Of Global Poverty and Washington’s Struggles

It was tough getting out of Washington this evening.  You might suppose that with the partial shut down of the federal government, traffic in Washington would be on the light side.  I have not seen much evidence of it on the streets of the city or in the Washington suburbs.  I know that many, many people must be out of work, because the establishment media keep saying so, television and radio.

I do not refer, however, to experiencing the normal evening outbound Washington traffic.  Traffic was unusually heavy today, especially on 19th Street, N.W., south of Pennsylvania Avenue.  The world financial diplomats are back in town to attend fancy parties in the cause of poverty.  For several blocks the lanes were clogged, nose to tail, with their black limousines.  The global party goers gather in D.C. each October two out of every three years (they take one year off to congregate somewhere else for variety).  The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are holding their annual meetings as they have for going on 7 decades.

Inching along 19th Street, which is Main Street for the World Bank and the IMF (they have bought up nearly all of the Washington real estate between the White House complex and George Washington University), I was able to have a long, good study of a series of monster posters draping the north side of one of the World Bank office buildings, posters reaching no less than eight stories high, proclaiming the simple bold motto, “End Poverty.”  That is a good idea, probably the product of a high level committee of experts tasked with developing a theme for the Annual Meetings.  It conveys a sense of purpose, a reach for meaning.  The professional poverty bureaucrats have done little to end global poverty, but they have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain it—at least judging by the results.

In all fairness, perhaps the annual World Bank/IMF festivities help to fight poverty in the Capital Region.  Washington, D.C., and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs are already thriving from the Administration’s economic stimulus program.  They have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, with the exception of the pockets where the energy fracking revolution is booming.  Nevertheless, at least for a while Washington is drawing money from the rest of the World as it does every day from the rest of the United States.

Focusing on ending poverty is a good idea, and there are ways to do it.  Undoubtedly, much of the discussion, however, in the IMF and World Bank meetings this week has focused on the budget and economic crisis in the United States.  “Dysfunctional” is surely a common word used in conversation by the visiting diplomats in the salons to describe the condition of the U.S. Government, since that is the label regularly applied by the establishment media talking heads, and it would resonate.  The vast majority of the financial officials attending come from nations where government is much more efficient.  Their economies may be dysfunctional, but their governments are models of efficiency.  What the big guy in the big office in the big house wants he gets.

The American system is a lot messier.  The big guy in the room without corners in the big White House does not seem to be getting what he wants, at least not since the 2010 election.  After that election that put a majority of opposition Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, and reelected them in 2012, he has declared his intention to govern without Congress.

The last couple of weeks have brought home to the President that he cannot quite do without Congress.  Congress still has some role, albeit one greatly diminished from that extended to it by the Constitution.  It turns out that the “government shutdown” actually has shut down no more than 17% of Federal Government operations; 83% continues to pump along spending money with no attention by Congress needed.

The chief executive is trying to magnify that 17% by making its absence as painful as possible, the rest of us the insect absorbing the sun’s rays under the focus of the glass in the President’s hand.  The executive hope is that public pressure will force the Congress to surrender what remains of its authority and agree to whatever the President demands, backing away from asserting any policy role of its own.  Just give the President a clean bill to keep doing what he has been doing, and move along.

Congress is not making that easy, passing bill after bill to open or ameliorate this or that hardship.  The President has rejected nearly every effort.  Of course, that is odd if you buy the rhetoric from the White House that the Congress has taken hostages.  Working with that metaphor, I know of no hostage examples where anyone having the interests of the hostages at heart would object to release of any one of them.  Who would send the released hostages back to their captors and say, “we will receive no freed hostages until you free them all”?  Yet that is the White House position.  Who is hurt by that?

You would not hear such questioning from the establishment media.  They are doing their best to hide the fact that what we are experiencing is a constitutional crisis, a battle that our Founders anticipated, which is why they created a structure of shared power that requires cooperation of all branches and domination by none.  The media are happy demeaning the struggle as a sporting event with winners and losers, and time clocks, and sports commentators, and favorite teams.

They miss the central point.  We cannot suffer to have any team “win”, and we are not spectators at a stadium.  Our freedom is at stake.  The design of the Constitution is that there can be little governing without all three branches being involved, the whole nation and its many parts represented.  Today we are engaged in a great struggle testing whether that structure of government, limited to prevent tyranny by either the President, the Congress, or the Courts, can endure.  So far it has.  The partial government shut down is the evidence.  Were that to end by either one branch or the other capitulating—rather than House, Senate, and President coming together—it is our freedom that would suffer.  There would remain much less check on the arbitrary and capricious actions of the victor.

Many of the elite financial diplomats at the World Bank/IMF meetings would understand that result and feel right at home.  American government, for 200 years a mystery to the rest of the world, would then become much more understandable and familiar to them.

Of the World Bank and Washington Parties

Last evening and this afternoon I was in Washington, D.C. That would be an unremarkable statement, since I work in Washington. But I am not often there in the evening and even less often on a Saturday afternoon. I was in Washington at those unusual times because my son, I’ll call him Peter, was participating in a choral program at a church in the city.

I write this to explain why in the world I would be in Washington not only on a Friday night and a Saturday afternoon, but of all weekends, on the weekend when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are having their annual meetings. Two out of every three years they hold their joint meetings in the capital of the Free World, the third year somewhere else. They like holding their meetings in the capital of the Free World because they are very much interested in the capital of the Free World.

Finance ministers, government economic development experts, and related hangers on from all over the globe gather to talk about poverty and economic hardship in the poor countries and how the rich countries have an obligation to channel more money in the direction of the poor countries. They have been doing this for something over 65 years. And yet, with a few exceptions, the poor countries seem to remain poor, the most notable growth being in the number of poor countries.

Early in my career in Washington, back in the early 1980s, these meetings used to be a lot of fun. The world’s largest commercial banks would hold lavish parties. In those days the big banks, encouraged by the IMF, the World Bank, and their own governments, were big into lending money to the poor countries, billions and billions of dollars. That money was supposed to fuel economic growth by funding big projects that politicians could take credit for and where they could have their pictures taken at elaborate ribbon cutting ceremonies. The projects were started, some of them built, but very little economic development resulted. The poor nations were not very good at paying back the loans. In the mid-1980s it almost destroyed the banks. Since then, they have gotten out of that business. They stopped holding the parties, too.

Walking through Washington last night and this afternoon I could see nevertheless that lavish parties were still going on. I am not sure who was hosting them. I think that at least some were sponsored by non-profit groups. But they were still lavish. It was very difficult getting past the fanciest hotels and restaurants and some of the popular museums. Stretch limos were packed in as the financial leaders of these poor countries were climbing out and milling around, dressed in tuxedos, evening dresses, and pricey jewelry, to hear speeches from well-paid development experts, delivering their latest reports on the tough financial times and their clever theories about the obligations of rich nations like the United States to send more money to the poor nations.

This afternoon we walked by Lafayette Square, within earshot of a group of protesters in front of the White House. Somebody was bellowing through a bullhorn. I could not quite make out what he was chanting. I think it had something to do with the World Bank and IMF not giving poor nations enough money. As I say, I could not quite make it out. My son said it sounded all the world like,

No more pencils,
No more books,
No more teachers’
Dirty looks.

(First published September 24, 2011)

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