“Never let a good crisis go to waste” was a pithy point in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Much later Rahm Emanuel, then Chief-of- Staff to President Barack Obama, in the context of the “Great Recession” reprised Alinsky and said, “Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.”
To varying degrees most politicians have used this formula. President George W. Bush with support from the Congress began two wars. The attacks on 9/11/01 produced a crisis and a gusher of emotion. And more recently the pandemic has been a convenient excuse to catapult the difference between revenue and expenditures at the Federal level. We have accumulated $24 Trillion in debt.
I like to think a more conservative point-of-view resists an emotion-filled explosion of new commitments and expenditures, but maybe it’s just a difference in allocation. But, and this is my central concern, we have created almost an infinite list of dependencies. Circumstances move us, commitments are made, they join decades of earlier commitments and rarely are the commitments sorted out and rationalized. After all, commitments lead to dependencies, voting blocks and rivers of political cash.
What is it about dependency we don’t know? A bunch, I guess. What we do know is that people, institutions, industries, countries and much else integrate assistance into their patterns of life or business models. It is estimated that we still have approximately $20B a year in fossil fuel subsidies as alternate energy subsidies begin to soar.
We also know that dependency, drawing on a seemingly bottomless bank account, deceives or corrupts both the giver and the receiver. Landlord and tenant aid in the amount of $46.5 billion was provided during the pandemic’s darkest days and supported with bipartisan conviction. Yet only $3 billion has been distributed to eligible households. Entanglement in intergovernmental bureaucracies is certainly not unusual.
The most immediate outcome of this dysfunction led President Biden, under pressure from his Left, to extend a Federal eviction moratorium even though a Supreme Court majority said that such an extension must be done by Congress. And this at a time when job’s growth is robust and story after story reports employers having trouble filling positions. By the way, it is reported that 40% of rental properties are “Mom and Pop” businesses.
Dependencies also happen far from home. We are now watching the Afghan government that integrated our soft and hard aid seemingly on the verge of collapse. President Biden, hell-bent to depart, apparently fails to understand that reversing dependence takes skill and time. Ryan Crocker, an estimable career diplomat characterized Biden’s rush to the exit: “He owns it, I think it is already an indelible stain on his presidency.” So let me see, Bush decided to engage in nation building—the first mistake—and now Biden is rapidly pulling what limited support we have been providing in recent years.
21st Century government must not act as if the 20th Century did not happen. Most of the unfunded or underfunded obligations that threaten our future began during the last century. As did our international commitments and alliances. We cannot treat the future as if the past did not occur.
As we add obligations to the Federal budget because circumstances seem to demand it, we must do so in context. What have we learned? What can we cease in order to meet a compelling new demand? Americans are rightly proud of the many fully funded successes of decentralized governments, businesses and a wide variety of not-for-profit initiatives. But, when it comes to our national government it increasingly creates dependencies and shows almost no aptitude for the end game.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.