Why, oh why, do we let ourselves get in these pickles where we begin to seriously worry that our leaders will take us over the cliff into an abyss of horror, fear and calamity?
Only a few times in our history have we as a nation acted stupidly and irrationally when a large proportion of our population knew perfectly well what was going to happen. One of those times was in 1931 when our Congress took the bit in its teeth and charged forward with the now infamous Smoot Hawley Tariff Act, which ended up with literally hundreds of specific amendments “protecting” from foreign competition many different products that were suffering from the after effects of the crash of 1929. As that bill was being debated, thousands of economists and business leaders from all over the country signed newspaper advertisements that basically said “Do Not Do It – it will be the death of the economy!” Boy, were they right. But the bill passed; President Hoover signed it; and within 18 months the volume of world trade had declined by one third. The depression then set in for good in a big way. The rest of that long story is well known history.
Today we are poised at the brink of something quite similar. The wisdom of the knowledgeable is not seen in newspaper ads, but it is all over television and the news that allowing a default in debt payments surely will bring down the wrath of the gods and send us into another real depression. It appears that the public “gets it” and does not like it. Yet a few of the negotiators in the Congress persist in thinking they know better and seem willing to risk everything to score their points and get their way.
It seems like we have gotten into a syndrome of “deadline-itis,” whereby massively important public issues can only be resolved at the brink. How did that happen? Perhaps it is explainable by the intense amplification of big news in an age of instant exposure, to the point that the players of the moment become larger than life in their own eyes and think that at the end they may emerge as saviors of some sort. They appear to have lost perspective and in the process the national interest disappears and is replaced by a game of putative political winners and losers, wherein the real stakeholders — the public — get completely lost in the shuffle.
The only real hope left is to cling to the belief that rational leaders do not act irrationally. And, we do have a president who begins to show a talent for knowing how to rescue a problem from the jaws of a deadline by staying cool, in charge, on top of the narrative and ready to pounce on a compromise at the last possible moment. He did it last December when he emerged with a grand compromise of elements of key taxes which were about to expire or explode. We must hope and believe he can and will do it again now.
So let’s look ahead for a moment and ask — assuming we emerge intact from the current mess- – how can we avoid these problems from constantly recurring?
An answer in part may be that we need a joint Presidential/Congressional Commission to look at the structural/procedural process by which we as a nation address these kinds of situations and questions. We could not be doing it worse than we are doing it now. A quiet, serious discussion among experienced grey beard leaders may not reveal better substantive answers but can surely suggest better ways for today’s leaders to go about conducting the public’s business.