Commentary

Let the Next Crisis Go To Waste

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared in The Week on January 15, 2010.

According to popular usage, decades are 10-or-so-year chunks of zeitgeist, not strict spans of astronomical time. Calendar and culture are only loosely joined. The ’50s didn’t end until John F. Kennedy and Leave It to Beaver departed in 1963. It was curtains for the ’80s when the Berlin Wall came down in ‘89, but the glorious ’90s didn’t commence for another three years when a grungified America began to smell teen spirit. No rigid rule governs these things; others will carve the decades at other joints. Take Kurt Andersen’s book Reset, which argues that the ’80s began with the first of Reagan’s tax cuts and lasted all the way until the 2008 market crash. Say what you will of Andersen’s thesis, but the truth it embodies—that a decade is a cultural era, not an interval between dates—raises the unsettling possibility that the last lousy decade isn’t done.

Barack Obama’s election raised hopes high that a historic change in political leadership would mark a fresh start and leave the awful Aughts definitively behind. But instead of delivering change we could believe in, Obama rushed to act on the same foul maxim that made the first 10 years of the millennium so dreadful. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” is how Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, put it.

The Aughts began in crisis when the second plane hit the second tower on Sept. 11, 2001. The Bush administration, loath to let a serious crisis go to waste, managed to parlay the nation’s alarm and credulity into an ill-conceived invasion of an entirely unrelated country, wasting over a trillion dollars and many tens of thousands of lives, all while losing control of the fight in Afghanistan and failing utterly to bring down Osama bin Laden.

Bush’s botched attempts to capitalize on crisis—the ugly aftermath to which Obama is heir—might have made an alert leader wary. But instead, Obama set up shop in the Oval Office and proceeded immediately to use crisis as (Emanuel’s words again) “an opportunity to do things you’d think you could not do.”

Rather than acting as a prudent guardian of the public good in a time of economic turbulence and hardship, Obama and the Democratic Congress have hurried to check the boxes on their partisan wish list precisely when the nation most needed a restorative break from transformative ambition.

It’s not as though the administration doesn’t understand the vital importance of stability. Consider a recent comment from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. “[B]usinesses want certainty,” Geithner said. “They need certainty so they can make long-term plans today. And that’s why it’s so important that Congress gets health care behind us, that we bring financial reform in place so people know what the rules of the game are.”

Geithner is right that business needs certainty about the rules of the game in order to make long-term plans. And the government probably did need to step in to the financial sector once it started to implode. But every other marquee initiative introduced by the Obama administration has hampered economic recovery by casting the future of the economy even further into doubt. To have waited for the economy to stabilize would have been to let a serious crisis go to waste.

Geithner makes it sound as if a debate over the health-care system—a debate over the structure of the institutions that now account for one-sixth of all spending in the economy—simply fell from the sky and needs to be resolved ASAP in order to restore clarity about the economic rules of the game. But added uncertainty about the nature of the health-care system was consciously introduced by Obama and congressional Democrats during the worst downturn since the Great Depression

And that’s not all. The administration didn’t need to nationalize GM, the country’s largest automaker, but it did it anyway. Existing law was up to the task of efficiently dissolving failed corporations, without adding another dangerous too-big-to-fail bailout precedent. How about the ongoing attempt to empower labor unions, and thereby to alter the relationship between employers and employees, by abolishing secret ballots in workplace votes over unionization? Is a high tide of unemployment the right time to fight that fight? Legislation to install a cap-and-trade carbon trading system—a system meant to reach into every corner of the economy—certainly didn’t need to be introduced during a profound recession, but Democrats insisted on it anyway. One might think that at least the stimulus legislation was called for by circumstance, but it certainly didn’t have to take the form of a porktastic carnival of government spending, from $4 billion to shore up California’s state budget to $1.5 million for a new golf course clubhouse in Roseville, Minn.

It is totally predictable that an attempt to get the maximum political mileage and the most far-reaching structural changes from an economic crisis would chill new investment and encourage a wary, wait-and-see attitude among the entrepreneurs and businesspeople who keep the economy moving. That the administration chose to go for the political gusto anyway reveals an all-too-familiar set of warped priorities.

The Bush administration could have focused the government’s attention and resources on bringing al Qaida to justice, but it didn’t. We’ve got a couple of quagmires to show for it. Similarly, the Obama administration could have focused narrowly on getting the economy back on its feet, on getting the unemployed back to work, but it didn’t. Instead, it has followed Bush’s lead, pushing its most ardently desired policies through the window of crisis. A prolonged economic quagmire may be our reward.

This marriage of incompetence and craven opportunism is so much in the familiar spirit of the age that one must conclude that the age itself remains unchanged. Sadly, the thrill is not gone; the Aughts ain’t over yet. Indeed, with Obama’s doubling down in Afghanistan, with the bumbling reaction and collective freakout to the threat of explosive underwear, it seems this decade isn’t even winding down. Perhaps it is too much to hope that politicians would fit their ambitions to the times rather than screwing us all in their hapless attempts to capitalize on crises. But let us pray that this damnable, dreary decade does not, like Andersen’s ’80s, last 26 years.

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of Cato Unbound.