Saturday, April 09, 2011


Washingtonians have a reputation for taking themselves way too seriously, and I cannot say this reputation is totally undeserved. You can hear it in the way people talk about their jobs, as if tomorrow’s sunrise depended on their being at the office. And you can hear it in the way people talk about the city itself, as if it is the Emerald City and every place else is Munchkin Land.

Bostonians may call their town the “Hub of the Universe,” but when I lived there, I always thought that statement was meant somewhat playfully. By contrast, here in D.C., when one of the local TV personalities refers to our town as “The Most Important City in the World,” you get the impression that they mean it. And I suspect a lot of Washingtonians believe that drivel.

Well, I don’t. My parents raised me with too much of a respect for the importance of economics for me to elevate D.C. over, say, New York. Still, every now and then, even I have to note that all eyes – nationally and internationally – focus on Washington. And well they should. One of those days was the day after Obama was elected President. Walking around town that morning, I felt like a character in a sci-fi movie. Nothing seemed real. People couldn’t believe that with all of our racist baggage, this nation was actually electing a black man as its President – and in a landslide at that. I will never forget standing outside the Newseum and reading the headlines from around the world. Every one dealt with the election. And I’m sure that all eyes returned to our nation’s capital two months later when Obama was inaugurated, and literally millions descended on the National Mall for the world’s biggest party. Those were days when you felt blessed to be a Washingtonian. Yesterday … not so much.

Sometimes, the surreal can be wonderful. Yesterday, our sur-reality evoked a sense of pathos. We knew that, once again, all eyes were on Washington, but this time, the world was shaking its collective head. There was only one question in everyone’s mind: how can the country with the planet’s largest economy not figure out a way to keep its Government running? Is it so difficult to make budget compromises? Or is something else at play here – something quite unattractive about our nation’s present mindset. From what I can tell, Washingtonians did not have much trouble answering those questions, albeit cynically.

The good news is that the leaders of both political parties ultimately were pragmatic enough to get the job done and avert a Government shutdown. But this was not without wasting huge amounts of taxpayer dollars, as every agency had to waste its time on shutdown contingency plans, rather than doing the nation’s business. How, you ask, did we reach the brink of a shutdown? Was it just that both sides care so deeply about the substance of budget issues that they felt compelled to fight to the bitter end for their principles? I wish that was the explanation.

As I walked around town yesterday from one Government meeting to another, I could not help but reflect on the real subtext to this latest Washington Soap Opera. Increasingly, we are facing a situation in which millions of Americans – many more, in fact, than the numbers who came to town for Obama’s inaugural – have decided that the enemy isn’t so much the deficit, but the Government itself. You can see this in the concerns raised by the organization that represents these people, the so-called “Tea Party.” Tea Partiers are not whining about the tax cuts for the rich, even though those tax cuts balloon the deficit. Similarly, Tea Partiers are not whining about the Government subsidies for large and already-profitable corporations, even though those subsidies further balloon the deficit. In each of those cases, the money is perceived as being plowed directly back into the hands of the very people who generated the tax revenues to begin with, and is thus a tolerable expenditure. Rather, the Tea Party reserves its barbs strictly for those instances in which the Government employs people to make discretionary decisions as to how to spend the taxpayers money. That, and that alone, is the perceived assault that shocks a Tea Partier’s conscience.

When Spinoza wrote that “hatred is pain, accompanied by an external cause,” he was voicing what few of us like to admit about ourselves, but most of us know to be the case. Here, when so much of the Tea Party’s anger is directed to how Government workers exercise their discretion to spend taxpayer dollars, is there any question that the Government workers themselves have become the object of the Tea Partiers’ anger and resentment? And yesterday, when roughly a million such workers faced the possibility of being deprived both of their salary and the opportunity to do their jobs, is there any question that many a Tea Partier inwardly glowed at that prospect?

As I walked across town yesterday, thinking some of these cynical thoughts, I assumed that the Government would be shut down for the weekend – just long enough to give the Tea Partiers their pound of bureaucrat-flesh, but not so long as to do any obvious long-term damage to our nation’s infrastructure or economy. The fact is, however, that damage is being done whenever Government workers perceive themselves as the enemy of millions of Americans, and politicians fan the flames of those who would create this adversarial relationship. This cannot be good for Government morale, and it is hardly likely to lead the public to make the best decisions in choosing their legislators or, for that matter, their Presidents.

As a lifelong civil servant, I will continue to work long hours to protect the interests of the public to the best of my abilities. But I’ve already seen the popular hatred of the Government impact my ability to do that job, as it affects the willingness of people to cooperate with the Government. Without cooperation between the Government and the people, what you have is a third-world nation. Yesterday, walking around Washington, D.C, I was beginning to feel like we are turning into just such a place.

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