“Governments can err, Presidents can make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us, that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in the spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. “
–President Franklin Roosevelt, speaking in 1936
FDR wasn’t the only US leader to warn against the sin of political indifference. His statement above echoes a passionate 1834 speech by Congressional leader Daniel Webster, urging positive government action to foster economic growth in the face of a stubborn recession.
“Who among the agents and servants of the people assembled in these Houses, is prepared, in the present distressed state of the country, to say, that he will oppose every thing, and propose nothing?” Webster thunders. Read the whole thing here.
In his attack on political indifference, FDR referred the Italian poet Dante’s Divine Comedy. But FDR could have just as well referred to a great American author, Edgar Allan Poe.
In 1842, Poe wrote a fascinating short story called The Masque of the Red Death, which is all about the dangers of political indifference.
It tells the saga of an arrogant, aloof leader, Prince Prospero, whose land is beset by a terrible plague. Rather than trying to find the origin of the plague, or assisting his people to survive it, Prospero hides out in a secure location with his closest friends and prepares to simply wait out the plague – totally unmoved by the plight of those outside. (Poe’s imagination reserves a fitting end for the Prince, which I won’t reveal here.)
But now to more contemporary concerns.
Is it fair to brand the Obama Administration as indifferent to the economic distress faced by Americans in 2010? President Obama does not seem personally indifferent in the same way as Poe’s Prospero – although his (since repudiated) remarks about people who “cling to guns or religion…or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” come pretty close.
But I’m not sure the same can be said of his top economic advisors. On what are probably the three most important economic issues today — foreclosures, community bank failures and the difficulties facing US manufacturing (the most logical driver for an economic recovery) – the Obama Administration’s economic brain trust has content, in so many words and ways, to tell people to just wait things out.
These economic advisors are politically so out of touch that not even the prospect of a massive Democratic defeat in November can rouse them to action.
Their inaction may not reflect any personal indifference on the part of the President, but it passes for a fair imitation of the real thing. Imitation or not, the political price that the President will pay for his economic advisors’ indifference will be high.
After November, as FDR might say, President Obama may wish that he’d hired fewer “cold-blooded” advisors (like soon-to-depart National Economic Council head Larry Summers) and committed more “warm-hearted” mistakes.