No Gratitude for Disasters Prevented

September 12th, 2011 at 12:00 pm David Frum | 49 Comments |

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In my column for CNN, I discuss heroes who have prevented disasters yet go unremembered:

Imagine that some member of Congress back in the 1990s had devoted himself or herself to toughening America against terrorism. He or she had introduced legislation to require airlines to harden their cockpit doors. After years of work, he or she at last prevailed and the new law went into effect sometime in early 2000. The 9/11 plot would have been thwarted without any American ever knowing that the plot had existed.

Question: Would we now remember that imaginary member of Congress as a person of wisdom and foresight who averted a national disaster?

Hardly. In a world in which 9/11 never happened, the people who prevented it would have gone unremembered and unthanked. Or worse. It’s very possible that they would have been laughed at as tedious people who invested ridiculous amounts of energy against a probably imaginary threat — the way, say, some laughed at the people who solved the Y2K problem about that same time.

Of all the unfairnesses in politics, the greatest unfairness is how little we reward the supreme public service: “to provide against preventable evils,” in the famous phrase of the British politician, Enoch Powell.

The politicians who act after disaster reap the gratitude of the nation, like Rudy Giuliani amid the rubble of New York City.

Officials whose warnings are ignored at least gain the credit of their prophecy if the warnings come to pass.

But those who successfully mobilize public action in good time? How would we even know who they are? How do we separate the wise from the unwise, the genuinely visionary from the cranks and hysterics? For every Sheila Bair urging early action about subprime mortgages, there are a hundred Glenn Becks urging Americans to stockpile nonhybrid seeds against the coming global apocalypse.

Click here to read the full column.

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49 Comments so far ↓

  • Graychin

    “Herbert Hoover would still have presided over the worst recession in 20th century history and would still have lost the 1932 election to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. No doubt Roosevelt, that supreme opportunist, would have slammed Hoover for his “bailouts” and “giveaways” to banks and foreigners.”

    A good, thoughtful essay, Mr. Frum. Unfortunately, you spoiled it near the end with another of your silly partisan drive-bys.

    Why are you driven to do that? Are you trying to hang on to your diminishing Republican bona fides?

    • Nanotek

      with the exception of Ron Paul, gracious describes no conservative I’ve ever witnessed.

      their snarly attitudes speak volumes about how they see their worlds

    • Steve D

      Er, because it’s true?

      From the cited article: “Voters see politicians rushing money to rescue high-flying bankers from the bankers’ own irresponsibility and, naturally, the voters do not like it.” True enough, but even if there was good reason to rescue the banks, there’s no reason any of the bankers who created the disaster should have escaped with anything but their skins. And there’s still time. Make anyone responsible for the meltdown civilly liable to any person who suffered harm. No personal bankruptcy protection, no protection of pensions or any other assets.

  • Banty

    Actually, there *is* a seed stockpile against global collapse.

  • Rob_654

    “Question: Would we now remember that imaginary member of Congress as a person of wisdom and foresight who averted a national disaster?”

    Not only would they not receive any credit.

    The same politicians would likely be attacked for forcing “the boot of government” onto the throats of private companies, spending the taxpayer dollars on threats that are not serious or not “likely” and would generally be called a big money, big government liberal.

    And of course we would hear that private companies always do everything better than the government so if they don’t think that hardened cockpit doors are worth the trouble and expense who is the government to tell them otherwise.

    • Kevin B

      Today’s official theme on Fox News is “Regulation Nation.”. On one program they had a “speed reader” trying to make it through a pile of printed regulations within the hour-long show. I didn’t stick around to see if he finished.

  • otternell

    And clearly no one in the Republican party would have been up in arms about government intervention in private industry, requiring better cockpit doors when there was no impetus. Clearly, that law would have been seen as a good requirement, that in no way impeded the profitability of airlines or air plane manufacturers.

    Well, maybe back in that era. But try regulating something like that now and see how far it gets you.

  • ProfessorHowie

    “The politicians who supported the financial rescue in 2008 get no applause. Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah lost his Republican primary in 2008 in large part due to his emphatic support of TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Voters see politicians rushing money to rescue high-flying bankers from the bankers’ own irresponsibility and, naturally, the voters do not like it. The politicians insist that they acted to save the country from an even greater disaster. But who believes them? For that matter, who even knows what such a “greater disaster” would possibly look like?…
    And who would ever have known what lay behind the door we did not open?
    Think of that limit on our knowledge, the next time you are inclined to a hasty judgment of political leaders and their measures. We know what we see. What we cannot see may be what matters most.”

