Tuesday 8 October 2013

In praise of Yoho

Florida Congressman Ted Yoho said recently that he is totally okay with the government defaulting on its loans. “I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets.”


Remember our man Ted. We will come back to him later.

Initially America was a simple place, dominated by farmers as Thomas Jefferson intended, and needed little government. The Constitution was so simple it could be printed on a few pages. The first officials mostly concerned themselves with figuring out how to do their own jobs, test-driving the powers and tools enumerated in the Constitution, thinking up an Amendment or two, appointing judges, forming parties, and occasionally passing an actual law or two. They had modest impact outside their own world.

Congress was so small and lean that it could wander up and down the Atlantic seaboard before finally settling in Washington in 1800, the same year John Adams moved into the unfinished, messy White House. In its first two years, the ninety-man Congress passed very few bills, which is astounding since they had the entire government to erect. They set up the cabinet departments and courts, and passed a few laws on oaths, tariffs and duties, the census, citizenship and residence, patents and copyrights, banks, crimes and whisky, and Native Americans. That’s about it. And then they went home.  

When they set up the government two centuries ago, they began with a presidential cabinet of four people. They picked a few ambassadors to go to a few capitals, tried to figure out how to print money, and picked a chief attorney, who initially had little to do. The government also tried to set up a national bank which was shortly shut down, and a tiny permanent army of a few thousand, which was also quickly shut down. The Supreme Court wasn’t even established until two years after the Constitution and only had six members; it was another year before they even heard their first case. Early on, they could have fit the entire federal government into a good-size theater.

It was, as intended, the smallest government run by the greatest men. The men who set it all up and ran it were equal to the task. Alexander Hamilton was running an import firm at age 16 and by 22 he was helping to run Washington’s army. Jefferson had a dazzling range of skills and experience – lawyer, architect, scientist, farmer; Franklin was similarly multi-talented, with a string of inventions to his credit. The men who wrote the Constitution and peopled the first Congresses and administrations were generally the cream of the crop, and their worked showed it.

Over the next century, government got bigger and more complicated, and the caliber of the men running it deteriorated. Those facts are connected. The government grew, to reflect the rapidly growing nation, the wildly growing economy especially in industry and finance, the proliferation of new technologies such as the railroads and the telegraph, and federal offices spending more effort creating new positions, and spending government money. Accordingly men of indifferent ethical standards became more attracted to government work. When Andrew Jackson came along and sketched out the power of the executive branch on terms very favorable to himself, a key tool he created for himself was the power of patronage: the power to put his supporters in place as postmasters, toll collectors, tax collectors, hundreds of positions in which enterprising men of elastic morals could make a nice living, regardless of their actual salary, and regardless of their actual ability. Government work, formerly intended as the domain of citizen philosopher-kings like Jefferson, became a playground for the greedy and hungry.

As the scope of government operations began to exceed the abilities of the men running it, things sometimes went awry, particularly when the nation chose leaders who only had one narrow area of expertise (army generals were a particular problem) or who turned a blind eye to corruption and embraced laissez-faire government too enthusiastically (which led to financial panics several times). It wasn’t as though Americans who followed politics were unaware of the corruption problem: they initially expressed dismay when machine politician Chester Arthur became president after Garfield was shot (although Arthur turned out to be more honest than his prior career would suggest), and the reform efforts of Cleveland and Roosevelt were popular.

In the nation’s second century it became obvious that the men they were sending to do the nation’s work weren’t falling short only in character, but also in competence. Following the Second World War, as America rose to the summit of world power and set to work feeding and rebuilding much of the world, as new challenges were posed by the arrival of radio and television, the telephone and the automobile, new advances in medicine and consumer goods, the Cold War and the rise of thorny new global issues across the third world, the internet revolution – the gap between the complexity of the government’s efforts, and the caliber of the people running it all, visibly widened. The “best and the brightest” committed more and more shockingly inept errors: the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Watergate, Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, the Bush tax cuts, and the Yellow-Cake-Mushroom-Cloud soup of Iraq. Mission Accomplished!

Now the government is grappling with a stunning array of incredibly complex issues, many of which require expert-level knowledge in order to make policy competently in those areas: the dozens of legal aspects of gay marriage, the scientific realities of global warming, the morass of the health insurance world, military technology and contracting, the hundred-headed monster of Middle East policy, the two dozen nasty issues we have with China, the inner workings of the financial world, the many factors at work in the voting process, job creation in a depressed economy, surmounting the mountain of debt, and responding to military crises and natural disasters.

Members of Congress have, sometimes, tried to keep up. Senators, who formerly had no staff people at all, now have staffers helping them, although often as not the staffers are lawyers and political hucksters just like their bosses, rather than experts in any particular field. Some members of Congress have, in fact, made it their business to gain expertise in a particular field.

But the current crop, not so much. We have had an influx of new members who work hard at keeping themselves ignorant by refusing to learn anything, by socializing mainly with people who think like they do, and then driving home listening to Rush and turning on Fox News at home. And many of them knew little of the workings of the real world in the first place: they went straight from adolescence into politics and the law, and know nothing of the world outside that realm. Look on the floor of the House or Senate for an expert who really knows the drill on climate change or the financial system, and….once you’re done talking with Elizabeth Warren, it’s a short list.

Just look at them!

Todd Akin, self-appointed expert on the female reproductive tract, the guy who said that rape doesn’t cause pregnancy? He worked for his family’s steel firm, before getting a divinity degree and getting thrown in jail eight times for harassing women’s clinics. His status in the profession of gynecology is, to say the least, amateur.

Darrell Issa, self-appointed expert on military operations, made his bones selling car alarms.

Steve King, fond of pronunciamentos on social issues and global warming, sold earth moving machinery.

Joe “You Lie!” Wilson, flacking real estate; likewise Randy Neugebauer and Johnny Isakson.

Michele Bachmann, who truly believed she was qualified to be president, was an unlicensed “counselor” claiming to convert gays to heterosexuality, and ran a farm which is now under investigation.

And it just goes on and on. Jim Inhofe, ran an insurance firm into the ground. John McCain, whose main non-political distinction is wrecking half a dozen Navy planes. Rob Portman was Bush’s budget man, author of historic deficits. Allen West, army officer punished for beating a prisoner. Rand Paul, eye doctor. Mike Enzi, shoe salesman. Jason Chaffetz, football player and marketing spokesman.

And our pal Ted Yoho, self-appointed expert on the global financing market, the guy who said a federal default would have a positive effect?

Yoho is a horse doctor. A vet.

What if we demanded that the people who make policy on these complex issues…actually understood the issues?

What if one of the two major parties actually took government leadership seriously, instead of nominating people like George Bush and Sarah Palin to run the world?

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