Thursday, February 05, 2009

Government Watching Continues

After I signed off the other night, it occurred to me that the first time I heard "czar" in connection with a U.S. government official was when Ronald Reagan appointed his "Drug Czar." That's when I started getting a lesson from more libertarian family members on Prohibition and the amount of money wasted on criminalizing drugs and alcohol.

Over the years, other czars have appeared on the scene: a copyright czar, an energy czar, and so forth. The Secretary of the Treasury is, for all practical purposes, an "economic czar," and was given extraordinary powers to spend federal money to bail out businesses he perceived to be in distress. We could get a "car czar" to address our failing auto industry.

What the heck are all these "czars" for, anyway? Do they do any good? Just so there's no mistake here: a "czar" is the title that used to be worn by Russian monarchs (and might be again, at the rate they're going). It's a Slavic rendering of "Caesar," ruler of the old Roman and Byzantine Empires. It means, in contemporary parlance, "the person in charge"; I can only guess that "czar" was applied as a cute term to convey that status.

As near as I can determine, these "czars" are put in place by Presidents to make things happen that federal agencies in their present form cannot address or to address problems that cut across multiple agencies' jurisdiction (the War on Drugs certainly qualifies in that respect). These czars are supposed to be "rainmakers" who can make things happen that others within existing agencies cannot. Again, rather than appoint yet another official and complicate the bureaucracy further, my simplistic mind would ask, "Why can't you just change the person in charge of the agency or agencies in question or fix how they operate to make them work better? Why not reform instead of complication?"

These positions remind me of the "Chancellor of the Exchequer," the man appointed by the King of England to guard the nation's treasury, which at the time was kept in a checkered bag, or the special titles bestowed in medieval European or Chinese courts as rewards for services to the king. There's a certain monarchical feeling to the whole thing. And, quite frankly, does anyone else have a problem with little Caesars being included in the apparatus of our nation's government?? Nixon instituted the practice, just around the time complaints arose about the "imperial presidency" (a term that arose in the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson was in charge). As the power of the U.S. continues to increase, so too does the power of the president, and this "most powerful man in the free world" has only increased in power since the end of the Cold War.


And why should "czars" bother me so much? Maybe because of the great speed with which President Obama wishes to push through one of the largest spending bills I've ever seen. Recessions are not unprecedented. In my nearly 40-year lifetime, there have been five, including the present situation. None of them resulted in government takeovers of HUGE chunks of the economy or actual businesses. Much of this stimulus bill goes, as I noted yesterday, into government projects, not on infrastructure or activities necessarily relevant to government policy ($75M for smoking prevention? I thought he wanted to tax cigarettes so they could use the money to fund nationalized healthcare). Some of the money won't even be SPENT until 2010, so what's the big frickin' emergency?

If Obama is determined to have the most ethical administration since the Clinton Administration, shouldn't he give the Congress and the American people time to read the bill carefully to make sure there's nothing in it that's awry or counterproductive? And, again, if he intends to spend some of the money in 2010, why pass it as part of this year's budget?

For most of the 2000s, I heard how George W. Bush was using the war on terror as an excuse to give the Chief Executive unprecedented--nay, dictatorial--powers. I might have even half-believed some of it. On the flip side, I would say that President Obama is trying to use a recession--NOT a depression--as an excuse to give the federal government unprecedented economic power.

Immanuel Kant had a concept he called the "categorical imperative," which I will quote here:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

This is, essentially, the Golden Rule with teeth: not just "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Rather, "Act toward others as you would expect to be treated in every single case." While I'm not a huge fan of Kant, I do believe that more than half of our laws would not get passed if lawmakers thought this way: "Would I want this law to be passed if I knew my political opponents would use it against me when I'm out of power?" One might ask the same question of waterboarding or pay cuts or estate taxes or warrantless wiretaps or unemployment insurance. "Would you want this law passed if it applied to YOU?"

I have more reading to do. Let's be careful out there.

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