    Precisely, David. Couldn’t have said it better myself. And now Obama, through his stimulus, held the official jobless rate to just over 9%, when free market forces might have taken it well over 20%. But that is being slammed by political opportunists as a “failure.” Now he wants another round to actually begin lowering that jobless rate. It turns out the problems caused by the squandered first decade of this century were greater than Obama or anybody else imagined.

    Obama’s got it right. Keynes has it right. I’ve been out of steady work for three years (well, I was was entrepreneurially working full time, but by no means earning enough to cover bills), and I would have lost my house if I wasn’t able to borrow money. Now I am working in a solid job, and I am paying down my debts. It will take some time to get back into the black, but I don’t feel a need to balance my budget this year. I am headed in the right direction, and confident about my future.

    This is the “kitchen table” logic that Republicans are having a hard time understanding.

    Attack away, all those to the right of this opinion.

  • more5600

    Question: If a President institutes policy that prevents our economy from going from a serious recession into a full blown depression, does he get any credit?

  • Michigan Outsider

    Suppose Churchill had either managed to get elected prime minister in 1936 or just been able to persuade the British to fight Nazis in the mid 1930s ? The Nazis weren’t going to just roll over; they would have fought as hard as they could then. Ordinary Germans may very well have been completely on board given how badly the Allies treated Germany at Versailles. The resulting war might have killed more than 100,0000. Surely a good thing compared with the war that was fought a few years later and that cost the lives of more than 50 million and devastated many European cities. But, by comparison with the peace promised by the appeasers, the Churchill war would have seemed quite horrible, and he might have gone down in history as a bloodthirsty butcher instead of the savior of the western world.

    • ottovbvs

      “But, by comparison with the peace promised by the appeasers, the Churchill war would have seemed quite horrible, and he might have gone down in history as a bloodthirsty butcher instead of the savior of the western world.”

      Not necessarily. The German arny was under orders to withdraw had their occupation of the Rhineland in 1936 been challenged by the French and British. Who knows what the consequences in Germany would have been in the face of such a huge foreign policy debacle and of a major British re-armament program. Hitler might well have been deposed by the army (the one force in the country to with the power to do so).

      “Ordinary Germans may very well have been completely on board given how badly the Allies treated Germany at Versailles.”

      And Germany wasn’t badly treated at Versailles. She lost no territory other than the restoration of Alsace Lorraine seized after the Franco Prussian war, her economic and warmaking potential were completely untouched and as the historian
      A. J. P. Taylor observed the implementation of the Treaty of Versailles essentially depended on German cooperation.

      • planetirving

        Sorry about repeating what you said. I failed to hit refresh before I posted my reply.

      • Andrew Pavelyev

        Actually Germany lost a lot of territory in the east (mostly to Poland but also to Lithuania), and the German territory was not even contiguous anymore.

        • ottovbvs

          “Actually Germany lost a lot of territory in the east (mostly to Poland but also to Lithuania), and the German territory was not even contiguous anymore.”

          Well that’s one way of looking at it. All this territory was basically lands that Prussia received in the partitions of 1772, 1793 and 1795 that eliminated the ancient Polish state. They weren’t historically part of Germany. Prior to these partitions East Prussia wasn’t contiguous to Prussia. The traditional Prussian state which was the core of Germany remained intact.

      • Michigan Outsider

        I don’t pretend to be an expert on the topic, but it is my general understanding that (1) the reparations imposed at Versailles did have a significant impact on the German economy, (2) the occupation of the Rhineland was seen as fairly insulting to ordinary Germans and (3) they were also fairly unhappy with thing like Germany getting cut in two to give Poland access to the sea (obviously Poles had a lot to complain during the prior 150 years or so). Isn’t it a fairly typical European History exam question to compare the Congress of Vienna with the Treaty of Versailles (1919)?

        Maybe the German officer corps would have revolted had Britain and France stood up on 1936. Maybe not. Given how hard and how long they eventually fought, my best guess is that they would have fought pretty hard in 1936 too and such a hypothetical war would have only looked good by comparison with what really happened.

