Mr. Sumner Goes to Washington
By David Henderson
Scott Sumner has posted an interesting story about his trip to Washington last week. Some highlights along with my comments in square brackets:
6. During the day I attended a bunch of foreign policy panels. It was interesting to see what these are like, although I can’t really process foreign policy discussion very well. It seems like lots of words, without clear meaning. I couldn’t tell you why we [sic] intervened in Libya and not Syria, except I gather that it’s complicated. There doesn’t seem to be a model, but then maybe there can’t be a model-I certainly don’t have any suggestions. [I do, by the way, as people who have read some of my www.antiwar.com columns know. It has to do with using the same kinds of analyses of dispersed information and unintended consequences that many of us economists use to analyze domestic economic policy. For more on why I put [sic] after Scott’s “we,” read this and this.]
7. My favorite speaker was Google’s Sebastian Thune, who remarked that California was wasting a fortune on a train that would connect two obscure Central Valley towns in 2020, by which time self-driving cars would be more energy efficient (and convenient) than high speed rail. His friend remarked that in-vitro meat could cut agricultural greenhouse emissions by 95%. (I doubt it.) Both seemed to think policymakers in Washington were clueless about technology.
8. Hillary Clinton is an impressive speaker, but not likable. I have nothing to say about her views on foreign policy. But in response to a final question on drugs (from a Latin American reporter), she said drug legalization would do no good because drug dealers are really bad people, and they would simply do other crimes. No discussion of how America’s murder rate fell in half after alcohol was legalized in 1933. I think she’d be even worse (from a libertarian perspective) than Obama-and that’s an already low bar for a Democrat.
9. Before she entered the room there was a hushed feeling, like the President was about to appear. People in Washington seem to worship power.
I noticed this last, worshipping power, my first day as a White House intern when I was 22. Here’s an excerpt from “A Tour of Washington,” a chapter in my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey:
During the summer of 1973, I had been hired as a summer intern by the Council of Economic Advisers. The president at the time was Richard Nixon. I had applied a few months earlier, and although my professors had supported me with reference letters, two of them had made snide comments about my timing–I would be going to the White House at the peak of the Watergate scandal. One professor pointed out that most rats try to get off a sinking ship, but I was like a rat trying to get on. Their lack of support made me feel very lonely. Later I understood that their attitude wasn’t about me, but about their contempt toward Nixon.
I was feeling vulnerable at the time, with no support from my professors and with very little money in the bank. With my last few hundred dollars, I purchased an airline ticket to Washington, D.C. and off I went. After a long red-eye flight, I finally arrived in downtown D.C. As I exited the cab and turned around to look at the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB), I was shocked to see a huge red flag with a hammer and sickle above the OEOB. Maybe it was jet lag, or maybe it was the fact that I had slept less than an hour on the plane, but I felt a second of absolute terror, thinking that the Soviets had taken over Washington in the middle of the night. I saw people around me walking normally as if nothing unusual had happened, dismissed my immediate paranoid thought about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and realized that the Soviets hadn’t invaded. While I waited in the front waiting room of the OEOB to be let past the Secret Service agents, I asked one of them what the Soviet flag was there for. He answered, in an officious, self-important tone that I was to hear lots of–in every possible accent, from people at every possible level, on every day I was to be in Washington–that Soviet leader Brezhnev was visiting and that this was done to welcome him. Some welcome, I thought. I wondered which of the world’s other tyrants would get such a welcome. I found out later that summer. When the Shah of Iran visited, sure enough, a huge green Iranian flag flew over the Old Executive Office Building. I learned, talking to the various secretaries and economists I met that day,that no one found it odd. Here was Brezhnev, who represented a government that had murdered tens of millions of people, more than Hitler’s government had, and had never openly admitted it, let alone apologized for it, and people were matter-of-factly accepting that government’s flag. Maybe there was something to my thought of the body snatchers after all. I knew literally from day one of my time in Washington that this was a strange place.