Maybe it overstates the case to call the Federal Reserve chairman a "political hack," as Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) did, but Alan Greenspan does appear to be acting more as apologist for the Bush administration than as wise and independent elder -- a far more valuable role.
Maybe I should have suspected a shift in Greenspan's role early in George W. Bush's first term, when the longtime chairman's support of the president's proposal for a massive tax cut for the richest Americans virtually ensured its passage. But the Treasury was enjoying a heady surplus at the time, and I thought Greenspan was being merely pragmatic when he said we could afford to cut taxes and continue the debt reduction scheme initiated by Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton. Greenspan even murmured something about undoing the tax cut if the projections for the surplus proved wrong.
But when the country slipped into deficit, Greenspan supported the president's attempt to make the tax cuts permanent.
As always, the support was couched in the oracular verbiage that renders Greenspan's pronouncements both impressive and somewhat unintelligible.
Now he has announced his support for the president's assault on Social Security, explaining that the borrowing necessary to ensure promised benefits for future retirees would drive up interest rates and harm the economy. His proposal for fixing the problem is to cut benefits and raise the age at which they begin. Like the president, he refuses to consider rolling back the tax cuts as any part of the solution.
It is possible, of course, that the Fed chairman just happens to believe what the man who reappointed him believes.
The problem, though, is that you have to be more than slightly naive to accept such an explanation -- unless you have your own reasons for supporting their mutual policy.
This -- for me, at least -- is not a small matter. One by one, I'm being deprived of the independent sources that I have found so valuable in reaching my own conclusions.
Please understand that I'm not speaking of sources that reflect my own philosophy. I used to profit from reading certain conservative columnists because they helped me to see America from a different point of view. Now many of those once-helpful pundits have become (so it seems to me) mere partisans for particular politicians -- less concerned with their independence than with political victory.
Similarly with certain "think tanks" I used to rely on for a different -- often stimulating -- take on things. I knew they weren't politically neutral, but I knew I could factor in their predispositions while I looked at their facts and figures. Now, in too many cases, I find the facts and figures themselves suspect.
Nor is it just conservative institutions that have left me in the intellectual lurch. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, once a valuable influence on the White House because of its ability to speak uncomfortable truth to power, has largely been reduced to a forum for partisan squabbling.
Am I worrying too much? I don't think so. We're running around trying to create democracies all over the world while forgetting that what makes democracies work is not just the ballot but the existence of institutions and agencies that enjoy near-universal public trust. We are incredibly lucky, for instance, to have a nonpolitical military. We may know that military personnel tend to be more conservative than the population as a whole, but the military as an institution is expected to be free of political interest.
The Supreme Court was another such institution -- perhaps still is for a majority of Americans. But who can doubt that the court's resort to what appeared to be political partisanship (as in the settlement of the 2000 presidential vote in Florida) reduced the public's trust?
And there is the Federal Reserve Board. Let me be clear: I was personally disappointed when former secretary of state Colin Powell used suspect evidence to back his boss's desire to launch a war against Iraq. But I understand that secretaries of state are members of administrations. They may argue against a policy behind closed doors. But once the president has decided, they are expected not to go public with their independent notions to the contrary.
The Fed is supposed to be independent, and the apparent politicization of its chairman threatens not only to make his pronouncements less weighty but also to render the institution a less reliable factor in the decisions we make as citizens.
Is it alarmist to fear that we may be headed toward the politicization of everything?