    • planetirving

      Not that I want to get the discussion off track, but this might not be a good example, though I could almost see your point but for the facts of the case are not what they seem. Had the Allies reacted, even with a minimum amount of backbone, let alone force, at just about any point up to and including the invasion of Poland in September 1939, there is considerable evidence that there would have been a coup among the General Staff to overthrow Hitler. The General Staff and Officer Class in particular, were suspicious of the Nazi Party and especially Hitler. They were convinced (and logically so) that the Allies would not allow the Treaty of Versailles to be flouted so openly, let alone abrogated. During each of Hitler’s moves, first the reoccupation of the Rhineland, then rearmament, then the Anschluss with Austria, followed by the occupation of the Sudetenland and the annexation of the remaining rump state of Czechoslovakia, and finally the invasion of Poland, the General Staff was keenly aware that the German Army was not ready to fight and that any show of force by the Allies France and Britain would of had hugely negative political ramifications for the Nazis as well as the Officer Class. Having over learned the lessons of the First World War, the Allies attempts at “Appeasing” Hitler, only sowed the seeds of their own bitter harvest, leading to an unprepared Britain and a demoralized France. Finally, facing only Britain and France, both racked by indecision and vacillation, without the lynchpin of Czechoslovakia, and with Russia, sensing the Allies lack of resolve, remaining neutral, Hitler, with his mythos of infallibility unbroken, led Germany into a string of successes that almost changed the course of History for the worst. This was not a case of small War now instead of big War later, it was a Game of poker. Calling the bluff ahead of time would have ended the Charade of Hitler and the Nazi Party. The problem was, Cassandra, i.e. Churchill, was unheeded. As hindsight is 20/20, it is easy for us now to see the situation for what it was. The mindset of the time, however, still must be taken account of before we past judgment from our safe vantage point of over 70 years later.

      Finally, a better example would be the Titanic disaster of 1912. Had the navigator not attempted to turn and avoid the iceberg, but rather, strike it dead on, the consensus is that the ship would have stayed afloat. Rather than ripping a long gash below the water line and flooding multiple compartments which defeated the safety measures of the design, a frontal collision, which no doubt would have devastated the bow of the ship and led to a large loss of life among the crew whose living quarters were located in this section, the flooding would have been contained, and the ship saved. The story would then have been “Navigator steers ship straight into iceberg, causing great damage and loss of life…” rather than what actually happened, which was far, far worse.

      • ottovbvs

        “Had the Allies reacted, even with a minimum amount of backbone, let alone force, at just about any point up to and including the invasion of Poland in September 1939,”

        They did show some backbone after Hitler’s occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia in early 1939. Britain and France guaranteed a slew of states in central Europe, but by then it was far too late. Hitler had had a run of massive foreign policy successes; rearmed the country; had removed the two chiefs of the German army Blomberg and Fritsch; and appointed himself head of the German armed forces and required them to swear an oath to him personally. Even in 1944 by when it was obvious Germany had lost the war, the majority of the German army stayed loyal to Hitler. As Manstein said “Prussian Field Marshalls don’t mutiny.” The only realistic chance to stop Hitler was when he occupied the Rhineland in 1936 and maybe for a few months after. And there wasn’t the faintest chance of Churchill becoming PM in the mid 30′s. He only just squeaked in in 1940 and much of the conservative party remained opposed to him until after the Battle of Britain.

        • planetirving

          Good points. By the way, I believe the Allies still had a chance at knocking Germany down as 1939. During the invasion of Poland, had only the French and British actually invaded Western Germany, rather than stay put for fear of a replay of trench warfare. Once more, a game of Poker, as the Western Wall or Zeigfried Line, was only lightly defended, and would have collapsed if set upon! They would have devastated the Rhur industrial zone and created panic among the general staff whose waking nightmare was a two front war (yes, Poland was a second rate power, but it still took the bulk of the German Army 3 weeks to deal with her and only Russia’s entrance into the Eastern half at the last minute finally collapsed Polish resistance. A similar threat on the Eastern Front during the opening of the First World War caused Germany to siphon off troops from the Western Front, which contributed to the German final advance on Paris loosing momentum and being stopped by the Allies at the Battle of the Marne in 1914. The sight of Allied Armies marching through Germany in 1939 would have put the truth to the lie of Nazi might.

