Mr. President, Do You Recall What Your Job Is?
Listening to President Obama speak at event after event, the question that continues to come to mind is this: does this guy understand what his job actually is?
The president continually sounds very much like a fire marshal. He sounds like that guy who has the job of discovering the root cause of a fire, determining if it had been set deliberately, and if it had been, identifying the perpetrator and bringing him to justice.
This is an important function, to be sure, and in no way is it a minor responsibility. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama seems confused about his job responsibilities. In 2008 he was not elected to be the nation's fire marshal.
He was hired to be the nation's chief fireman.
In short, his job is not to allocate blame for the fire. His job, to put it quite simply, is to put the damn fire out.
We didn't elect the man to view the fire from some Olympian height until it burns itself out from lack of fuel, and only then sally forth and (predictably) identify Republicans protecting millionaires and billionaires as those who were vigorously rubbing two mortgage derivatives together and started the fire in the first place. But America has dozens of fires blazing away every single day.
We have 14 million men and women out of work.
We have younger children who appear to be unable to improve their standardized test scores no matter how much money is channeled to the teachers' unions. We have older children who appear equally clueless when asked why they are "occupying" Wall Street or what they hope to accomplish.
We are continuing to lose tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs to Mexico and various countries in the Far East, and nothing suggested as a cure by the president or by unions that supported and helped elect him in 2008 has the slightest chance of reversing that trend.
We find ourselves utterly dependent on energy from nations that are our avowed enemies and hate us and everything we stand for with a religious fervor or, perhaps more accurately, because of a religious fervor.
Hundreds of thousands of our people, who invested in the American Dream of owning their own homes, dutifully making their mortgage payments, and adding to the equity in their homes to help fund their retirements, now find that their dreams have turned to dust and they are in many cases shackled to their residence, with no escape hatch in sight.
Yes, Mr. President, you will get agreement that both political parties are complicit. But then, if you had surrounded yourself with a fire department of real adults, they could have told you that there is only one law rooted in the Washington political scene that has ever worked perfectly: the Law of Unintended Consequences.
It would seem unlikely that Barack Obama could possibly put all these fires out, but it would at least be possible to get one or two under control. Instead of seeking to assign blame for the economic meltdown that most of the world is enduring right now, perhaps Mr. Obama could admit (to himself, at least) that George Bush was no better or worse than the forty-one men who came before him. Admit that George W. was not some evil genius who destroyed the American economic engine just to cause Obama heartburn and ruin his backswing. Once that demon is defeated, perhaps the president could get on and do the job he was hired to do.
Obama has some great speechwriters on his payroll, so get them to give him the words to actually, well, lead. Lead in real reductions of endlessly inflating government spending. Not nickels and dimes (which would still be a lot more than what has turned out to be the pennies that we are told are "drastic cuts"), but significant reductions. Drastic spending reductions are defined, for the purposes of this thought experiment, as spending less in inflation-adjusted dollars next year than you spent this year. Spending more than you spent last year, but less than you wanted to spend this year, is not, repeat not a cut in spending.
As an example, Obama could try to inspire the governors of the fifty states (or fifty-seven...whatever) to follow his lead in terms of reducing government payroll, health care, and pension costs without terminating one single government worker. All he has to do is a double-freeze. First freeze government wage rates until such time as the private-sector average wage exceeds the government employee average wage. Second, issue an executive order freezing all civilian hiring, for both civil service and non-civil service positions.
Normal attrition from an aging workforce should be accelerated by the disincentive of remaining in a job with no potential raises for a significant length of time. The result would be a reduction in government payrolls, and associated benefit costs of somewhere in the 30% to 40% area within ten years. Since the current total compensation for federal civilian employment is approximately $259.3 billion, a cut of between $78 billion and $104 billion would be a lot more than just nickels and dimes.
In addition to the immediate cash outlay reduction, there would be a subtle byproduct that could be of even more long-term benefit. Parkinson's Law, first articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955, holds that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion" and that a sufficiently large bureaucracy will generate enough internal work to keep itself "busy" and so justify its continued existence without commensurate output.
It's interesting to note that Mikhail Gorbachev commented that "Parkinson's Law works everywhere." By reducing the number of federal employees, we also reduce the amount of time for them to get into mischief that tends to retard economic development and creates demands on limited revenues to administer their newly minted idiocies.
The wage freeze might also discourage graduating high school seniors from going to college and majoring in government doubletalk and blame-shifting. Perhaps they could find another, more rewarding, major. Perhaps one like "working for a living like your parents do."
If Obama actually did that, there might even be more than a couple of Republicans who might decide to vote for him. Maybe even Ron Paul.
Will steps like these extinguish all the fires licking at the foundations of our democracy? Of course not, but they would be a start at containing the spread of the flames, and right now, that's about all we can hope for.