment or Individual Investment

5) Money = Debt: if all debts were paid, there would not be a single dollar in circulation

6) Debt = ownership of future labor, or individual wealth.

7) Natural Reseources = Common Resources

7) Recession/Depression = Transfer or Seizure of wealth

I'm sure you get the idea.

I honestly have a hard time believing in un-intentional cycles when the system is performing as designed and the language we use is misleading doublespeak. Our currency is created from debt at interest, so the notion that bubbles of debt are an unfortunate or unforseen side-effect, when that same debt is used to seize assets and to own our personal wealth, is an impossible system.

I enjoyed reading the various comments from informed people, especially the one regarding our currency problems. If we controlled our currency we could and would control our governemnt.

Rick Sullivan wrote, in part, "That bank then purports the right to foreclose on our assets without ever having risked any wealth of their own. Its fraud. Its robbery. And it's a game that's been played throughout our history."

And historically, that's when new "money" gets printed's a cycle.

With each cycle, though, FEWER and FEWER of the better human stock survives - the "producers", if you will....

I supported Barack Obama for president--at least financially and in debates with family and friends. The morning of election day though, I decided to take the advice I'd given to so many and sat down one last time to go through the platforms of each candidate. Looking at Obama's positions, I decided he was not in line with what I felt this nation needed. I ended up voting my conscience and went with Nader. While I was so proud of our country the night Obama won, in many ways I feel as though my vote has been vindicated.

A year later, I am reconsidering a range of candidates and philosophies. I have decided that the source of our problems lies not in fiscal policy but in monetary policy--a populist cry dating back to Lincoln that was lost during WWII and the Cold War.

The way money is created in this country breeds inflation, debt, wont and servitude. When we departed with the gold-standard, along with it went any reason for leaving control of our currency in the hands a private cartel of banking interests that comprise the body politic of the Federal Reserve Inc. (Yes, they are incorporated)

There is no longer any reason that the Treasury cannot issue debt-free notes instead of interest bearing bonds to private bankers, who buy them with mere ledger entry additions to their deposits and then charge interest to loan the currency they create. The Fed buys our bonds with money they conjure up and then disseminates the currency we borrow to the lending institution. That bank then purports the right to foreclose on our assets without ever having risked any wealth of their own. Its fraud. Its robbery. And it's a game that's been played throughout our history.

As Thomas Edison said in 1921,

"If our nation can issue a dollar bond, it can issue a dollar bill. The element that makes the bond good makes the bill good, also. The difference between the bond and the bill is that the bond lets the money brokers collect twice the amount of the bond and an additional 20 per cent, whereas currency pays nobody but those who directly contribute to Muscle Shoals in some useful way."

The current system hits the people twice and pays the banks twice. First on the loans we must take out to keep the economy moving and second on the interest bearing bonds that we are taxed to cover.

The parabolic interest curve begins turning verticle after 100 years, which is exactly what the total American debt is doing. Federal Reserve Inc was created in 1913, so I'm guessing their centennial celebration will be quite the party.

So, going back to the original discussion, both the Dems and Repubs do nothing but wrangle over fiscal policy. It keeps us distracted from the source of our problems. I will support only those who begin trumpeting constructive and liberating monetary solutions, such as Lincoln's Greenback.

I like Obama, but I cannot support him any more than the others who enable the status quo. He may yet surpise me, but I'm not holding my breath.

"Were those GOP gains in Virginia and New Jersey really an indication that the entire nation’s shifting away from the President?"

From my part of the nation, I am shifting away from the President, from both parties, and or rather from the entire government itself. I would rather not be governed or ruled by anyone anymore. I am not in favor or their wars, their bank and insurance bail-outs, nor their 1900 pages of health care can of worms. I'm not in favor of wire tapes, homeland security police states, torture, gulogs, and Guantonamo. I'm not in favor of the eradication of the wild mustangs by the BLM or the cattle industry either. And as for an environment plan, what plan? In fact, American Democracy is simply making me sick!


To make it seem even wackier in our local town democrats are also taking over after 70 years, and knowing a little bit about Athenians-the proverbs that were explained to you are not so far fetched, brilliant in their own right and have a lot to offer in that beautiful place. Barack Obama recently visited a town by us Troy Ny and visited Hudson Valley Community College accompanied by the VP's wife as she is a teacher-what got me a little ticked off was how the President shy'd away from Gov Patterson, listen he was given a bad deal taking over this mess in NY. It's not his fault were in such a disarray. Well glad you had fun over there Michele

I expect one side has more cause for optimism than the other, in spite of the spin of this article. The off-year elections were in a context of conventional pundits declaring the Republicans dead or dying in the age of Obama, which was asserted to mark a fundamental change in American politics. Note the observation that Deeds and Corzine were flawed candidades. OK. But were the GOP losers in the special House elections flawed, too? No, when the Dems won there it was strictly an ideological and partisan rejection. See how the spin works?

The context of the off-year elections is, additionally, that polling is showing a fairly continuous movement away from the Dems and toward the GOP. Obama was fantastically oversold by orthodox political writers; at the very least, the off-year results were a wake-up call per the limits of the President's appeal to swing voters, whatever it is among journalists.

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