        • ottovbvs

          “By the way, I believe the Allies still had a chance at knocking Germany down as 1939.”

          No they didn’t. It took the combined efforts of the Soviet Union (principally), the British Empire, and the USA almost six years to subdue Nazi Germany. The notion that a French army and Britain’s nine divisions invading Germany in 1939 would have made a dimes worth of difference is pure fantasy I’m afraid.

          ” yes, Poland was a second rate power, but it still took the bulk of the German Army 3 weeks to deal with her and only Russia’s entrance into the Eastern half at the last minute finally collapsed Polish resistance”

          Wow 3 weeks. That long? A real war of attrition then? Russia was merely picking up her share of the spoils from the Nazi Soviet pact, it was over by then. Had Britain and France attempted an attack on German territory Hitler would merely transferred half his Polish invasion force to the west and his defeat of Poland would have taken six weeks instead of three. I’m not saying Britain and France shouldn’t have done it but the notion it would have rapidly knocked out Germany is completely erroneous. In fact on the basis of the evidence of 1940 the odds are Germany would have inflicted massive defeats on Britain and France.

          “A similar threat on the Eastern Front during the opening of the First World War caused Germany to siphon off troops from the Western Front,”

          The strategic balance between Britain/France and Gerrmany in 1939 and 1914 was the same? The fact you think they were I’m afraid suggests a paucity of knowledge about the realities of power.

        • planetirving

          Hmm, another reason I am not a frequent commentator on this site is the blatant and constant personal attacks. Thanks for living up to my lowest expectations.

          AND, FYI, here is my rebuttal, quoted from an online article about the Polish Campaign, to your glib argument and assertions on the events of late 1939:

          http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/reading/history/polandbetrayal.htm#21

          “In 1939 Britain and France signed a series of military agreements with Poland that contained very specific promises. The leaders of Poland understood very clearly that they had no chance against Germany alone.

          The French, in fact, promised the Poles in mid-May 1939 that in the event of German aggression against Poland, France would launch an offensive against the Germans “no later than fifteen days after mobilization”. This promise was sealed in a solemn treaty signed between Poland and France.

          Unfortunately, when Germany attacked, Poland was almost totally and completely betrayed by its democratic “friends”. While Britain and France did declare war, French troops made a brief advance toward the Siegfried Line on Germany’s western frontier and immediately stopped upon meeting German resistance.

          This is very significant since Hitler had concentrated almost all German military forces in the east, and France had one of the strongest armies in the world. Had France attacked Germany in a serious way as promised, the results could have been very serious, if not disastrous for the Germans.

          Instead, Hitler was able to win a complete victory over Poland and then mobilize his forces for a devastating offensive in the west in the next year.

          …The opportunity to fight a brief, localized war against Germany was therefore lost in September 1939. In hindsight, also lost were the opportunities to save millions of lives, to rid the world of Hitler, and to have prevented the creation of conditions that led to the Cold War. As General Ironside commented in 1945, after much of Europe was in ruins, “Militarily we should have gone all out against the German the minute he invaded Poland. … We did not … And so we missed the strategical advantage of the Germans being engaged in the East. We thought completely defensively and of ourselves.”[21] And so they did.”

        • ottovbvs

          “AND, FYI, here is my rebuttal, quoted from an online article about the Polish Campaign, to your glib argument and assertions on the events of late 1939:”

          Pity you don’t understand the difference between treaty obligations and the strategic balance. Britain and France guaranteed Poland and others in early 1939 but they had no realistic means of implementing these guarantees. All your laughable “rebuttal” says is that Britain and France had treaty obligations and complains about “betrayal” but says not a word about how they were to be realised in the face of immense German military superiority. No one denies they did nothing but the point is it wouldn’t have made any difference if they had done something in the face of Germany’s strategic advantage and interior lines of communication.

          “As General Ironside commented in 1945″

          “Tiny” Ironside a brave but grotesquely incompetent general who was dismissed by Churchill all in a matter of months firstly from the post of CIGS in favor of Sir John Dill, and then from commander home forces in favor of Sir Alan Brooke. This is your authority for the likely success of a western attack on Germany in 1939. Whose next Husband Kimmel? Gamelin? Weygand? Gort? Or don’t you realize that Ironside was head of the British army for the entire period of the phony war when the inaction of the British and French armies you condemn actually took place?

