The billion-dollar shrug
I remember when a billion was a big number. I’m that old. But we live in the age of Google (a 1 followed by a hundred zeroes), one in which you can barely stir a congressional pulse with an initiative that is not measured in hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars. (To stir ...
I remember when a billion was a big number. I'm that old. But we live in the age of Google (a 1 followed by a hundred zeroes), one in which you can barely stir a congressional pulse with an initiative that is not measured in hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars. (To stir the pulse of an editor requires something more ... a sex scandal or the possibility of a free meal.)
I remember when a billion was a big number. I’m that old. But we live in the age of Google (a 1 followed by a hundred zeroes), one in which you can barely stir a congressional pulse with an initiative that is not measured in hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars. (To stir the pulse of an editor requires something more … a sex scandal or the possibility of a free meal.)
As a consequence, to the Washington elite — an oxymoron which actually means "jaded insiders" — the fact that when the numbers are finally tallied, the record will show that the pharmaceutical industry and financial services industry will have spent a total of almost $1 billion between them in 2009 to lobby in Washington inevitably elicits a shrug.
A billion. Shrug. Business as usual. Shrug. What do you expect? Shrug.
But then you see the legislation that is being produced in that marble-encased sausage factory on the hill and you have to ask, is a billion really the number we should be looking at? Is it the number that will help us best understand the scope of the corruption that is not just a problem in Washington but is actually its true nature, its essence. Because the consequences of the health care sell-out and the coming financial services and climate sell-outs will be measured in trillions of dollars or tens of trillions or even hundreds of trillions or in numbers that are even greater in significance: in lives that are battered or undone by political fecklessness.
Because the painful reality is that the health care bills under consideration do absolutely nothing to address the core health care problem (and national security problem, and fiscal problem) we face, which is the unfunded liability for retirement health care that will put the U.S. government forty or more trillions of dollars in the hole in the years ahead. That the final legislation also won’t lower the cost of health care for average Americans, improve the quality of the service they get, or address a system in which insurance and pharmaceutical companies are guaranteed to be the big winners at the expense of the American people, are facts that dwarf the numbers.
That the financial services reform we get will also be a similar hodge-podge of measures that create the illusion of action while not addressing the underlying risks to the financial system caused by a global market of hundreds of trillions of dollars of opaque derivative products suggests that the final product there will also be a sham. That the U.S. government will soon let big banks off the hook from public involvement in their operations simply because they paid off their TARP borrowings — even though the much larger multi-trillion dollar guarantees the government put in place will remain — is a scandal. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude that the motto on the dollar should be changed to reflect the reality upon which the government and its sponsors depend: "In schnooks we trust."
(Come to think of it, we really ought to think about removing "In God We Trust" from the dollars that have gutted our system of virtually any of the values that virtually any religion on earth promotes. It’s either a blasphemy or a cruel irony of the sort that my cosmology urges me to avoid. Don’t piss off the Big Guy is kind of rule number one in that department as far as I am concerned. But then I lack the bold contempt for higher authorities — be they the deity or, say, voters — that is so common in the Congress.)
On climate, the likelihood that we will end up with any kind of binding emissions program legislated by the Congress in 2010 is moving ever closer to zero. While the rest of the world bears much responsibility for this as a result of the kabuki theater in Copenhagen last week, and while Congress will certainly seek to blame their inaction on other countries, our failure to lead will take a terrible toll on the earth and may result in a century of dislocations, unrest and epic deprivation that can hardly be quantified.
Suffice it to say that history books will likely be unkind to our generation when faced with the most significant global threat in history we emulated not true leaders of the past but Alphonse and Gaston.
Washington was once the name of a great man…perhaps the greatest leader any nation has ever produced. Then it became the name of a city, the capital of a great nation. And now, now Washington is a synonym for corruption, venality, and cynical posturing.
Go on, don’t take my word for it. Ask someone — anyone — you know in your home town: what does Washington mean to you? Then, after they roll their eyes, listen to their contempt, disgust, frustration or perhaps, all of the above.
To me, today, it means selling out the American people with false wisdom that "the perfect should not be the enemy of the good" — without acknowledging that the choices we face are actually between the effective and the ineffective and the adequate and the inadequate. To me it means showboating about keeping lobbyists out of government and then producing one of the biggest bonanzas in the history of the lobbying profession and bills that bear the hallmarks of special interests.
It’s not "business as usual" here in Washington, folks. Business — for business 00 is way better than usual.
Will the United States be better off with the shameful slumgullion stews of legislation that are likely to be passed? Yes. Does that mean the legislation is good or that the system is working or that we are actually addressing the core problems that could, unaddressed, produce decades of calamity and decline for the U.S.? No.
As I have said before: there will be no true reform, no good government in the United States, and no "change you can believe in" without a major reform at the heart of our political system. To be adequate and effective such legislation requires three key components:
- Campaign finance reform: It’s time for federally funded elections, campaigns limited to 90 days, whatever legislative or constitutional reforms are need to undercut the notion that somehow corporations have a "right" to free speech that protects their political donations. Also: the deck is stacked in favor of the two major, intellectually stagnant, political parties. That needs to change.
- Congressional reform: Senators, in particular, have created massive, contra-constitutional "traditions" that allow them to subvert the legislative process by giving too much power to individuals. Someone needs to challenge the legality of Senatorial holds on presidential appointments or the abuse of the "right" to filibuster. If that can’t be done in the courts, it needs to be done via legislation.
- Constitutional reform: Time to be done with the electoral college which gives too much influence to too few states. Time to be done with a system that gives the Idahos and the Wyomings and the Dakotas vastly more influence than their populations warrant. Their views are not reflective of those of the great majority of Americans and they are holding us hostage.
None of the above changes would be easy and more may be needed. But the point is: we face great challenges as a nation and while the people of America are up to those challenges, our government is not. The Republican "solution" of minimizing the role of government while not addressing problems only government can solve can’t work.
If the president is serious about his campaign promises, or if he is serious about getting anything done during his remaining term of office, he should see that the past year demands the most massive political reform this country has seen since the 1960s when we finally decided we really meant all that stuff about "all men are created equal." It is not a side issue. It is a prerequisite to maintaining American leadership in the century ahead. The failure to tackle it will produce the political equivalent of the "butterfly effect" when a shrug in Washington can end up toppling great nations, destroying fortunes, and upending millions…no…billions of lives.
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