President Lyndon Johnson was embarked on building the Great Society, assisted by policymakers who, wrote Time, "have used Keynesian principles" to smooth the moderate business cycles and achieve price stability: "Washington's economic managers scaled these heights by their adherence to Keynes' central theme" that a modern economy can operate at "top efficiency" only with government "intervention and influence." So, "economists have descended in force from their ivory towers and now sit confidently at the elbow of almost every important leader in government and business, where they are increasingly called upon to forecast, plan and decide." Ten years later, the "misery index" -- the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate -- was 19.9, heading for 22 percent in 1980.
Today, again, we are told that "politics" has no place in the debate about the tripartite stimulus legislation, which is partly a stimulus, partly liberalism's agenda of social engineering, and partly the beginning of "remaking" the economy. Gary Wolfram of Hillsdale College notes that the size of the stimulus -- the House-Senate compromise bill is $789 billion -- is just slightly less than the amount of all U.S. currency in circulation, and is larger than the entire federal budget was until 1983. Yet it is said that in the debate about this encompassing legislation -- which concerns what government can and should do, and ultimately what kind of regime America shall have -- people should "transcend" (so says Larry Summers, the president's economic adviser) politics. What, then, would be left for political argument to be about?
It is said that the negligible Republican support for the stimulus legislation means that bipartisanship is dead. But what can "bipartisanship" mean concerning legislation that concerns almost everything?
John McCain probably was eager to return to the Senate as an avatar of bipartisanship, a role he has enjoyed. It is, therefore, a measure of the recklessness of House Democrats that they caused the stimulus debate to revolve around a bill that McCain dismisses as "generational theft."
The federal government, with its separation of powers and myriad blocking mechanisms, was not made for speed but for safety. This is particularly pertinent today because if $789 billion is spent ineffectively or destructively, government does not get to say "oops" and take a mulligan. Senate Republicans have slowed and altered the course of the "disaster! catastrophe!" stampede. Still, as Anthony Trollope wrote in one of his parliamentary novels, "The best carriage horses are those which can most steadily hold back against the coach as it trundles down the hill."
Not yet a third of the way through the president's "first 100 days," he and we should remember that it was not FDR's initial burst of activity in 1933 that put the phrase "100 days" into the Western lexicon. It was Napoleon's frenetic trajectory in 1815 that began with his escape from Elba and ended near the Belgian village of Waterloo.
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