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Jewish World Review
January 20, 2009
/ 24 Teves 5769
A Flight Test for All of Us
If one were searching for an appropriate metaphor and, on days like this, one is always searching for a metaphor it would be hard to do better than US Airways Flight 1549 and its safe crash-landing in the Hudson River last week. This extraordinary event was, if you like, the anti-Sept. 11: A plane hurtled into Manhattan, but its pilots, instead of aiming for a skyscraper and killing thousands, aimed at the river, and saved the lives of all 155 people on board.
There was no panic. "Witnesses described a scene of level-headed teamwork," wrote The Post. Instead of freezing in terror, passengers scrutinized the emergency doors in the seconds before landing, the better to get them open quickly. After the landing, strangers helped one another out of the plane. Tour boats, ferries and tugboats sped to the scene to assist, even before emergency services arrived. An infant and a woman in a wheelchair were both rescued and taken safely ashore. The pilot walked up and down the aisle to make sure the seats were empty before leaving the sinking plane.
As you listen to President Barack Obama speak today, as you watch him parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and dance at inaugural balls, keep this story in mind, for it describes with eerie accuracy the task ahead of him. He is, in effect, the pilot of a plane whose engine has unexpectedly exploded: Though a handful of people did predict the financial crisis of last autumn, almost no one in mainstream politics did so, no more than anyone would have predicted that a flock of geese would bring down an Airbus. Challenged like that pilot was, Obama's task is to prevent the unexpected financial crisis from leading to a catastrophe. To do so, he must demonstrate competence and professionalism, qualities so rare in public life that those who possess them are like that pilot widely described as "heroic."
But to extend the metaphor one step further successful completion of this task depends not only on the pilot but also on the passengers and the bystanders who keep calm. In other words, if large numbers of people use this crisis to expand their own fortunes or push their own agendas, they might wind up sinking the whole plane.
I could illustrate this perhaps excessively poetic point in many ways, but one aspect in particular of the new administration's various "bailout" plans worries me: the assumption, which seems to lie behind such plans, that people make better decisions when they are handling public money than they do when they are handling their own money. Ample evidence, from many societies over many years, proves the opposite: Indeed, people entrusted with public money are overwhelmingly inclined to waste, steal or misuse it. After the initial failure of the federal government during Hurricane Katrina, for example, government money poured into New Orleans in the weeks and months that followed. The result: large-scale fraud, massive dissatisfaction and mobile homes so badly built that they could not be used.
Yet many good things also happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Volunteers of all kinds flocked to the city; local self-help organizations sprang up. This isn't to say there was no role for government there but that government worked best by supporting citizens' initiatives, not by replacing them.
My greatest fear, on this Inauguration Day, is not that the plane's engines will fail and that the economy will tank: That has happened already. My greatest fear is that in trying to repair the economy, the new administration will waste time and money in the mistaken belief that government-funded, centrally planned infrastructure projects will somehow use money more effectively than private or locally inspired equivalents. My second-greatest fear is that multiple company "bailouts" will ultimately result in fewer jobs, and more wasted resources, than the regeneration that could follow a string of intelligently managed bankruptcies.
I realize that the "tide has turned," that the right has given way to the left, that Obama was elected to change the tone in Washington. But he will fail if he ignores the many lessons learned over the past several decades about the relationship between government and the governed a relationship not unlike that between pilots, however heroic, and the passengers they are trying to save.
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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
01/14/09: Europe's New Cold War
01/07/09: Pointless Peace Proposals
12/30/08: The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
12/16/08: Breach of Trust: Bernard Madoff's massive fraud will cripple American capitalism
12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again Ö But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness
© 2008, Anne Applebaum