Washington: Crackling With Brainy Sacrifice


In a marvelous gesture of ring-kissing, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen takes a look at the various conflict-addled millionaires in the Obama administration, and lectures the nation to start acting more grateful for their noble sacrifice.

In Ronald Reagan's famous formulation, "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." This statement, at the very heart of the so-called Reagan Revolution, denigrated government and the people in it. Reagan's statement withdrew John F. Kennedy's invitation to the intellectually gifted to come to Washington and see what they could do for their country. Reagan sent a different message. Government service is for the lame, the cautious. If you really want to do something for your country, shun Washington and make money. It was morning again in America—whatever that meant.

It is to Barack Obama's immense credit that he has reversed Reagan's reversal. Washington crackles with people on a mission. Brains are once again in vogue, if only because Obama has them in abundance. Not for him the aw-shucks affectation of the previous eight years, when instinct was extolled and ideology trumped analysis. We are in a mess, and one of the reasons is that people who might have noticed or done something about it had been told to stay out of government.

In our scandal-soaked culture, it is de rigueur to denigrate public officials and to search for the inevitable conflict of interest. But here are people, such as [Lawrence] Summers, who have put aside wealth and lavish perks for government service. They have their reasons, sure, but whatever they are, we—not they—are the richer for it.

Do you feel richer today, punk?

This whole they're-denigrating-public-servants complaint, a longtime favorite of Bill Maher's, has always struck me as willfully missing at least one important point. A core problem of government ineffectiveness has to do with incentives, and unintended consequences, not necessarily venality and incompetence. The do something mentality of elected officials inevitably leads to crude applications of blunt power, and just as inevitably that power has a tendency to get all mission-creepy, into areas of human existence that no government should really be messing with. And believe it or not, this can happen under Democrats, too.