Is a 12 Step Program Needed for Policymaking in Washington?

From the Wikipedia entry on 12-step programs:

The original 12 Step Program is Alcoholics Anonymous — which deals with what they call the “powerlessness” to stop drinking alcohol. The 12 Steps have been adopted by other groups including Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and Nar-Anon for people impacted by having or having had alcoholics or addicts in their life. Although Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps were initially offered for use by alcoholics, application of the 12 Steps to non-alcoholics is described and specifically invited in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, where the steps first appeared. The only requirement for membership of an Alcoholics Anonymous Group “is a desire to stop drinking”.

One of the most widely-recognized characteristics of twelve-step groups is the requirement that members admit that they “have a problem”. In this spirit, many members open their address to the group along the lines of, “Hi, I’m Pam and I’m an alcoholic” — a catchphrase now widely identified with support groups.

Why do I bring this up? Consider the following article from Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal (sub.req.), in which David Wessel writes:

Bush’s Course on Budget Parallels Iraq

February 8, 2007; Page A5

The numbers in President Bush’s budget add up — arithmetically. If his assumptions come true, the deficit will evaporate in 2012.

But there are a lot of ifs — if Iraq and Afghanistan cost only $50 billion in 2009 and nothing thereafter; if the president and Congress hold growth in annually appropriated domestic spending well below inflation; if they let the alternative minimum tax reach deeper into the middle class or raise taxes on others to prevent that; if Congress squeezes $66 billion (4%) from Medicare over five years.

OK. Give him a break. A presidential budget is an opening bid, not an attempt at stating a consensus.

But is it sound? If former Republican Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton led a budget commission like their Iraq Study Group, what would they say?

They would hardly need to rewrite their cover letter. “There is no magic formula … . However, there are actions that can be taken to improve the situation and protect American interests,” they said in the Iraq report. “Many Americans are dissatisfied, not just with the situation…but with the state of our political debate … . Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric, and a policy that is adequately funded and sustainable.”

William Gale of the Brookings Institution think tank — populated by deficit-fearing Democratic wonks who have been trying to find common ground with deficit-fearing Republican wonks — has been thinking a lot lately about the parallels between Mr. Bush on Iraq and Mr. Bush on the budget.

“The Bush administration’s two signature policies have been the war in Iraq and consistent pressure for tax cuts,” he argues. “On the surface, they look quite different and were advocated by different parts of the administration. Look a little deeper and some common patterns emerge — so maybe this says something about the principles or management style of the Bush administration.”

It is a provocative and illuminating exercise. Let Mr. Gale kick it off: The president took the U.S. into Iraq with “falsely rosy scenarios” about the post-Saddam landscape there, he says. Mr. Bush built his tax cuts in 2001 on a similarly unrealistic hope that the budget surplus was large enough to cut taxes without creating deficits.

Let us keep going. As Iraq proved different and more difficult than anticipated, and contingency planning was regarded by the Bush White House as a sign of weakness, rather than prudence, Mr. Bush vowed to “stay the course.” When then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan argued for “triggers” to undo tax cuts if budget reality didn’t match projections, the White House scoffed. Even when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drove spending on homeland security and the military far above projections, Mr. Bush didn’t revisit his fiscal strategy.

Smart critics, even inside the administration, were disregarded and shunned. (Gen. Eric Shinseki on troops levels in Iraq, Treasury Secretary O’Neill on deficits.) Only true believers remained to give the president advice. Eventually, Mr. Bush changed his team — hiring new secretaries of defense and Treasury — but too late to get credit from the public or to forge bipartisan consensus in Congress.

But look ahead, and there is an unwelcome parallel between Iraq and the budget. Current policy is unsustainable, but there is no easy way out. Extend the president’s tax cuts beyond their scheduled expiration in 2009 and 2010, and the fiscal hole is enormous. Let them expire, and the tax increases could derail the economy.

Messrs. Baker and Hamilton had little apparent effect on the president’s Iraq policy. Maybe they would have better luck on economics.

In other words, denial is not a solution. And refusal to take advice from independent sources is not necessarily the same as steadfastness.

[late addition: I just realized that Mark Thoma already posted on this topic, at least the Wessel article. Those are the perils of blogging before looking at the competition.]

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8 thoughts on “Is a 12 Step Program Needed for Policymaking in Washington?

  1. dryfly

    [late addition: I just realized that Mark Thoma already posted on this topic, at least the Wessel article. Those are the perils of blogging before looking at the competition.]
    Yes but your take is your take & Mark Thoma’s is his… we appreciate the different view. If we wanted one view we’d only watch/read the MSM and know ‘bliss’…

  2. DickF

    Yes, a Twelve Step Program is needed in Washington but on Capitol Hill not in the White House. Any elementary civics student knows that it is congress who controls spending.
    Congress has two serious additions. The first is obvious, an addiction to spending. Like most substance abusers in their delusion they change the meaning of words and phrases to support their denial. Familiar to us all, to congress a spending cut means a cut in the budgeted growth of spending. When was the last time there was NO increase in the budget in absolute terms?
    But the second addiction is seldom discussed nor even realized, an addiction to inflation. Inflation is an insidious termite that eats at the foundation of the economy. The US has been eating away at the prosperity from two world wars. Ever so slowly the rest of the world is catching up and may soon pass by.
    But as the Twelve Step Program states, the addict, congress, must first admit that it has a problem, but this admission will never be sincere as long as they persist in their self-serving double-speak, and in their blindness to the danger of the inflation rot that forces COLA adjustments and increases in the minimum wage.
    And blaming it on the White House makes one what the substance abuse programs call an enabler.

  3. bob ebersole

    Tweve step programs are also predicated on turning over a persons will and life to the care of God as you understand him, and the pinciples of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness, none of which are acceptable in Washington. let alone the principle of anonimnity.
    There is a Christian story that sums up the poblem. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the devil offered him all the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus would just bow down and worship him. Jesus passed on the deal, but it sure looks like the Republicans and the Democrats took it.

  4. calmo

    Hi bob. Thanks for filling out the spectrum here as I’m sure most Christians are too busy prayin…
    Me too.
    Just not too sure about why the devil needs to be a ‘him’.
    Or why I shouldn’t, in the interests of filling out the other side of the spectrum, take on the role of an out-and-out Nihilist who inexplicably posts this incognito…
    But this looks like it could come from GWB himself:

    Tweve step programs are also predicated on turning over a persons will and life to the care of God as you understand him,

    and that religious zeal makes a lot of people, even Nihilists like me, nervous.
    Glad you are still talking (somewhat) to us and not your Caretaker.

  5. DickF

    Menzie wrote:
    DickF: Yes, but civics students also know that the President has a tool called the veto.
    Apparently not this president. 🙂
    If this guy won’t veto ridiculous spending bills I don’t think we can expect him to actually veto an entire budget. Remeber he doesn’t have line-item-veto so he would have to veto the whole thing. That would take someone with more guts than this guy.

  6. leapfrog

    There should be a SarBox rule for congress. Each Legislator and his top aid would sign a pledge that no vote was influenced by contributions,that each vote was in the best interest of the country.
    Might give contributors pause.

  7. leapfrog

    I absolutely love your Sarbanes-Oxley idea.
    I think it was Ron Paul who introduced a bill some time ago requiring each spending bill to have a statement on it indicating where in the constitution congress was given the power to pass the spending into law. Needless to say it did not pass.

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