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 name.