Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Opaque transparency

One of the first things I noticed after moving to Washington 20 years ago -- other than, of course, the ubiquity of Volvo station wagons, men who wore, without the slightest trace of embarrassment, Timex Ironman watches and soft-soled Rockports with their with suits, women who dressed like librarians or camp counselors or nature guides and what seemed like an eternal quest by men and women who wore Timex Ironman watches and dressed like nature guides to make their lives resemble as closely as possible a pictorial essay from the L.L. Bean catalogue -- were the verbal tics that crept into the public pronouncements of the very important people governing and instructing the country.

From late 1989 until sometime into late 1995, the word "Draconian" became the adjective of choice for every public official, commentator, talking head, journalist, Washington Post-appointed "expert," academic wanting visibility in the media, lobbyist and all-purpose Washington Insider.

"A conservative Supreme Court would have a Draconian impact on reproductive rights," a liberal pro-choice activist might say.

"The Bush tax increases will have a Draconian impact on economic growth," a Heritage Foundation economist would moan.

"A government shutdown will have Draconian consequences for the distribution of government services," a concerned non-partisan official from the partisan Congressional Budget Office would warn.

"Unless we form a bi-partisan commission to determine how to best resolve the use of the word Draconian, we will end up with a Draconian mess that will stall the legislative process," . . . this, according to Norman Ornstein, Resident Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

And on and on and on . . . until one day when the word Draconian just sort of left the vocabulary of the nation's capital. Every once in a while, some expert or former administration official yapping away on CNN might use the word Draconian to describe this or that, say the president's annual proposal to privatize social security or invade a foreign country, with Canadian marijuana growers pushing their country onto the danger list. But people might just look at him in the way that Washington insiders look at a woman with a hemline above the knee or a 43 year-old man who still likes rock music and doesn't mind admitting he thinks that motorcycle chicks are secretly hot or a well-informed, independent-minded person who believed Tim Russert was a probably a pretty nice guy who loved his wife and son, but was less a journalist than an effective game show host. That kind of, "Oh, really?" look or comment that really says you can't be serious or that knowing look between two up-and-coming Washington Ken and Barbie Dolls that confirms their mutual belief that the new 22 year-old intern with the killer 4" stiletto heels collection was probably the campus slut because she shopped at Banana Republic instead of ordering from the Land's End catalogue and doesn't own a pair of really ugly ergonomic water moccasins that fuse the worst of ballerina slippers with children's corrective shoes.

* * * * * * * * * *

Washington's new favorite word, in case you haven't noticed, is "transparent." To be transparent is a good thing. Government programs must be transparent, as must be the decision-making process that led to those programs. Transparency is good when we talk about budgets, finances, campaign laws, inspector general reports, batting averages, nutritional information, the amount of actual fruit juice in fruit juice cocktails and the active ingredient in over-the-counter sinus medication. Much like "deconstruction" was the buzzword in academia in the 1980s and the phrase "path dependence" was in the 1990s, "transparent" has become the preferred verbal currency of those in-the-know in the 2000s, especially for those concerned about "the process." But there is a key difference between "deconstruction" and "path dependence" on the one hand, and "transparent" on the other: the first two words have an academic component while "transparent" is used not to breakdown or analyze the family unit or explain why some states provide more or less social benefits than others. Transparent enters the vocabulary when administrators, whether Treasury secretaries, Federal Reserve chairmen or colleges presidents and deans are attempting to reassure their subjects that the Draconian steps they are about to take to resolve a financial crisis or deny an assistant professor tenure are taken in full public view so that we can all see and understand what is about to happen.

That's the difference. What those words have in common is that they don't really mean anything at all. They just sound like they do.

Earlier this week, Secretary Henry Paulson attempted to reassure the few dozen people not preoccupied with the National League wildcard race or Britney Spears reconcilation with her mother that the government-led bailout of Wall Street would not come at the expense of transparency. But, when you include these kinds of powers for yourself in the legislation, how much does remaining transparent really matter?

"Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency."

That's transparent all right. You think the Commissioner of Baseball's power to take any action in the best interest of major league baseball is impressive? How about having complete decision-making power over the nation's investment sector and barring anyone from challenging anything you do in court? Even putting aside the fact that the payrolls of the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers are probably close, over a 2-3 year period, to the $700 billion being floated as the initial starting point of the government's financial commitment to reward the Titans of Industry who refused to wear their seat belts, bike helmets, flotation devices before heading into the wild, the Treasury Secretary, under this legislation, would have almost half as much power as Dick Cheney or my nine-and-a-half year-old teen-age daughter.

So transparent is Paulson's determination to centralize authority in himself -- forget just one or two federal agencies -- that it can only be described as "Draconian."

There you have it. A new phrase for the 2010's: Draconian transparency.

You heard it here first. Now, I think I'll go buy a new Volvo and spruce up my fall wardrobe with a new red polar fleece vest.

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