I’m sure you were shocked by the wanton display by a politician last week, a man who surely knows better but was so blinded by his ego and insulated by his base that he felt he could get away with anything.
No, not Anthony Weiner, the Larry Craig of the left. I’m taking about our own Dick Shelby.
More cogent scribes than I have already deplored the condition of a free press that, faced with the challenge of reporting the most daunting economic disaster in 70 years, chooses a simple rand more sensational route to readership by covering the eccentricities of exhibitionists, both Democratic and Republican. That’s why you’ve read so little about Alabama’s senior Senator and his blatant power play to combat competency.
When a vacancy to the Federal Reserve Board came open in April last year, President Obama appointed Dr. Peter Diamond to the post. A brilliant economist at MIT with a skill set in unemployment, the lifelong Red Sox fan won a Nobel Prize in the dismal science along with two collaborators “for their analysis of markets with search frictions.”
Perhaps because he’s gung-ho for the Social Security system or maybe just because he’s a pointy-headed intellectual appointed by That Democratic President, Diamond’s appointment encountered tough headwaters as soon as it reached Capitol Hill, as hydraulically unlikely as that metaphor sounds. First Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, issued his opinion that, based on his qualifications, Diamond was not the right person for the job. Then the right-wing Club for Growth (which gives Dick an 83 percent approval rating) asserted that “Diamond is an activist-Keynesian who believes in a much larger role for government involvement in the economy,” as though the Federal Reserve Board were not already chin deep in manipulating the U.S. economy.
Finally, Shelby, determined that Diamond should not get an up-or-down vote on his appointment by the full Senate, simply put a hold on the nomination. Senators are permitted to thwart democracy in just this fashion. It was supposed to be different in this term of Congress; in February the Senate established a ban on secret holds as part of a bipartisan rules reform. Dick plays by his own rules, of course, and majority rule is one that seems particularly uninteresting to him.
“It is clear to many of us that he does not possess the appropriate background, experience or policy preferences to serve,” Shelby said of the Nobel laureate, but it’s a statement many of us have made about Dick Shelby. After all, he didn’t graduate with a degree in economics from the University of Alabama—he may not even have taken a class in it—and about all the experience Dick has with banking is depositing checks. Hegets a lot of those, especially from financial institutions who count on him to vote right.
Another of Dick’s objections was, “I do not believe that the current environment of uncertainty would benefit from monetary policy decisions made by board members who are learning on the job,” though, as The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein observed, nobody appointed to the Federal Reserve Board has ever served on the Federal Reserve Board before, so one is obliged to learn on the job.
Dr. Diamond had enough at last, withdrawing his name from futile consideration, but not before making an observation or two of his own. “We should all worry about how distorted the confirmation process has become, and how little understanding of monetary policy there is among some of those responsible for its Congressional oversight,” he opined in The New York Times.“ Analytical expertise is needed to…make government more effective and efficient. Skilled analytical thinking should not be drowned out by mistaken, ideologically driven views that more is always better or less is always better.”
Which makes me think of Sarah Palin, the Republican exhibitionist, although she daily reminds us how little we need to waste braincells parsing her views. In her most recent commentary on American history, standing outside Old North Church near Ground Zero of the Revolutionary War, she characterized Paul Revereas, “He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and, um, making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.”
Most of us in the Lower 48 remember the equestrian silversmith as riding by night to warn the colonists, not the British, that the British were coming, but Mooselini (the snappy Hart Williams’s coinage) decided to stick with her explanation the morning after, saying, “Part of his ride was to warn the British that we’re already there. That, hey, you’re not going to succeed. You’re not going to take American arms.’’
What one might glean is that, once one is taken seriously by the press, he or she need not be well-versed in economics or history to make influential pronouncements on either, though history is easier to fudge because there’s no arithmetic involved. (Indeed, it looks as though Palin partisans attempted unsuccessfully to re-edit the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere to make his history conform more closely with Palin’s telling of it.)
At the Bob Dylan birthday party last month, I chatted briefly with a local teacher of ninth grade English. I asked her if the students she’s encountering now generally have the same skills that her classmates or mine would have had at that level, and she said no. Asked if it was possible to, for lack of a better word, rehab the kids with substandard literacy, she again replied in the negative.
Dick Shelby, Sarah Palin, yes, Anthony Weiner and those hapless ninth-grade kids are all woeful bellwethers of a dumbing-down in America taking place just when we need clear thinking of the highest order.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org