Asses, rats and politicians…or: Let my father handle the corruption problem in Washington…
Joe Biden told a group of AARP members yesterday that the nation would “go bankrupt” if we didn’t fix the healthcare system and that the secret to not going bankrupt was spending money. This reminds me of the dilemma of Buridan’s ass, in which a hungry donkey is placed equidistant from two equally appetizing piles ...
Joe Biden told a group of AARP members yesterday that the nation would “go bankrupt” if we didn’t fix the healthcare system and that the secret to not going bankrupt was spending money. This reminds me of the dilemma of Buridan’s ass, in which a hungry donkey is placed equidistant from two equally appetizing piles of hay. The donkey, unable to make up his mind about which way to go, starves to death.
In this case, your friendly neighborhood bloggitator is the ass (can’t tell the players without a scorecard) and my dilemma is whether to go after Biden for his fear-mongering to the aged or for his convoluted reasoning…or for that matter, to add a third appetizing pile of hay to the mix, to go after him for the fact that he keeps doing this sort of thing over and over again. You can tell he has a clear thought in mind and even good intentions, but that as my father used to say, he’s always trying to put his mouth in gear before engaging his mental clutch. Or to put it another way, I don’t think Biden has ever suffered Buridan’s ass’s fate of over-thinking in a speaking situation.
Just in case you are worried about me starving to death metaphorically, I would not be too hard on old Joe for the bankruptcy line. Not addressing unfunded retirement healthcare liabilities is the biggest problem this country faces. And while real bankruptcy seems unlikely, I think his formulation is close enough for jazz. Sadly, the current health care legislation doesn’t really do much about this. (There’s a pattern here: intervention to address a financial crisis brought on by a mortgage meltdown that doesn’t meaningfully address the mortgage meltdown, intervention to fix a broken financial system that doesn’t really change the rules and actually perpetuates much of what was wrong, a climate bill that doesn’t do enough to combat the causes of climate change, and a health care bill that only address a fraction of our healthcare problems.)
I’d focus my energies on the nonsense about spending money to avoid bankruptcy. While he meant we had to stimulate the economy to help restore growth, the reality is that once that’s done we are going to have to seriously focus on two things to restore financial health to the US: raising taxes and cutting spending. And it’s not a choice between the two. Suggesting we can spend our way out of this mess is just grossly irresponsible.
I learned, by the way, about Buridan’s ass from my father, he of the tortured intellectual transmission analogy. He’s a scientist. Not a particularly mad scientist, though I have seen him pretty angry. But he does have an Austrian accent, a kind of diabolical beard and he did periodically wear a lab coat (although in the 1960s he also once wore a Nehru jacket which was, in its way, even more disturbing.) He’s a research psychologist. His specialty is studying how people learn.
Of course, to study how people learn he started by doing what all scientists do: He did experiments on rats. While many people think this is because rats have simpler nervous systems it’s really because studying them helps prepare scientists for later in their careers when they have to deal with government officials as part of science’s endless pursuit of federal grant money.
My father used to let his little boys come into his laboratories and watch him work. I particularly remember going to visit him at one lab when I was very small. He was, at the time, running rats in a maze. But what lingers with me is watching him take each cute little rat…white ones and brown ones…and after they had successfully navigated the wooden maze smack their necks against the edge of an anodized steel garbage pail, killing them.
This was done because as my father would matter-of-factly note, “chloroform is much less humane for ze rats…und once ze rat has learned ze maze, he really isn’t much use to us any more.” (He actually doesn’t have anything like such a cartoonish accent. But he might read this and I get pleasure out of thinking how much the depiction will irritate him. In a good and loving way, of course. Rat killer.)
Anyway, this story came to mind today as I was thinking about Goldman Sachs, the rampant corruption that is destroying our political system and the Sotomayor hearings.
I read that home mortgage foreclosures were up again. Then I thought about Goldman’s record profits. (For more on this either see today’s lead story in the New York Times or Matt Taibi’s article “Inside The Great American Bubble Machine” in Rolling Stone.) Then I fumed yet again thinking that we bought the line that Goldman’s failure posed a systemic risk warranting big, fast government intervention but that the struggling of real live people that was in fact that actually epicenter of the financequake we were experiencing was essentially only paid lip service. And as I thought all that, I started having all the symptoms of a stroke up to and including pretending I was Dick Clark counting down the seconds till the ball dropped over Times Square. (Yes, I know, that’s cruel. But remember my upbringing with the rats. I can’t help myself. And Dick Clark should retire please.)
Still fulminating, I thought how corrupt our system was and how one of the worst ways it is corrupt is that for many political appointees the destination of choice after leaving their jobs in the government is, if possible, Wall Street where the salaries are high, the bonuses are higher and the ethical hurdles to entry are non-existent. This of course, has the effect of disincenting said officials from say, getting tough with the companies that might actually being paying for their retirement later. We know this is the kind of corruption that worried our forefathers because the reason they made Supreme Court appointments for life (see, I was thinking of Sotomayor) is that they didn’t want the justices to worry about future employment which might compromise them when it came to their rulings.
Our government ethics gurus have gotten this one precisely backwards. They bar people from taking government jobs because of what they did before they were in the government (like lobbying) but as far as I know, they do not bar people from accepting post-government jobs in the industries that they regulated, ruled on or had anything to do with when they were in office. The more pernicious form of corruption comes from just the floating possibility of the post-government job offers…and we have done nothing to control that. Tell folks that work in Treasury they can’t go work for a hedge fund or a bank afterwards and perhaps they will feel more comfortable standing up to hedge funds or banks.
And if you tell me that means they won’t be able to hire any good people any more…well, guess what, not everyone good works in banks. There are fine career officials, teachers, regulators, lawyers, even bankers who are willing to commit to retiring from the industry post government. Salary levels are not the only measure of a man or woman, not the only metric we should use to determine potential quality. Indeed, I would argue that some of the highest paid people in America don’t have a shred of the moral standing needed to qualify to intern in the U.S. government.
An alternative which would have the same effect would be to bring in my Dad to dispose of officials when we are done with them. We know he would be humane…although I suspect he would prefer working with the rats.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is a former editor of Foreign Policy and CEO of The FP Group. Twitter: @djrothkopf
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