          “and France had one of the strongest armies in the world.”

          Yeah it lasted all of eight weeks defending it’s own soil against Germany (with British, Dutch and Belgian allies) in 1940 only 8 months after the Polish campaign. Are you serious?

          “Hmm, another reason I am not a frequent commentator on this site is the blatant and constant personal attacks.”

          How is pointing out with facts that you’re totally ignorant of geopolitical realities from the mid thirties to 1939? You simply have no idea of what you’re talking about and it shows.

      • planetirving

        Once again, let us avoid the invective and aspersions. We must just agree to disagree on this. I did not mean to question your outlook or your knowledge, only your manner of discourse. Politeness is a virtue, after all, and in the vast cornucopia of discourse online and elsewhere, we must treasure it.

        • ottovbvs

          “We must just agree to disagree on this.”

          I’m not indulging in any invective and you’re the the guy who started casting aspersions. You can have any opinion you want. The facts just don’t support your opinion, indeed it’s fairly clear you’re completely unfamiliar with the facts. You might want to read various books on the topic by amongst other;

          Richard Evans …Regius professor of history at Cambridge
          Sir Michael Howard…former Regius professor of history at Oxford
          Ian Kershaw…author of the definitive biography of Hitler
          Donald Cameron Watt…author of “How War Came 1938-39″
          Andrew Roberts…author of Masters and Commanders, The Storm of War, and The Holy Fox
          Max Hastings…author of numerous studies of WW 2 and Churchill as Warlord
          A. J. P. Taylor…author of The Origins of the Second World War
          Sir Alan Brooke…Diaries
          Sir Alexander Cadogan…Diaries
          Paul Kennedy…Author of the rise and fall of the Great Powers

          I can absolutely guarantee you’ll learn more about European strategic realities in the thirties than you ever will from some tendentious blog that you crib soundbites from.

        • Traveler

          Ottovon,

          I always appreciate getting learnt by you, but do you have to be so snarky to those that you correct? You are a font of knowledge, and threads with your comments are always instructive. But why do you seem to have this irresistible urge to cut everyone down? Given your trenchant capabilities, surely you can find a way to phrase your impatience with us mere mortals a little less caustically.

          But a troll you are not! I will lurk in peace. :)

        • ottovbvs

          “But a troll you are not! I will lurk in peace”

          Traveller: I was being nice to this guy who is obviously clueless about the topic and gently suggested that maybe he had a paucity of knowledge about the relative strengths of Britain/France in 1914 and 1939. He then takes umbrage and starts accusing me of impoliteness. I’m the first to admit my style (both written and oral) is curt and to the point but I’m never gratuitously rude to anyone on a personal level unless they start name calling. Almost invariably my demolitions are limited to their ideas/arguments as was the case here I think. I certainly didn’t make any personal attack on him only his opinions. There’s a subtle but real difference. Just re read what I said and as far as I can see it’s almost entirely directed at his so called facts. BTW sorry If I’ve ever ticked you off with a curt response. I will fess up to being acerbic when folks start being illogical, irrational, or unfamiliar with the facts as I think was manifestly the case here. When I was a student in the early 60′s my tutor used to beat me up unmercifully if I turned in junk papers. I obviously picked up the habit.

        • Traveler

          Ottovon,

          I guess the way I saw it, you were still pretty hard on poor irving just floating an idea, not assertively misstating facts. see 5:46:

          “The fact you think they were I’m afraid suggests a paucity of knowledge about the realities of power”.

          Up to then the discussion was very civil. Although politely framed, a barb is a barb. That is where your sharpness cuts both ways, and puts off many that would otherwise harken to your historical wisdom. And even with those with whom you seem to have some antipathy (PQ and curiosity come to mind), is it still necessary to drop the barbs that flow off your keyboard? Those guys are the few intelligent (albeit not entirely consistent) conservatives remaining on this site (or this hemisphere perhaps?)

          But thanks for not ripping me a new one. As smeggy says, just sayin’ . So keep on postin’

          BTW, how did you respond so quickly to my post in a stale thread?

  • Frumplestiltskin

    But those who successfully mobilize public action in good time? How would we even know who they are?

