Why a Fiscal Cliff?
Everyone is tired by now of hearing about the “fiscal cliff,” which, as various observers have pointed out, isn’t really a cliff at all, but more of a curb or a speed bump. Happily, or not, we avoided the speed bump, with consequences that will only become clear over time.
But tired as we may all be of hearing about it, before we forget about it, we should still think about why it happened in the hopes of preventing it from happening again.
If you want to know why a fiscal speed bump, the best place to look is at the Centers for Disease Control. Do I mean to say that the fiscal speed bump is a disease? Not really, although it is a symptom of a malady. The reason to look at the CDC is that it nicely illustrates the problem with allowing Republicans to have power. In 2010, the New York Times ran a fascinating article comparing President Obama’s new Director of the CDC to his Republican predecessor. The primary theme of the article was that the new guy spent most of his time at the outset undoing the changes his predecessor had wrought. According to the New York Times, “Gone are the nonscientific managers whom Dr. Gerberding sprinkled throughout the agency’s top ranks. Gone is a layer of bureaucracy, agency officials said. Gone, too, are the captain’s chairs with cup holders from a conference room so fancy that agency managers dubbed it the Crown Room.”
This nicely illustrates the problem with Republicans in power: they don’t have any desire to govern; they just want to enjoy the perks that come with power. Tagg Romney, son of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said recently that Mitt never really wanted to be President, and can you blame him? If you do it right, it’s a really hard job. What Mitt wanted, what he thought he was entitled to, was the perks of being President, and they are literally the best in the world. You get a huge, beautiful house to live in with more staff than Anne ever dreamed of, you travel everywhere by motorcade with entire cities shut down around you, or by helicopter, or by the world’s coolest airplane, perks that no private citizen, no matter how rich, can have.
But you also get enormous responsibility. And we saw with our last Republican President the dangers of allowing someone to hold the office who is more interested in the perks than in the responsibilities of the office. One great perk is virtually unlimited vacation time. So it was that Republican President George W. Bush was on vacation on his “ranch” in Texas when a critical memo about the zeal of al Qaeda terrorists to attack the United States came across his “desk,” if he had one at the “ranch,” and he failed to act on it, with consequences that we are all dreadfully familiar with.
This was a titanic failure by the only man who had responsibility to instruct the relevant federal agencies to pull all the stops out to prevent an attack that would likely – and ultimately did – cost many Americans their lives. (Why anyone would need to tell federal agencies that is another, very important, question.) That this problem seeped downward from the Presidency during the Bush administration is clear from the example above of the CDC Director, of whom the Times wrote, “By the end of her tenure, Dr. Gerberding had become so removed from day-to-day management that some top agency officials went weeks without seeing or hearing from her, they said. Dr. Frieden [Obama’s appointee], by contrast, sometimes wanders the agency’s hallways and drops in on scientists unannounced to ask about their work, both delighting and terrifying them.” Note also, above, “nonscientific managers,” since one prominent characteristic of the Bush administration that is related to the primary problem of general incompetence and irresponsibility is a general willingness to subordinate scientific findings to political (read, ideological) imperatives.
But Dr. Gerberding’s politicization of the CDC happily came and went without producing any major catastrophes. One cannot say the same of George W. Bush’s profoundly incompetent Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael Brown. The emails released by Director Brown after the catastrophic hurricane Katrina hit near New Orleans in August 2005 show him discussing his attire with his press secretary, who admonished him to roll up his shirtsleeves so that he would “look more hard-working.” This is the same press secretary who, only a few hours after a FEMA official in New Orleans notified Brown that people were in imminent danger of dying there, issued a statement explaining the amount of time Brown needed to eat his dinner, what with traffic, finding a restaurant of his “choise,” and the time it took to get served by the restaurant staff. Yes, you read that right, while people were dying from the effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Director of FEMA and his staff were busy finding a suitable place to have dinner, and enjoying the fruits of their efforts.
That is, like George W. Bush, Michael Brown was more interested in the perks of the job than its pesky responsibilities, which should never get in the way of dinner, of course.
This problem reflects the larger failure to appreciate the basic point that government is about, or should be about, finding and adopting the best possible public policy. But this should not surprise us terribly. The modern Republican Party is still in thrall to its last major star, Ronald Reagan, who famously asserted that government is not the solution, it’s the problem. Reagan famously identified Calvin Coolidge as his favorite previous President, Coolidge of the idle 1920s who took naps the way George W. Bush, and Reagan himself, took vacations. Happily, it was not possible for terrorists to fly airplanes into buildings during the 1920s, so no large number of Americans died as the result of any of Coolidge’s naps.
But this failure to appreciate the potential of policy to do good, or to do harm, is an important part of what lets the current crop of Republicans let the republic get so close to the fiscal speed bump. All they can see is their ideological imperative to cut spending, literally at any cost, or so it seems. Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, there is absolutely nothing conservative about what they’re doing. No true conservative would contemplate even for a moment allowing their nation to default on its sovereign debt. True conservatives are highly principled people and will go to great lengths to abide by their principles, one of which is the sanctity of private property, which the failure to pay debts interferes with. Since our true conservatives in the U.S. were willing to defend the sanctity of private property to the point of insisting on the right to continue owning other humans as slaves, one could hope that they would stick to the principle when the economic future of the republic is at stake. And they would, if they were really conservatives.
But they’re not. They’re merely reactionaries.