Rahm Emanuel reportedly has a doctrine: Never let a serious crisis go to waste. His point is a good one - vested interests usually block change across a wide range of important issues in the US, and a major financial/economic crisis provides an opportunity to bypass or breakthrough those interests in order to introduce meaningful and substantial change. Emanuel listed (from the 1:40 minute mark) five priority areas for change: health care (cost control and expansion of coverage), energy (independence and alternatives), taxes (fairness and simplicity), education (fundamental changes to effectively train the workforce), and financial regulation (transparency and accountability).
The financial crisis is abating - although the economic costs continue to mount and new problems may still appear (ask California or Ukraine). At least among the people I talk with on Capitol Hill, there is a very real sense that business is returning to usual; certainly, the lobbyists are out in force, they want what they always want, and it’s hard to see many of them as seriously weakened. How much progress have we made on any of Emanuel’s priority areas or, for that matter, along any other public policy dimension that was previously stuck?
The charitable answer would be: this is still a work in progress and you cannot expect miracles overnight. True, but Rahm’s Doctrine (as Larry Summers apparently calls it) says that you should implement irreversible change while you still have the chance. Tell me if I missed something, but has there been any breakthrough of any kind? Was it wrapped up in the fiscal stimulus? Is the credit card bill a bigger blow to vested interests than we have so far recognized? Has there been some secret progress on healthcare (although than a vague and apparently deniable pledge drive)? Were the bank stress tests more subtle than meets the eye?
We discussed this issue on Bill Maher’s Overtime segment from about the 2:20 minute mark on Friday. Jon Meacham just interviewed President Obama and came away with no clear sense of where the President is really pushing to make fundamental change – although Jon and Bill nicely summarize where he is compromising (from about the 4 minute mark of Overtime).
On financial sector issues, the lobbies look stronger than ever. “You can’t recover without us” appears to be a winning slogan for big banks and their appointees. Tough financial regulation may still appear later this year, but it looks like an uphill struggle – and there is no sense that the administration even wants to break vested interests in this sphere.
Perhaps Rahm’s Doctrine was overly optimistic as a broad aspiration, but at least on the financial front some tangible opportunities went to waste.
By Simon Johnson