President Obama has got it all wrong. The problem with the economy is not greedy bankers trousering their multi-million dollar bonuses. So his plan to fix the banks and tighten up on financial regulation misses the point.
The problem with this economy, with this nation, is greedy politicians and political activists. We are not talking about money greed either, although politicians have always insisted on their share of the loot. We are talking about a deeper, darker greed: the greed for power, for adulation, for ordering people about.
The president's new bank plan gives the government vast new powers. Well of course it does. Governments always think that the solution to a problem is an increase in government power.
It is surely time to update Dr. Johnson's famous saying: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
I think we need to change the old saying into something we can believe in, something like this:
Compulsion is the first instinct of the clueless.
What do you think of that, Mr. President?
I'd say that, after the experience of the week of the AIG outrages and the shock, shock, that bonuses were being paid to wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Dodd political empire, the most clueless thing that a politician could suggest is an ex-post-facto law on executive bonuses, vast new powers and a new regime of tightened financial regulation. But there's one thing to be grateful for, according to the AP:
Under the new powers being sought by the administration, the treasury secretary could only seize a firm with the agreement of the president and the Federal Reserve.
That's a relief.
The president is at least consistent. His bank bailout program, like the rest of his program, is all about compulsion: more compulsion in health care, more compulsion in education, a whole new area of compulsion in climate control, and "new powers" in financial regulation.
John Taylor Gatto, who is a bit of a wild man, reckons in his Underground History of American Education that the whole compulsion culture was always a corrupt bargain between the political elite and the business elite. For instance, the father of compulsory education, Horace Mann, was a Boston political insider who married a Mary Tyler Peabody -- as in Peabody coal. Mary wrote a whole-word reading primer. Then Mann visited Prussia in 1843 and came back "satisfied that our greatest error in teaching children to read lies in beginning with the alphabet," using the traditional method we now call "phonics." Education has never been the same.
By the end of the nineteenth century government compulsion and regimentation seemed to be the wave of the future. Everyone agreed that centralized bureaucratic structure was beneficial and inevitable in everything from central banking to manufacturing and health care.
It certainly represents the animating principle in the Obama vision of America.
But while political elitists like Barack Obama have been drinking the Kool-Aid of compulsion the business elite has been turning away from regimentation. Even the Prussians, inventors of ferocious army discipline and compulsory schools, were among the first to give up on it. General von Seeckt wrote in 1921 of the need for an individual
soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility[.]
There's even a German word for that: verantwortungsfreudig. As we know, this principle is now the dominant culture in business. It was demonstrated most recently during Hurricane Katrina when bureaucratic government failed utterly but Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott sent the word down to his people that they'd be making decisions "above their level" but to do the best they could with the information available at the time and "above all, do the right thing."
Now we have another Wal-Mart story. Writer Charles Platt thought he'd try a stint at Wal-Mart and see how it compared with Barabara Ehrenreich's experience in Nickel and Dimed. Pretty soon he had his own
handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory. One of the secrets to Wal-Mart's success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn't, and (most important) what customers are asking for.
Somehow this doesn't sound like President Obama's new banking plan for America. From what we've heard so far, in President Obama's America you'd better do what you are told. You'd better not be caught taking initiative in health care, in education, or in finance. President Obama in the White House, his courtiers in the agencies, and his barons in Congress will get to call the big shots in today's America. And don't you forget it.
Why even the president himself, last fall, was hesitant to get above his pay grade when the subject of abortion came up.
Back in the nineteenth century the business elite and the political elite agreed that the workers were best kept subservient and dependent. Today things are different. The business elite thinks that many judgments can be made at the lowest level. But the political elite thinks that everyone from the lower-level people on the line to the banking Masters of the Universe are clueless and can't be expected to make day-to-day decisions about their work and their lives.
But who are the really clueless ones in America? If you ask me it was the politicians filling up the gas tank at Fannie and Freddie during the 1990s and flooring the monetary accelerator at the Fed in the early 2000s
Now President Obama believes that the politicians should be given more power to run the financial system in the 2010s. It seems clueless to me.