Monday, March 23, 2009


Sam Smith

Has Washington gone mad? Certainly there are other factors affecting political matters, but if you are feeling that those in charge - regardless of party - are strangely disconnected from reality, you may be on to something.

When Washington is engaged in something absurd - like starting or escalating a bad war - its establishment coalesces around a set of presumptions of questionable logic and then approves - with the media's strong support - huge sums to test them.

One cause of this dysfunctional behavior is the great power vested in the capital. Among the advantages of such power is that you can blow a large number of bucks and bodies on a problem before you finally have to face the fact that what you're doing isn't working.

For example, soon after September 11, our leaders and much of our media drew the conclusion that our salvation lay in world dominance - in empire.

Within just days we moved from tragic reality to delusional myth. Empires don't have their major military and economic icons damaged or destroyed by a handful of young men with box cutters. Empires don't turn suddenly phobic at everything foreign, everything sharp, every place crowded. Empires don't jettison their Constitution and turn on their own people out of blind fear. Empires don't get hopelessly bogged down invading two small countries - one which had a military budget less than two percent of ours, the other with a gross domestic product smaller than the cost of the bombs we were dropping on it.

Something similar happened in Vietnam. The journalist Bernard Fall early in the conflict noted that the French, after their failed battle at Dien Bien Phu, had no choice but to leave Southeast Asia. America, with its vast military, financial, and technological resources, was able to stay because it had the capacity to keep making the same mistakes over and over.

The same was true of the hugely expensive war on drugs, which has been going on for over three decades and only now is it becoming somewhat acceptable to say so.

Now we are launched on a bailout of our financial system that no one can explain, no one knows where the money is going, and no one knows who is really going to benefit. An inordinate amount seems to be going to the wealthiest corners of the country while Congress and the White House remain stunningly indifferent to the more modest yet more critical needs of ordinary Americans. It all doesn't make sense but few seem interested in having it do so.

If you start to apply logic, it just doesn't work. It's not unlike those struggles one occasionally has trying to introduce the real into a fitful dream. The fantasy grabs back control all too easily.

Driving the fantasy are comforting words like stimulus and a trillion here, a trillion there. After all, how can you spend a trillion and not have it work? Unless it doesn't.

The irony is that Washington loves to define others as mad - the Palestinian insurgent, the skeptic concerning some badly resolved mystery such as the JFK death, an Illinois governor engaged in what seems now to be a somewhat modest scam, or - most recently - those fearful and crazy "populists" who have the nerve to be furious over what's going on.

By Washington's standards, insanity is the disease of the weak. Just look at the difference in the way the Governor Blago and the Bernie Madoff scandals have been handled: Blago is crazy but Madoff is just an evil genius.

The key issue is power. By the capital's rules, the powerful may be wrong, they may be corrupt, they may even be naive, but they may not be insane, because that would cut too close to the bone, threatening the widely accepted Washington thesis that power proves wisdom.

One way to help figure out what's going on is to count the bodies. Healthy people don't leave a trail of victims as they go through life. On the other hand, the disordered, no matter how convincing their claim to normalcy or how noble their purported purpose, produce a wake that tells a different story. The body count of the fiscal crisis is not comforting.

At the moment, much of Washington seems to be run by two groups: the crazy and those afraid to challenge the crazy. The latter group sadly includes our president, who owes his election in part to those who created the fiscal mess and relies on advisors who contributed to it. Saner economic voices are found on the Internet but not at the White House.

For those outside the capital and not responsible for the current crisis, knowing that a significant portion of what's happening isn't going to help or will help the wrong people, isn't based on logic and isn't being pursued in a rational fashion, may not be of much comfort. But it may save some time and angst searching for logical solutions in barren fields and guide our efforts elsewhere. Such as to an approach more like those of those fearful and crazy populists - the ones who started the fight for the graduated income tax, election of the Senate by direct vote, civil service reform, pensions and the eight hour workday. Now there's insanity we can believe in.