    I dunno about this, historians seem to know full well who they are. I am sure there were countless instances of terrorist acts thrawted in America and we will find out about them in due course, 50 years or so away.

    And on a smaller not, sometimes people prevent calamity and are greatly appreciated, eternally so. In the summer when I took my one son to a water slide I told my 7 year old to stay where he was in the shallow end since he didn’t want to go himself. I was only gone for a few minutes and for some reason he walked over to towards the deep end, fell off the drop off and panicked, even though he has had lessons. I came back to see him being pulled out of the water by a lifeguard and woman. He was fine though very scared. A month later I still panic at the memory, and I will never stop feeling guilty.

    So you can be damn sure I am grateful for all those drownings prevented or all the innumerable occasions when tragedy was prevented because someone was paying attention.

  • PracticalGirl

    Beautifully written. Interesting, though, to read the money line:

    We know what we see. What we cannot see may be what matters most

    written by the same guy who wrote “How Obama Failed” just a few short days ago.

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/08/29/frum.obama.mistakes/index.html

    What you cannot see may be what matters most? Perhaps, but maybe, just maybe, what you do not yet know in context matters just as much.

  • Watusie

    I can’t imagine a more tell-tale sign of a guilty conscience than Frum choosing the week of 9/11 to write about hypotheticals. Reality, obviously, is still to painful. David, someday maybe you will be as interested in correctly apportioning praise and blame on the basis of known facts as you are today in lamenting the fact that we don’t have a TARDIS for exploring alternative time streams.

  • Houndentenor

    That’s how it always is, David. There’s no credit for planning ahead, maintaining safety standards. This is America. We cross our fingers and hope for the best. We ridicule those who want to upgrade our infrastructure or try to prevent crimes before they happen. Then we throw a fit when something goes wrong looking for someone to blame.

    Someone mentioned TARP and that’s a wonderful example. You’d think the banksters would show a little gratitude to the American people for bailing out their sorry, sleazy corrupt asses, but no.

  • FSC

    Well written, and thought provoking. Thank you.

  • jakester

    It is tough to get credit for stuff that didn’t happen or was prevented. Unless there was a clear example of that potential threat being thwarted. It is like a home burglar alarm, most of the time the average lowlife will just find another house that isn’t alarmed to rip off.

  • Banty

    Credit for counterfactuals is a hard thing. People *should* get credit for preventing problems, but they don’t. Firstly because there is no crisis and attention is not directed toward non-problems. Secondly because there is always a drive to be as efficiently preventative as possible – what size seatbelt is enough, don’t have more; what kind of banking regulation is enough; don’t constrain them more.

    And, thirdly and most problematically, when a problem *does* happen, those who dont’ care for the correct preventative actions will rewrite the truth. It’s the CRA that dunnit, it was the lack of driver skill, not the speed, that dunnit.

  • Oldskool

    The reverse is equally true, people get undue credit for things they didn’t necessarily do. Reagan didn’t win the cold war by himself, there were 40 years of foreign policy that preceded him.

    Shrub’s people tried to insist there were no terror attacks on his watch, conveniently forgetting the worst one of all.

    • Banty

      40 years of policy that preceded Reagan, plus a once-in-a-lifetime partner in Gorbachev.

  • chephren

    This essay is true enough, I suppose.

    But is it somehow news that no one can see into the future? Anyone who studies history knows that unexpected events always happen. Current policies and practices very often have negative unanticipated consequences. Governments (and companies, and individuals) generally deal with current problems using old, sometimes outmoded, models and solutions. Ever thus.

    But the wisdom of leaders who do the right thing in anticipation of unknowable future crises can only be perceived in retrospect – though sometimes, doing the right thing is simply a matter of common sense.

    As a Canadian, I am very grateful that almost 20 years ago, a very capable and perceptive federal Minister of Finance, Paul Martin, decided that Canada’s chronic structural deficit problem had to be resolved. Canada at the time was a fiscal basket case. More than 30% of federal revenue went to pay interest on the national debt. A twin currency crisis/creditors’ strike loomed. Canada lost its AAA credit rating.

    Martin cut federal spending 20% across the board, in all departments. Tax rates were maintained, and were not cut until deficits were ended. Social spending, health care and transfer payments to provinces suffered deep cuts – which angered Canadian voters, though they understood the need to cut public debt.

