Of all the points raised by different analysts about the economy last week, surely the best was Representative Barney Frank’s reminder on “Charlie Rose” that Ronald Reagan’s favorite laugh line was telling audiences that: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ ”
Hah, hah, hah.
Are you still laughing? If it weren’t for the government bailing out Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and A.I.G., and rescuing people from Hurricane Ike and pumping tons of liquidity into the banking system, our economy would be a shambles. How would you like to hear the line today: “I’m from the government, and I can’t do a darn thing for you.”
In this age of globalization, government matters more than ever. Smart, fiscally strong governments are the ones best able to empower their people to compete and win. I was just in Michigan to give a talk on energy. I can’t tell you how many business cards I collected from innovators who had either started renewable-energy companies or were working for big firms, like the Dow Chemical Company, on clean energy solutions.
It just reminded me how much innovative prowess and entrepreneurial energy is exploding from below in this country. If it were channeled and enhanced by better leadership in Washington, no one could touch us.
If I were to draw a picture of America today, it would be of the space shuttle taking off. There is all this thrust coming from below. But the booster rocket — Washington — is cracked and leaking energy, and the pilots in the cockpit are fighting over the flight plan. So we can’t achieve escape velocity to enter the next orbit — the next great industrial revolution, which is going to be E.T., energy technology.
In many ways, this election is about how we get our groove back as a country. We have been living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. President Bush has nothing to offer anymore. So that leaves us with Barack Obama and John McCain. Neither has wowed me with his reaction to the market turmoil. In fairness, though, neither man has any levers of power to pull. But what could they say that would give you confidence that they could lead us out of this rut? My test is simple: Which guy can tell people what they don’t want to hear — especially his own base.
Think how much better off McCain would be today had he nominated Michael Bloomberg as his vice president rather than Sarah Palin. McCain could have said, “I’m not an expert on markets, but I’ve got one of the best on my team.” Instead of a V.P. to re-energize America, McCain went for a V.P. to re-energize the Republican base.
So what would get my attention from McCain? If he said the following: “My fellow Americans, I’ve decided for now not to continue the Bush tax cuts, because the most important thing for our country today is to get the government’s balance sheet in order. We can’t go on cutting taxes and not cutting spending. For too long my party has indulged that nonsense. Second, I intend to have most U.S. troops out of Iraq in 24 months. We have done all we can to midwife democracy there. Iraqis need to take it from here. We need every dollar now for nation-building in America. We will do everything we can to wind down our presence and facilitate the Iraqi elections, but we’re not going to baby-sit Iraqi politicians who don’t have the will or the courage to reconcile their differences — unless they want to pay us for that. In America, baby sitters get paid.”
What would impress me from Obama? How about this: “The Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers union want a Washington bailout. The only way they will get a dime out of my administration is if the automakers and unions come up with a joint plan to retool their fleets to get an average of 40 miles per gallon by 2015 — instead of the 35 m.p.g. by 2020 that they’ve reluctantly accepted. I am not going to bail out Detroit with taxpayer money, but I will invest in Detroit’s transformation with taxpayer money, provided the management and unions agree to radical change. At the same time, while I will go along with the bailout of the banking system, it will only be on the condition that the institutions that got us into this mess accept sweeping reforms — in terms of transparency and limits on the leverage they can amass — so we don’t go through something like this again. To help me figure this out, I’m going to keep Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson on the job for a while. I am impressed with his handling of this crisis.”
Those are the kind of words that would get my attention. The last president who challenged his base was Bill Clinton, when he reformed welfare and created a budget surplus with a fair and equitable tax program. George W. Bush never once — not one time — challenged Americans to do anything hard, let alone great. The next president is not going to have that luxury. He will have to ask everyone to do something hard — and I want to know now who is up to that task.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.
Yet another great column by Tom Friedman.