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Homo Politicus: Why Washington Never Learns

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Washington is awash with brains. Here are Think Tanks galore. Here are entire departments of federal agencies given over to nothing but research and analysis of how to solve our national (and local, and world) problems. PhD’s from every college in the land, perhaps world, are more than happy to drop everything to advise Washington “how to.” Brains galore.

Yes, here is inevitable partisanship. And yes, some Think Tanks were doomed at birth to the role of propagandist instead of rigorous analyst. Notwithstanding these systemic glitches, many of “the best and the brightest” hang, virtually speaking, from the chandeliers of our nation’s capital. Washington may lack for common sense, but it doesn’t lack smarts.

Due to the braniac factor one might expect that our Governing Class, however venal, would be implementing solutions to the problems besetting our nation. Surely they are motivated to do so if only to show up, and outcompete, the Other Team, the better to entrench and enhance their own power and perqs.

One might think so. But one would be wrong. Blindingly obvious practical solutions go begging. What, then, explains the tsunami of incompetence that has dragged the popular approval rating of Congress down close to, well, zero?

The most plausible explanation lies with the chimpanzees whose deference to authority perfectly exemplifies those who make up our Permanent Government. Washington defers to the alphas, whose confidence in their judgment does not, as it happens, correlate closely with its goodness.

From Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 46:

“Some time ago, collaborators of Robert M. Yerkes made the extraordinarily interesting observation that chimpanzees, animals well known to be capable of learning by imitation, copy only higher-ranking members of their species. From a group of these apes, a low-ranking individual was taken and taught to remove bananas from a specially constructed feeding apparatus by very complicated manipulations. When this ape, together with his feeding apparatus, was brought back to the group, the higher-ranking animals tried to take away the bananas which he had acquired for himself, but none of them thought of watching their inferior at work and learning something from him. Then the higher-ranking chimpanzee was removed and taught to use the apparatus in the same way, and when he was put back in the group the other members watched him with great interest and soon learned to imitate him.”

Washington is all about social dominance, not competence. There is a famous anecdote about Ronald Reagan. When told that he was running for governor of California, Jack Warner reportedly said, “No, no, Jimmy Stewart for governor; Ronald Reagan for best friend.” Reagan was a magnificent president. This was recognized by a few of us — it was my privilege to be detailed as a junior official to his White House staff — at the time and more widely since. But Reagan never was a ranking member of the species of homo politicus. Thus, no matter how great his successes in economic and foreign policy it just never occurred to Official Washington to learn from him.

Shortly after Reagan left office this writer attended a presentation, at the Capitol, by the head of the newly constituted Russian stock market. This grandee was addressing an impressive gathering of economics aides to Republican Senators: seriously elite conservative economic policy mavens. Russia, who we certainly wished well, then was mired in direst economic misery.

The official was peppered with advice from the audience as to how Russia needed to deregulate and adopt Western-style property rights. All true enough, but I turned to my luncheon companion and whispered, “Russia’s stiff top tax bracket kicks in at around $5,000. We’re booming from having slashed our top rate from 70% to 28%. Nobody is mentioning cutting tax rates or raising thresholds. Washington learned nothing from Reagan.”

Not long after — on the first day of the new millennium, in point of fact — a 13% flat-rate income tax was implemented by, for and in Russia. (It was not propounded, it would appear, by any of the purported free market economists in the room with their stock market chief). In anticipation of, and under, the new tax rates (and other free market respecting rules) economic growth, predictably, took off at a supercharged pace. Real growth averaged 7% per year during Putin’s original two terms, growing more than 70% in real terms over eight years. Washington yawned … and stagnated.

Some, like the preposterously disingenuous Warren Buffett, argue for higher tax rates on the rich as a matter of fairness. What of them? The Economist, no shill for the plutocracy, observes:

“According to the OECD, a think-tank, the top 10% of earners contribute about a third of total tax revenues—28% in France, 31% in Germany and 42% in Italy. Rich Britons pay about 39% of total taxes while America’s wealthiest households contribute a larger share to government than in any other OECD country, at 45%. Looking just at income tax, the share paid by the top 1% of earners in America rose from 28% in 1988 to 40% in 2006…..”

The Occupy-reviled top 1% pay… 45% of the nation’s income taxes. Progressives merely propose to slaughter the goose that lays the golden egg. Da comrade?

Washington, DC continues to prosper. Its kind of parasitic prosperity makes it a challenge for the Governing Class to grasp the predicament that most of us confront. But the fact remains: America is not growing and certainly is not creating enough jobs. The economy has been stagnant for a full, lost, decade.

The Wall Street Journal, upon the occasion of George W. Bush’s retirement as president, observed that Mr. Bush had “the worst track record for job creation since the government began keeping records.” That is, at least until President Obama came along.

American Enterprise Institute economist Kevin Hassert wrote just last August:

“President Obama is the second worst [record for ‘the first two and a half years in office of the five worst presidents on job-creation since 1890’], coming in behind President Herbert Hoover whose first two and a half years in office were during the Great Depression.”

The solutions to the problems presenting America are reasonably clear to those with a measure of common sense (even if not so clear to those who live to govern by whim and diktat): Good money (the gold standard instead of a concocted fiduciary paper currency), low marginal tax rates, sensible regulation, free trade, and, in general, free market policies provide the path to personal, national and world prosperity. Prosperity then opens the door to many further social goods such as a cleaner environment.

The core problem is not lack of good ideas, or lack of evidence for such ideas. Nor is the problem partisanship. (Democratic elected officials like job creation too.) Nor, even, is elitist venality at the core. The real problem is that members of homo politicus “copy only higher-ranking members of their species.”

They look like us. They sound like us. Yet they in fact are a rival species to that of homo sapiens. Rather than thinking — sapient — homo politicus emulates those above them based on status, not on effectiveness. Those above, it turns out (as shrewdly noted by Keynes) themselves “are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

What besets Washington — and thus America and the world — is a severe “Obedience to Authority” problem, of which more anon. Occupy may have it right, but … it’s not based on money so much as status. The 1% homo politicus oppresses the 99% homo sapiens.

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