I couldn’t help myself this morning, when I read this story about former President George W. Bush‘s defense of the 2008 bailouts, from thinking of Harry Potter. In one of the books, Hermione Granger says to Harry, while he’s preparing to go on another of his adventures: “Don’t you think you’ve got a bit of a — a — saving people thing?” That’s the federal government for you. They’ve got a bit of a “saving people thing,” and like Harry, it gets them into trouble more often than not.
President Bush was the keynote speaker at the annual dinner of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, and while speaking he made reference to the 2008 auto industry and bank bailouts. He said Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury back then, told him that we could face economic conditions worse than the Great Depression if the bailouts didn’t happen, something Paulson later reneged on. Bush told the crowd he didn’t regret his actions and he’d do it again.
It is quite surreal when history repeats itself; President Herbert Hoover reportedly felt the same after his administration tried to manhandle the fallout of the stock market crash of 1929 that actually did send us into the Great Depression, with agricultural micro-managing and the Smoot-Hawley Act. Those were policies that the Roosevelt administration simply built upon, making a bad situation worse. Is this ringing any bells, politicos?
I don’t doubt the good faith and intentions of leaders who choose these paths, though I do doubt that of those who continue on the paths when the terrain becomes decidedly treacherous. What is it, though, about those in government who are so convinced that it is only government policy and action that can save the citizenry from desolation and despair? Moreover, what kind of savior complex does it really take to assume that desolation and despair are the only possible outcomes without such intervention?
If you watch business or financial news these days, there are frequent intonations of doom that rival any bell-clanging herald of the apocalypse for their dire tone. Second recession, they say, with all the savored gravity of a mean-spirited gossip. Is it that bad? I think unemployment numbers speak for themselves, especially if you get past the false optimism that comes of leaving out salient details, such as the percentage of unemployed people who have simply given up looking, or how many of the “new jobs” are minimum-wage retail or seasonal jobs. Could we fall further? It is entirely possible.
President Barack Obama likes to blame the Bush administration for every wrong that befalls the nation, and yet, he never does point to the one policy that might be reasonable to blame. The bailouts set an example for economic stimulus that Obama’s administration is eager to imitate at every turn. Not just imitate – expand upon! Only government spending can save us, they claim. Not unlike Paulson and Ben Bernanke in 2008, they tell us that their “stimulus” packages are the only answer, and without them, we’ll fall into the next Great Depression.
Yet they spend and spend, and we slip ever further. The distinct feeling that the worst is yet to come must be similar to what was happening in the early 1930s. Hoover’s policies, and Roosevelt’s eagerness to build upon them, meant that even nine years later, 1 in 5 workers remained unemployed. Government’s interference didn’t shorten or even lighten the burden on the American worker; if anything, government’s savior complex, it’s “saving people thing,” prolonged a bad situation.
President Bush did what leaders before him would have done, and history’s ability to judge his predecessors is even now hindered by political interest, so I don’t expect an overnight revelation about the bailouts or the stimulus efforts we’ve witnessed since. It would be nice, though, to get a little acknowledgement from those responsible that maybe their policies weren’t the perfect solutions they believed them to be at the time. That maybe, just maybe, government isn’t meant to be a savior at all.