Though it seems impossible, everyday we hear newer and more inane arguments for why the torturing Bushies and economy-busting Wall Streeters shouldn't have to answer all our pesky questions and, you know, live with the consequences of all their besting and brightest-ing.
At Salon, Michael Lind (a former colleague) dispenses quickly with this latest argument, of which he offers the following examples:
Government service already asks a lot of individuals. It entails sacrifice, pays little, and often violates privacy. Adding risk of prosecution to the mix will make recruiting the best and brightest that much more difficult.
As for our Wall Street geniuses:
For example, in March, Edward Liddy, appointed chairman of A.I.G. by the federal government, objected to government rules limiting the compensation of banks and other companies bailed out by the taxpayers: "We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to lead and staff the A.I.G. businesses—which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers—if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury." Similarly, when there was a public outcry regarding the $3.6 billion in bonuses being paid to Merrill Lynch employees because the securities firm had lost over $27 billion in 2008, John Thain, the former CEO, said, "If we don't pay our people well, we won't be able to keep the best and the brightest."
Like Lind, what is either most appalling or funniest, depending on your mood, is the use of "best and brightest" without the sneer quotes. Are these people serious? The best and brightest do not think torture is a brilliant idea, either tactically, morally or legally. They do not fabricate evidence so as to invade those who didn't attack us while twiddling their thumbs over those who did. The best and brightest do not run our economy off the rails with knuckle-headed Ponzi schemes that Homer Simpson would think too stupid. By definition: these are not the best and brightest. As for A.I.G. "operated principally on behalf of the American taxpayer"-- Hey, 'best and brightest'? Why is that? Cuz y'all are so civic-minded or 'cuz the American taxpayer had to save you from yourselves like a buncha college kids with their first credit cards?
If anything, both DC and Wall Street need a fierce reminder that malfeasance will actually be punished (now that the GOP is out) leaving room for the truly best (i.e. good character) and actually brightest (i.e. smart enough to know that torture and bottomless greed don't work out so well long term). A fierce reminder like appropriate punishment. As Lind puts it:
Since Watergate, it's been generally known that if the president orders you to burgle the rival party's campaign headquarters you can go to jail if you obey him, and yet there is no shortage of talented people eager to serve in the executive branch, often at great sacrifice in time and income.
As for the Wall Street:
Where will the best and the brightest of the financial sector flee, to get away from regulation and earn obscenely high salaries? Not Canada, where tight regulation of banks prevented the kind of meltdown that has occurred in the U.S. Nor Australia, where similar strict banking regulations also spared that country's financial sector. London, Singapore or Dubai are sometimes mentioned as possible rival financial centers that would be eager to welcome the kind of overpaid financiers who wrecked the U.S. and global economy. Most Americans, I think, would agree that it is worth the risk. The voluntary expatriation of leading Wall Street geniuses might help to restore the U.S. economy and wreck potential rival financial capitals at the same time. The thought brings to mind the observation by a wag on the defection in the 1970s by John Connally from the Democrats to the Republicans: "He raised the IQ of both parties."
Since Nixon, and once we're post-financial apocalypse, those entering these professions are much more like to accept their moral and legal limitations if only for fear of repercussions. My eight year old knows that: he doesn't refrain from whomping his little sister out of brotherly love but out of fear of my reaction. The Bushies and the Wall Streeters were looters, plain and simple, running amok in the lawless chaos that were the Bush years. Best and brightest? Ha. They're not even smarter than my second grader.
We can't help but do much, much better in the future: goodbye to the bad rubbish of our current "best and brightest," terrified by the notion of public accountability. And good luck to whichever hapless shores they might wash up on.