Leave No Limo Behind
Washington luxuriates in a crisis.
Jun 13, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 37 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
They are buying limousines in Washington. Lots of them. The number of government limousines increased by 73 percent during the first two years of the Obama administration. The official justification for the acquisition (with borrowed Chinese money) of all this rolling stock is “security.” Our bureaucrats, it seems, are not safe riding around in ordinary vehicles or, perish the thought, driving themselves to work. This, it seems, is especially true of those brave souls who toil at the State Department, which is where most of the limos have been put into service.
When is the last time you heard of an attempt on the undersecretary for economic, energy, and agricultural affairs? Or the special envoy for climate change? Is there a cabal somewhere secretly plotting to knock off the coordinator of reconstruction and stabilization?
One suspects not. Suspects, in fact, that the fancy wheels are just one more manifestation of a truth that is becoming more and more apparent every day. Namely, that for the political class—especially in Washington—these are the best of times.
For the rest of us, not so good. We wake up mornings to new lows in housing prices and highs for gasoline. Bleak unemployment numbers and scarce job prospects for both the 50-year-old exec who was downsized in the crash and fears he may never work again and the 22-year-old recent college grad who wonders how to pay back all those student loans on what she makes in tips at her waitressing gig.
But not to worry, those State Department studs are secure and, by the way, riding in style.
Actually, as viewed from afar, life in Washington seems good. And not only in the material sense. (Government is still hiring and real estate is on the rise there, if nowhere else.) You sense that where the rest of the nation is demoralized and even fearful, there is a touch of excitement in the Washington air. That things are bustling on the Potomac. Lives there have purpose.
Our crisis is their opportunity.
Everyone remembers the line from one of President Obama’s many advisers about how you never want to let a crisis go to waste. Washington took the advice to heart, only it was thinking of a wasted opportunity to have a damned fine time.
The fact that the nation is running huge budget deficits and also running up against a statutory debt limit might be troubling out in the provinces, but in Washington these things make for a kind of confluent crisis that requires extraordinary managerial exertions. So many people, so hard at work. The Gang of Six. The Biden Group. Simpson/Bowles. Paul and His Plan. The President and His Budget.
Imagine the number of meetings. The number of emergency meetings. The text messages. The PowerPoints. The huddled conferences. The interim reports. Final reports. Amendments to the final reports.
And then, there are the press releases. The backgrounders. The talking points. The leaks. The appearances on the Sunday shows and nightly news panels.
And one notices, when watching these television performances, that there is something in the timbre of the Washington insider’s voice. A confidence. An eagerness to do battle. This is what he or she came to Washington to do—deal with big things.
To watch these people at work, one would imagine that there is some solution that they—and only they—will arrive at through hard work, special competence, and icy resolve. But, in truth, it comes down to this: Spend less, tax more, or some blend of the two. All of this exuberant activity will not reveal some third alternative. This cake is pretty much baked, and all this activity in Washington is, essentially, done because . . . well, because those busy people can’t think of anything else to do and because it is so much fun.
Much more fun than sitting around working out how much to pay in crop support for cotton farmers and the other kinds of business that people in Washington attend to when there isn’t a major crisis to make it bliss to be alive.
Not so much fun, though, for those on the outside who would happily trade what we have now for a little taste of Washington in the ’20s, when Calvin Coolidge was making life there so unbearably dull.
Coolidge knew a thing or two, and one suspects that he would have seen a crisis such as the one Washington is so enjoyably attempting to deal with not as an opportunity but as an indictment.
Who, after all, made the crisis? If there were justice in the world, the same people who made the mess would not be given the fun job of fixing things. And they would certainly not be given limos to ride to their next emergency meeting.
Let ’em walk. Or drive their own cars and pay for the $4 gas.
Geoffrey Norman, a widely published author, edits the website VermontTiger.com.
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