    A severe recession resulted – but the deficit went away faster than almost anyone thought. Within 3 years, the government was in surplus – and continued to generate surpluses from 1995 to 2007. A large proportion of the national debt was paid down (while the US, under Bush/Cheney and a ‘fiscally conservative’ Congress, trashed the Clinton surpluses and doubled the US national debt). Canada went from having the worst debt-to-GDP ratio among industrialized nations to the best.

    Paul Martin’s wise policies of fiscal restraint and support for strong financial regulation did a lot more than restore Canada’s creditworthiness and protect our standard of living. He also unknowingly prepared us well for the credit crisis of 2008/9. While the US mortgage markets and banks collapsed and went on costly life support, and the nation entered a deflationary near-depression, Canada experienced only a brief and mild recession. Our housing market is healthy and growing. Our banks are the strongest in the world.

    Martin was poorly rewarded for his success as a finance minister. His term as Prime Minister was a flop and his party dumped him. But he did the right thing when most countries piled on debt. History will treat him well.

    • WestQuake

      Yet bank failures and worldwide financial collapse are about to be repeated because today’s government leaders are unwilling to take steps to prevent the exact same events which happened only 4 years ago. Canadian banks will probably survive the next crash but no Wall Street banker will go to jail – again – for not having sufficient equity and for paying out too much in bonuses and dividends. No American politician will take responsibility for enacting anemic “banking reform” laws; take away the accounting tricks and Bank of America is only the “most bankrupt” of the U.S. banking industry.

  • overshoot

    Frances Oldham Kelsey

  • Marquis

    “Our failures are known, our successes are not”

    I recall a film about the CIA in which the head case officer – portrayed by Al Pacino – introduces his CIA recruits to the Agency, and sums up its mission with those words. This essay couldn’t be more apropos for the day after 9/11. In this world of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation, we can never thank enough those in the law enforcement, intelligence, and special operations communities. We must give them ALL the tools they need to get their jobs done. But for these professionals, only God knows that another 9/11 – or worse – has been averted many times over.

  • Polifan

    “Think of that limit on our knowledge, the next time you are inclined to a hasty judgment of political leaders and their measures. We know what we see. What we cannot see may be what matters most.”

    Very true.

  • ottovbvs

    “Our failures are known, our successes are not”

    While it’s certainly true our successes are not known, I also think the extent of our failures is also unknown. Some FBI agent has just published a book which suggests monumental incompetence in the CIA…what a surprise.

  • balconesfault

    He or she had introduced legislation to require airlines to harden their cockpit doors.

    Isn’t this in fact what a panel chaired by VP Al Gore in fact recommended, and was shot down by a GOP Congress which insisted it would be an undue burden on industry?

    Who was it who was here just a couple days ago posting an opinion that what America’s economy needed over the long term was a commitment to eliminating regulations. A David Frum or something?

  • indy

    I didn’t do something that saved the world just last week and not one single person thanked me. Or maybe I did something, but you just don’t know about it.

    Even as a mental exercise this whole concept is stupid.

  • balconesfault

    I am also reminded of the story of the man in Columbus Circle.

    He’s standing there pounding a pole on the ground over and over … and finally a cop walks up to him to ask “what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

    Man answers “I’m preventing an elephant stampede”

    Policeman “that’s crazy … there are no elephants around here!”

    Man … “see – it’s working!”

    • Oldskool

      Hah! One of the few jokes I know:

      A cop pulls a guy who ran a stop sign. The guy says he definitely stopped. The cop says he may have slowed down but he didn’t stop. The guy argues some more until the cop finally says, “Allow me to explain the difference”. So he pulls out his billy club and starts wailing on the guy’s head and then says, “Now, do you want me to stop or slow down?”

  • jakester

    I heard Ralph Nader expound the exact same point years ago, in 2004, about the cockpit doors. The trouble is that the hijackers aren’t dummies, it wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure a ruse to get them to open the doors.

  • TJ Parker

    I know you’re probably thinking “Dubya” but, dood, you’re talking about Barry’s stimulus.

    • balconesfault

      And perhaps especially, the much decried bailout of the American auto industry.

      I would love to see an economic assessment of the likely unemployment rate increase had the bailout not taken place.