David Walker, American Cassandra

A belief in “national exceptionalism” is a uniquely American trait, regardless of political ideology. But, as a recent speech by the U.S. Comptroller General points out, the caesars who ruled the ancient Roman empire probably thought they were pretty exceptional, too…

Commentary By: Richard Blair

CassandraMost of us in a certain demographic were required to struggle through a course in Greek mythology at some point in our education. I’m one of those rare people who actually enjoyed reading Edith Hamilton compilations – because everyone of substance in Greek mythology had superpowers of some sort.

Cassandra foresaw the downfall of Troy to the Greeks. Unfortunately, no one believed her when she tried to warn the locals about the wooden horse thing. It turns out that the god Apollo had bestowed the gift of prophecy on Cassandra. However, when she wouldn’t give up her chastity to Apollo, he placed a curse on Cassandra such that no one would believe her dire predictions. And so, even with advance warning from her, the Greeks eventually sacked the city of Troy.

Very recently, a high-level cassandra in the U.S. government warned that:

The US government is on a –burning platform’ of unsustainable policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon, the country’s top government inspector has warned.

David Walker, Comptroller General of the US, issued the unusually downbeat assessment of his country’s future in a report that lays out what he called “chilling long-term simulations”…

Sounds pretty dire, huh? It is. The Financial Times article from which the quoted paragraphs above were taken is mild, at least compared to the actual presentation (.pdf file) that U.S. Comptroller General David Walker made recently to the Federal Midwest Human Resources Council. At the FMHRC, Walker said:

…there are striking similarities between America’s current situation and that of another great power from the past: Rome. The Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years, but only about half that time as a republic. The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three reasons are worth remembering: declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. Sound familiar? In my view, it’s time to learn from history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand the test of time…

So why should anyone listen to David Walker? Perhaps because he’s really the only bi-partisan voice in an increasingly partisan debate, and he has access to the “books”. He and his agency know what’s going on – one of the purposes of the GAO is to run simulations on the economy, and in particular, government spending. The choices that he sees in the future are all unpleasant. Unfortunately, he takes a pollyanna approach, rather than that of Cassandra, when it comes to assessing the will of the U.S. government and the American people to deal with a myriad of looming crises:

…Please don’t misunderstand my message today. Things are far from hopeless. Yes, it’s going to take some difficult choices on a range of issues. But I’m convinced America will rise to the challenge, just as we did during World War II and other difficult times.

What’s needed now is leadership. The kind of leadership that leads to meaningful and lasting change has to be bipartisan and broad-based. Character also counts. We need men and women with courage, integrity, and creativity. Leaders who can partner for progress and are committed to truly and properly discharging their stewardship responsibilities…

Walker acknowledges that some difficult choices need to be made, and then goes on imply that some sort of bold leadership is going to drop from the sky. I’m hard pressed to find reason for his optimism.

Government leaders, on both sides of the political aisle and in civil service, are too self interested and vested in pre-existing agendas. If the past ten or fifteen years have taught us nothing else, it’s that politicians will rarely make the difficult choices that might upset the applecart of lobbyist-controlled politics.

Government leadership ceased to be about what’s best for the country sometime soon after John F. Kennedy uttered the words, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country“. There just aren’t many altruistic politicians or government leaders in this day and age. Even if we replaced all of the bad actors in the next few years with leaders who really did care about the long term prospects of America, it’s hard to see how a new set of political bosses could make an immediate difference. After years of intentional abuse of the constitution by all three branches of government (and the benign neglect of an American public that let it happen), the hope for a better future seems somewhat misplaced. The Queensbury rules of politics have long been discarded by both political parties, and the willingness to do what’s right for the country no longer seems to exist.

[...big sigh...]

In his speech, Walker invoked the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt as an example of what can happen when a truly inspired leader takes the reigns, and moves the nation in a forward direction. Does Mr. Walker, or anyone else for that matter, believe that within the current crop of Democratic or Republican party candidates there is someone who has either the personal moxy or the impramateur of divine providence (for lack of a better phrase) needed to turn America in the right direction?

A belief in “national exceptionalism” is a uniquely American trait, regardless of political ideology. No doubt that the Romans felt that way, too.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007 by Richard Blair |

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