Jonah Goldberg

 

During the recent GOP presidential debate, MSNBC ran self-promotional commercials for itself. That's OK; all networks do it. The Hebrew philosopher Hillel's famous line "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" applies for cable news networks, too. And given MSNBC's ratings, that wisdom is particularly poignant.
 
The long-running "Lean Forward" marketing campaign features different MSNBC hosts waxing poetic on the glories of government and liberalism. The ad they kept running during the debate features Rachel Maddow standing on the edge of the Hoover Dam. The spots are a widespread source of ridicule in conservative circles, mostly because they show Maddow on the precipice of the dam in an ad hectoring us all to "lean forward." You first, Ms. Maddow.
 
But the real joke of the commercial is the argument behind it. Maddow objects when "people tell us no, no, no we're not going to build it. No, no, no, America doesn't have any greatness in its future. America has small things in its future. Other countries have great things in their future. China can afford it. We can't." She replies to this chorus of strawmen, "You're wrong and it doesn't feel right to us and it doesn't sound right to us because that's not what America is." It's one of several ads equating American greatness with big infrastructure spending on the scale of the Hoover Dam.
 
The reason the ad is so funny is that nobody thinks liberals such as Maddow would support anything like the Hoover Dam today. The Hoover Dam is a marvel. But by today's green standards, it is a crime against nature. If you tried to build it, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace would be in court tomorrow blocking it, with Ms. Maddow cheering them on.
 
Indeed, look at all the activists attacking the proposed construction of an oil pipeline from Canada to the Texas coast. It would create thousands of construction jobs and yet liberals oppose it for the usual petrophobic reasons. Ironically, liberals love building highways and bridges, but loathe making it affordable to drive on them.
 
This is just a small example of the Catch-22 liberalism has found itself in. The left yearns to "go big" but it wants to do so through the extremely narrow routes it has created for itself. They say government must rush into this economic crisis like firemen into a burning building. But they also don't want to lighten the useless baggage the firemen must carry or remove the Byzantine obstacle course they've decreed the figurative firefighters must run through before getting to work.
 
Everyone in Washington should reread Jonathan Rauch's 1994 book "Demosclerosis," a term Rauch coined to describe "government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt." Thanks to the rise of interest-group liberalism, constituencies grow up around government programs and policies that do not benefit the general public. Obviously, these constituencies care more about their programs than the average voters do so they make up for their low numbers with high intensity. The mohair subsidy is the number one priority of only one group of Americans: recipients of mohair subsidies. More significantly, organized labor makes up a tiny fraction of the workforce, but dictates vast swaths of labor policy in this country.
 
As the number of interest groups claiming sovereignty over their own little slices of policy multiplies, government's maneuvering room shrinks.
 
Rauch compared the problem to the "hardening of the arteries, which builds up stealthily over many years." Before you know it, first responders to Hurricane Katrina have to undergo sensitivity training before they can save people from drowning and "shovel ready" green jobs require months of "prevailing wage" compliance paper-pushing and are too expensive anyway. Boston's Big Dig took two decades to build; the far more ambitious Hoover Dam, Maddow and company love, took four.
 
Look, I'm no Keynesian, but there should have been at least an economic sugar rush from the stimulus. There wasn't, in large part because government has lost its flexibility. We poured money down the same mostly clogged bureaucratic drain. When the last bit burbled away, we were told we must "invest" even more in infrastructure and education. We've been doing that for decades. In terms of spending, adjusted for inflation, the size of government has increased 50 percent over the last decade alone.
 
Who thinks we got anything like a positive return on that "investment"? Why didn't we? Because money isn't the problem, government is.
 

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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