What's Wrong With America, Chapter 817: Sen. Richard Shelby

By James Fallows

(See update below.) I don't like to personalize politics. But there's no avoiding it in this case. I'm on the other side of the Pacific for a while again, talking with various foreigners who have theories about "America's irreversible decline," the relentless shift of power to China, and so on.

I don't agree, and I emphasize the tremendous resilience of the American system, the serious problems confronting China, and so on. But if I wanted to make a case that our system really has become pathologically trivializing and self-defeating -- and that our problems, theoretically correctable, may be beyond our powers to address -- here's the most recent face I would put to that problem: Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Shelby.jpg

Last year, Shelby -- on his own authority, and in pique for a federal contract that didn't go to  Alabama firms -- held up the confirmation of some 70 executive branch appointees. It's bad for America that Senate rules make such one-person tyranny possible. But it should be held against Shelby that he was willing to abuse the rules this way, in reckless disregard of the national interest and the destructive wastefulness of making it so arbitrarily difficult to fill public jobs.

Now, as Peter Diamond has recounted in the New York Times, Shelby has, on his own whim, decided that the most recent recipient of the Nobel award in economics (Diamond), doesn't meet the Shelby Test for economic excellence. I'm more skeptical than most people about the  "Nobel prize" in economics. Technically, it's not one of the "real" Nobel prizes, and in some cases it has inflated the delusions of economists that theirs is a hard science comparable to physics or biology/medicine. But let's be serious. A career politician with a law degree from the University of Alabama (Shelby has 8 years as a prosecutor, 40 years as a legislator). Versus the economist who has just been recognized with the highest international lifetime-achievement honor that exists in his field -- and whose specialty is studying America's worst economic problem of the moment, chronic unemployment.  Hmmm, I wonder which of them might be in a better position to judge the other's street-cred about Fed policy. Yet Senate rules let one willful politician say: No, I think not. Presumably the Nobel committee will soon offer Shelby a standing veto over its selections.

Here's the real question: America is rich and resilient. But is it resilient enough to permit folly and self-destruction of this sort? There is no recourse against Sen. Shelby for his abuse of power except to make sure everyone knows and remembers what he has done. Which is the point of this note.

(Previously in the "what's wrong" saga here. UPDATE: Jonathan Cohn's view of Shelby and Diamond; also, Daniel Indiviglio's.) 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/06/whats-wrong-with-america-chapter-817-sen-richard-shelby/239967/