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  • Oren Levin-Waldman

The Wages of Hubris

The more things change, the more they stay the same. A new administration has taken power, and it appears to be the usual politics of undoing what the previous administration did, and throwing more money at the economic problems created by government action in response to the pandemic, but with little thought to how to address the problems that have caused such deep divisions.


All that talk of unity and civility in President Biden’s inaugural address has been heard before. But does he really want to achieve unity as in common ground, or does he mean that there will be unity only if there is agreement with the ruling party? Nobody expects liberal Democrats to like Trump voters, but there were a good 75,000,000 of them, and some of their concerns, i.e. reasons for why they voted for him, especially on the economy and state of the labor market, are legitimate policy concerns.


Sweeping Trump out of office doesn’t erase the reality of displacement experienced by blue-collar workers in a global economy that was hastened by policies enacted by Congress at the behest of both Democratic and Republican party elites. Moreover, one wonders how sincere the desire for unity really is when Democrats are so intent on continuing with an impeachment trial of a now former president.


Are we not living in an Alice in Wonderland world right now? The vaccine distribution is poor, the virus continues to rage on, and millions of workers have been shut out of their jobs, and many small businesses have been permanently destroyed. Democrats claim “conviction” of Trump is essential to hold him accountable and bar him from holding any office in the future because it is a matter of the public good. But Democrats only demonstrate, as they did previously with the last COVID relief bill, that they really have no interest in the public good. They certainly don’t care about ordinary workers, especially if those workers were misguided enough to vote for Trump.


If President Biden is sincere about healing and unity and he really wanted to demonstrate that he is a leader, he would demand that Democrats in Congress end this farce now. There are more pressing issues that need to be addressed. Congress can just as easily censure Trump. What the country needs now is a serious vaccine distribution plan with money to fund mobile vaccination sites throughout the country with the aid of the military. It needs full relief for those whose businesses were destroyed because of government mandated shutdowns. And it needs funds to make all workers who were shut out of their jobs whole. Failure to compensate businesses and workers is essentially a Fifth Amendment Taking without just compensation.


What the country does not need right now is wasteful spending. Stimulus checks to those who have not lost their jobs or suffered a loss of income serves no useful purpose other than the standard approach to vote buying, or what economists refer to as rent-seeking. Consider that in the last relief package an individual would get $600 up to an income of $75,000. What this really meant was that a family of five with as much as $374,000 in annual income was receiving a $3000 stimulus check. This is poor targeting because those who don’t need it will not spend it.


Of course, wrapped in these relief packages are spending for individual members of Congress’s pet projects. This is the business as usual pork-barrel politics. In the long term, the country needs a plan to build an economy with good paying jobs. Killing the Keystone pipeline right now just because Trump supported it is not helpful. During the campaign Biden claimed that he would not eliminate mining jobs, but with this Executive action he has sent a message to unionized workers, who supported him, that their jobs are not as important as the preferences of environmental elites and green energy enthusiasts. But it was precisely this failure to listen to the anxiety of ordinary blue-collar workers, many of whom don’t have more than a 12th grade education, that the Democrats lost four years.


It would appear that as the Democrats have no real answers it is easy to fall back on business as usual and support big spending programs without really asking whether they work. On one level, they might serve to purchase the quiescence of those voters who have been further marginalized by the pandemic, while at the same time pursuing policies that serve the interests of those who fund their campaigns. After all, the primary goal is to remain in power.


At the same time, there is another element at work here, which is the failure to concede hubris. One wonders why public officials double down on policies that don’t really work. One reason is there are no other options. But another reason is that politicians seem incapable of admitting that they were wrong and that the “policy of choice” simply has not worked. Well, that is hubris.


People who are adamant about green energy for instance, would never admit that there are people who will lose their jobs and will not easily be reabsorbed into new energy jobs requiring more skills. Those who believe that globalism is the key to continued growth and sustained prosperity cannot bring themselves to admit that many have been displaced because of those policies pursued. Of course, those who order lockdowns cannot admit that they may have been wrong either. These measures never stopped the spread of the virus; they only delayed it.


Why, then, is it so difficult for people in power to admit that they were wrong? Is this a sign of weakness? Are they afraid that they will give their opposition ammunition to use against them in future campaigns? Hubris isn’t only a matter of not admitting mistakes, but not conceding that perhaps there were some things that the previous administration did which were perhaps the right thing to do.


There is no question that the outgoing Trump administration dropped the ball on vaccine distribution and other matters related to COVID relief. But Operation Warped Speed is something it got right. Were it not for massive public investment into vaccine development and production even while awaiting FDA approval, there would be absolutely no basis for the current administration to be talking about 100,000,000 doses during its first hundred days.


Although new administrations are often quick to fault previous administrations for the problems they inherited, they rarely give them credit for the foundations they put in place which will make it easier for them to proceed. The hubris of the current administration is on full display, which is perhaps the main reason why things will never change.


In policy we talk about feedback loops so that we can evaluate and reassess, and then make improvements. But that requires a recognition that something just does not work. Perhaps that is the reason why elected officials require bureaucrats to actually run the operations of government. After all, where they cannot admit that they made mistakes, they can certainly blame others for those mistakes that are ultimately revealed.

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