In a world growing more dangerous by the week in this dark spring of
2009, Washington may be the most dangerous city in the world. The city
is safe enough for its residents; it is the rest of the country and
world that is endangered by what Washington is capable of doing. On a
bipartisan, bicameral and bi-governmental (executive and legislative
branches) basis, rarely has so much policymaking and
world-economy-transforming power been in harness to such unsteady
political and policy instincts.
Whatever one thinks of AIG's bonus actions, last week's performance by
Washington's political class should give us all pause. With the
exception of presidential economic adviser Larry Summers, one would have
been hard-pressed to spot many senior politicians in either branch of
government or either party who, if they spoke out, did not try to raise
public passion and fury beyond its already-combustible temperature.
When I wrote last week's column, before the AIG fury erupted, I argued
that we in Washington should dial back our rhetoric because public
passions were already dangerously high and we have so many hard
decisions in probably hard times ahead of us that we need to face as a
united people. Little did I expect that within hours of my writing those
words, congressmen would be calling for the names and addresses of AIG
employees to be made public even though the congressmen had been told
that the lives of the employees' children had been threatened as a
result of the uproar. Congressmen who would risk the lives of innocent
children to save their own political skins are not likely to provide
noble leadership in the months and years to come.
Sound policy is unlikely to be formed when the screaming voices of a
multitude are ricocheting off the legislative chamber's walls. Yet
rather than speak to calm the anger and the passion, many of
Washington's finest figures fed it. Rather than stand athwart the
onslaught, they chose to lead it.
But Washington's threat to the nation and the world is from more than
acts of crass political expediency hardly an unknown phenomenon in
any nation's capital.
I am struck and chilled to the bone by the fact that in the face
of this perhaps unprecedented economic storm, both political parties
(with, of course, several individual exceptions) are reflexively and
unthinkingly sticking to their normal economic and policy nostrums.
The Republicans feeling guilty for drifting away from their
principles of fiscal responsibility and limited government have
returned with a vengeance to those principles without seriously
considering their application to this strange economic moment.
For example, on the question of whether to bail out failing giant
financial institutions, too many Republicans argue against it (which may
or may not be the right policy) not on specific analyses of the policy's
consequences, but merely with abstract ideological assertions.
While the Democrats flush with the rising expectations of finally
having a chance to enact much of their health, energy, climate, labor,
trade, tax and educational social policies are themselves refusing to
reconsider whether such vast legislating efforts, expenditures and tax
increases are consistent with protecting us from economic catastrophe.
For example, the Obama administration asserts that we have to deal
immediately with health, education and energy issues because those
problems are what caused the economic condition. Yet it refuses to
present any analysis to support such a proposition a proposition that
has been rejected by economists from right to left. Like too many
Republicans, Democrats simply assert their ideology. Both parties, from
different angles, may be on a collision course with reality.
If ever we were in a non-ideological moment, it is now. The moment calls
for pragmatic, careful and analytical reasoning. It may be that after
such a process, both sides using all their mental capacity would
conclude that their various ideologies perfectly describe the policies
to follow in every instance. But I doubt it.
Although I am a free market, limited-government conservative, I believe
there is a strong case for government intervention to strengthen our
financial institutions (and then, when the danger has passed, to get
government back out of the private sector quickly). I have liberal
Democratic friends who believe in single-payer health care and who, in
private, think it is foolish to deal with health care while the world's
economy is aflame.
But what is happening is that as national fear and anger rise, the
electoral bases of the two parties are rallying powerfully to their core
ideological principles. And most members of both political parties are
playing to their respective bases some out of sincere belief, many
out of political calculation.
Scientists call us Homo sapiens wise, intelligent man. This would be
a good time for the Washington political class to try to live up to our