E Pluribus Omnibus
Out of many, one piece of legislation.
One bill to slay all problems. One bill to stimulate all unstimulated areas of our economy. One bill, to tickle the fancy of those yearning for the good ol' days of the New Deal (most of whom, actuarially speaking, were not around to live through the original New Deal itself). As The Economist put it, one bill “larded with spending determined more by Democrat lawmakers’ pet projects than by the efficiency with which the economy will be boosted.”
One bill because multiple pieces of legislation—developed systematically, to address specific aspects of our economy that need help, and with all necessary due diligence and deliberation for each—would, obviously, be terrible. Genuine debate and analysis, obviously, would be a time-consuming abrogation of legislative responsibility, which would do nothing but slow down the momentum of the executive branch of government. Such an effort would be akin to voting to approve a war concocted (by the executive branch) under false pretenses. Or something like that.
I started writing this column two weeks ago. The idea came to me as my 20 month old daughter played with her little wallet and the dollar in it, and I had a chance to look again at the dollar itself in some detail. She has been folding it, wrinkling it, putting it in and taking it out of her wallet, and I thought that it was perhaps odd that we had given her an actual dollar as a toy. What does that say about its value? And what would she learn from playing with a real dollar that (at 20 months) she couldn’t get from a fake one?
At his inaugural address, President Barack Obama said "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." I loved that line. It was concise and eloquent, but also accurate and honest. It was representative of the person I wanted Obama to be as president.
That Obama is a person and a president whom we as a nation have not yet seen. Doling out federal dollars—as any Republican can tell you, after eight years of practice in Congress and the White House—is more or less the opposite of making hard choices. It's easy because, much like playing Monopoly, it doesn't feel like real money. Real money is what poor and middle class people lose when the GOP-led process of bank deregulation allows financial institutions to spiral out of control. Real money is what a father gives his daughter, not because it is a toy, but because—as an alert young person, learning about the world around her—she should know what it is, how to handle it, to hang on to it, and over time, understand its value. She will have to make hard choices with what to do with that dollar, so learning what it means, what kind of attachment to have to it and what its existence represents, is itself meaningful.
Or Congress and the Executive branch could wake up to the reality that investing billions of dollars to help people who cheerfully and greedily screwed up—while making essentially meaningless gestures in the direction of the hard working people who did not over-extend themselves as a result of greed—is unlikely either to solve many economic problems or to win over long-term voters.
Any of those things, just from that very small list, represent hard choices. They might also have served as economic stimulus components in their own right, by focusing on our long-term health and alleviating future debt or averting future disaster. But those are just a few of the hard choices that need to be made, and our nation has made none of them so far. No hard choices, on virtually any subject.
President Obama, in his address to Congress this week, again laid out a picture of the damage that has been done, and the hard choices we face. He was as elegant and as eloquent as usual when he said “Now, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that for too long we have not always met these responsibilities, as a government or as a people. I say this not to lay blame or to look backwards, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament.” But at some point, the continued acknowledgment of the problem needs to shift into an actual moment of making hard choices. Granted, he has been in office for only 39 days. There are many more to go. I just wish that the stimulus bill—if it is representative of Obama’s approach—was representative of more clarity and restraint, and was a leading indicator of how problems will be tackled beyond throwing money at them.
Sadly, this was not really an omnibus stimulus bill that our Congress passed and our President signed. Instead, it was more like the world's biggest birthday cake: a cake created by 535 bakers and their assistants, for themselves, by raiding everyone else's kitchen for the necessary ingredients, and on which those same bakers and their helpers subsequently gorged themselves.
If we, as a nation, are to continue on the path that E Pluribus Unum implies—if we are to continue to be a united, strong one rising from the contributions of many—then the many need to see The One start confronting that "collective failure to make hard choices." Obama needs to start living up to his words, and fast.