Obama Meets Toto
With the Gulf oil spill, faith in the omnipotence of government has put us in the land of Oz.
Two historic events happened in the Gulf of Mexico this spring: Unimaginable amounts of accidental oil rose from a hole one mile below the water's surface. Bigger than that, the federal government was exposed as the Wizard of Oz, unable to do anything about it.
In the movie, Dorothy and her friends in Oz admit the Wizard's limits. Not here. After a century of faith in the government's omnipotence, the discipleship can't believe this is happening.
As the oil gushed -- with the perpetrator a flailing private corporation -- the American left popped a gasket. James Carville thundered for presidential "control." Spike Lee demanded that Mr. Obama "go off." The left instead went off on Mr. Obama for not ordering his bureaucracies to make the oil recede. Then this week, like Will Ferrell in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, the president himself said he was looking for "ass to kick." Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
This may well be Obama's Katrina, but presidencies come and go. The more lasting lesson of the Gulf fiasco is to discover how belief in the omnipotence of government had risen to the level of mysticism for so many, and not just on the left. Some conservatives joined the do-something chorus to "stop" oil gushing with hellish force from deep inside the earth's core. (Set aside for now the interesting matter of just how vast the reserves of oil actually are down there.)
Coming as it did on the heels of various other government fiascoes and embarrassments -- the subsidized-mortgage crisis, ethanol, California issuing IOUs, Bernie Madoff, ultra-deep public debt, infrastructure turning to dust everywhere -- the Gulf mess is the moment for the American people to reconsider just what they think government can do, or should do.
When not gripped by hysteria, many have a more rational view of government's limits, even on the left. Some in the Gulf do-something chorus are the same people who doubted that the U.S. military could succeed in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the U.S. military is surely the most competent instrument of government.
Any senior officer, from David Petraeus on down, will tell you that bringing the U.S. military to this level of competence in the years after Vietnam was a heavy lift. To get the rest of government to the military's disciplined competence won't happenunless government's responsibilities become smaller and more manageable. Instead, it all keeps getting bigger and more error-prone. Exhibit A: Chris Dodd's massive and complex financial re-regulation bill.
People sometimes say if only a Jack Welch, the legendary GE chairman, were put in charge, he'd get government to hum. That's a fantasy. Jack Welch, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs: They'd all fail. After James Carville went off on the president, David Axelrod bemusedly replied, "What I haven't heard is exactly what he thinks we should do." Professional politicians must be amazed, and thankful, at this credulousness.
A Democratic woman, a party fund-raiser who worked on Wall Street, once offered me the most honest liberal defense for government's limited skills I've heard. She said that with things like health care for the poor or protecting the environment, the private sector would never step up. She was willing to pay high taxes to let government do it, no matter how stupid, corrupt and inefficient the government might be, because that was better than the alternative, which was nothing.
Whatever the validity, for most of the postwar period, many people bought into this Faustian bargain. Throw money, accept the inefficiencies, and hope the government does more good than harm.
Arguably, achieving certain public goods this way could have endured for the Democrats -- but only if programs like Medicaid remained as modest as their originators promised. Or if government's advocates had made choices. We can do this (Medicare for the elderly), but not that (Medicare for all, now called ObamaCare). But any liberal suggesting judgment or restraint -- a Sen. Pat Moynihan -- was tossed off the magic bus.
Now government's inefficiency has become indefensible and its fantastic costs, its oceanic spending, a clear and present danger.
Re-read Barack Obama's nomination-acceptance speech in Denver, an amazing compendium of promises ending with: "America, we cannot turn back (applause) not with so much work to be done; not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for; not with an economy to fix, and cities to rebuild, and farms to save; not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend."
The speaker of those words can't stop the oil, but his language shows how indiscriminate faith in government omnipotence has become, and how incapable the believers are of targeting discrete goals, rather than vapor-filled clouds such as "saving the planet" or "mending lives."
This truly is the land of Oz.
But Toto has pulled the curtain back, and it looks like this year's clear-eyed electorate is ready to go home to Kansas.