Monday, June 15, 2009

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!

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“Get me out of here! Get me out of here!” The young woman was trapped in her smashed car, screaming from panic and the pain of a broken leg. Two burley bystanders forced the door open and extricated her. The panic subsided and she no longer felt the pain of her broken leg. That “improvement” was terrible. Her lower spinal cord was damaged by the twisting required to get her out of the smashed car and she would never use her legs again. Her “benefactors” were fortunate that a Good Samaritan law protected them from lawsuits. However they had to live with the knowledge that a fellow human was paralyzed because of their actions. Had they waited two minutes, a fire truck would have arrived with equipment and trained people. The woman would have been rescued correctly and would have retained the use of her legs.

In many human affairs the most difficult task is to do nothing. Watching a fellow human scream in pain or fear. Standing by as a child suffers the consequences of his actions. Refusing to use the force of government to provide a quick fix to economic problems. All such inactions expose us to the charge of being heartless do-nothings. The temptation, often nearly irresistible, is to do something, even if it's wrong. It is a temptation we must learn to resist. As a search and rescue volunteer I've learned that the first rule of rescue is “Do no harm.” That rule is not limited to search and rescue but also applies to medicine and many other human activities, including parenting and government.

In parenting, it's easy to feel sorry for our children. Suppose a son's ball breaks a neighbor's window. It is tempting to think that we are showing love to the child by paying for the repair instead of demanding that the son pay. After all, it may take the son weeks or even months to earn the required amount of money, while that money may be only a fraction of a parent's income. But what has that child learned from the experience? “No need to be careful, Mommy or Daddy will take care of me. I'm not responsible for the fact that I disobeyed and played ball near that window.” If not corrected, that attitude can grow with the child to such thoughts as “I'm not responsible for losing my job, that mean boss just doesn't understand that I'm not a morning person and can't be expected to be at work on time.” The child may end up crippled in attitude and emotions, quite as effectively as the woman in the car wreck was crippled by her misguided rescuers.

In medicine, physicians regularly face patients who demand antibiotics for viral infections. If the doctor refuses, the patient, or patient's parent, is likely to complain to everybody he knows and take his business elsewhere. The easy way out is to just prescribe those antibiotics, even though they have no effect on a virus. However by so doing the doctor becomes complicit in the creation of resistant strains of bacteria.

The temptation to take inappropriate action is perhaps nowhere stronger than in government and politics. Any national leader who stands by in the face of what appears to be a serious problem will almost certainly be called a do-nothing and is not likely to be re-elected. If he takes action people may hail him as a decisive leader, counterproductive though that action may turn out to be. In fact it is often easier for a leader to take credit for the supposed benefit of an ineffective program than it would be to explain why it was better to take no action at all.

This is especially true of economic problems, though it was not always so. In times past we lacked the quick transmission of news that we have today. Lacking such instant information, voters did not instantly know about national economic issues and hence were much less likely to pressure government officials to solve them. For example in 1907 the country faced a recession which included a run on the Knickerbocker Trust Company. That bank was forced to close, then banks throughout the country reacted to the “panic” by restriction of payments. That imposed a serious inconvenience on depositors and borrowers. However the government did not intervene and the whole recession only lasted 13 months, with the severe phase lasting only half that long. Knickerbocker Trust re-opened in March of 1908.

Contrast that to the “Great Depression” which which started with many similarities to the recession of 1907. Franklin Roosevelt and his administration responded with all the power of the federal government. That one lasted over ten years and ended only with the start of World War II. Though Roosevelt claimed credit for getting the country out of that depression, many economists (including at least one Nobel winner) are convinced that government action prolonged and worsened the problem. That action moved responsibility from individuals and families to a growing government. It also diverted resources from individuals and companies to the government for the benefit of those in need. While the intent was good, the results were at least questionable.

Today we face a similar situation. We have serious economic problems, created in part by government pressure on banks to provide mortgages to people who didn't qualify for them, and in part by business people and others who made dumb decisions. As a “solution” the federal government is directing tremendous resources to various programs to bail out the foolish and the unfortunate. Those resources are not being created by magic, government cannot do that. Instead government is diverting citizen income and borrowing against future generations in an attempt to solve this problem. I for one am convinced that those measures will prolong and worsen the problem. In fact this recession has already lasted longer than the one of 1907 which resolved itself without government intervention.

Indeed, there are similarities between the current government action and the precipitous acts of bystanders “rescuing” an accident victim. We've had action without adequate analysis as for example when the president managed to get a bailout proposal passed before our representatives even had time to read it. Many, even some in his own party, are now realizing that the program is not working. That should be no surprise; action without adequate thinking almost always causes problems instead of solving them.

Sadly, the president is now urging more government action without taking time to evaluate all aspects of the program. He is claiming that health care reform is urgent and must be done immediately. That sounds again like a rush to judgment, almost a panic mode of decision-making. Yet he has not explained just why it is so urgent now. Why cannot we take a few more months with the current situation to make sure we do things right?

Can our economy survive the assault of our well-intentioned government? I hope so. We do have great resources in this country, especially our entrepreneurial people if they are unleashed. Adam Smith's comparison may be apt. He likened the economy to a body that recovers “in spite, not only of the disease, but of the absurd prescriptions of the doctor.” Remember that Smith lived in the 1700's when a typical doctor's prescription included bleeding the patient. I rather suspect that many of our government remedies today are the economic equivalent of taking a pint or two of valuable blood from a sick person.

As citizens we need to ask for restraint and thought, not precipitous action.

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