The Washington Post Column

A Flight Test for All of Us

If one were searching for an appropriate metaphor — and, on days like this, one is always searching for a metaphor — it would be hard to do better than US Airways Flight 1549 and its safe crash-landing in the Hudson River last week. This extraordinary event was, if you like, the anti-Sept. 11: A plane hurtled into Manhattan, but its pilots, instead of aiming for a skyscraper and killing thousands, aimed at the river, and saved the lives of all 155 people on board.

There was no panic. “Witnesses described a scene of level-headed teamwork,” wrote The Post. Instead of freezing in terror, passengers scrutinized the emergency doors in the seconds before landing, the better to get them open quickly. After the landing, strangers helped one another out of the plane. Tour boats, ferries and tugboats sped to the scene to assist, even before emergency services arrived. An infant and a woman in a wheelchair were both rescued and taken safely ashore. The pilot walked up and down the aisle to make sure the seats were empty before leaving the sinking plane.

As you listen to President Barack Obama speak today, as you watch him parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and dance at inaugural balls, keep this story in mind, for it describes with eerie accuracy the task ahead of him. He is, in effect, the pilot of a plane whose engine has unexpectedly exploded: Though a handful of people did predict the financial crisis of last autumn, almost no one in mainstream politics did so, no more than anyone would have predicted that a flock of geese would bring down an Airbus. Challenged like that pilot was, Obama’s task is to prevent the unexpected financial crisis from leading to a catastrophe. To do so, he must demonstrate competence and professionalism, qualities so rare in public life that those who possess them are — like that pilot — widely described as “heroic.”

But — to extend the metaphor one step further — successful completion of this task depends not only on the pilot but also on the passengers and the bystanders who keep calm. In other words, if large numbers of people use this crisis to expand their own fortunes or push their own agendas, they might wind up sinking the whole plane.

I could illustrate this perhaps excessively poetic point in many ways, but one aspect in particular of the new administration’s various “bailout” plans worries me: the assumption, which seems to lie behind such plans, that people make better decisions when they are handling public money than they do when they are handling their own money. Ample evidence, from many societies over many years, proves the opposite: Indeed, people entrusted with public money are overwhelmingly inclined to waste, steal or misuse it. After the initial failure of the federal government during Hurricane Katrina, for example, government money poured into New Orleans in the weeks and months that followed. The result: large-scale fraud, massive dissatisfaction and mobile homes so badly built that they could not be used.

Yet many good things also happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Volunteers of all kinds flocked to the city; local self-help organizations sprang up. This isn’t to say there was no role for government there but that government worked best by supporting citizens’ initiatives, not by replacing them.

My greatest fear, on this Inauguration Day, is not that the plane’s engines will fail and that the economy will tank: That has happened already. My greatest fear is that in trying to repair the economy, the new administration will waste time and money in the mistaken belief that government-funded, centrally planned infrastructure projects will somehow use money more effectively than private or locally inspired equivalents. My second-greatest fear is that multiple company “bailouts” will ultimately result in fewer jobs, and more wasted resources, than the regeneration that could follow a string of intelligently managed bankruptcies.

I realize that the “tide has turned,” that the right has given way to the left, that Obama was elected to change the tone in Washington. But he will fail if he ignores the many lessons learned over the past several decades about the relationship between government and the governed — a relationship not unlike that between pilots, however heroic, and the passengers they are trying to save.