Several commentators asked what I meant by saying that President Obama’s salary freeze for federal workers indicates that he is a moral cretin. To me, it is simply this.
Obama must know that this does virtually nothing concerning the budget deficit, either long- or short-term. As a substantive matter, it is fundamentally unserious.
Similarly, Obama must know that there are literally tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of low-level federal employees — secretaries, nurses’ assistants, data entry clerks, letter carriers, phone operators, bus drivers, etc. — who are not well-paid in the least. He must also know that the vast majority of federal employees are not fat cats.
He must know as well that, as Mark says, federal employees as a group are subjected to a “continual barrage of hatred” simply for that status. The popular myth has grown up that they are lazy, overpaid, and useless.
And for the sake of a couple of days of the news cycle he has decided to reinforce these myths as well as substantially disrupting their career paths. He’s not even pretending that this is about making government perform better. Yes, yes: a freeze isn’t a cut. I know: I’ve been furloughed. But people make plans based upon expected earnings. They have no right to those earnings, but if you are going to disrupt the expectations of people making at or below the median wage then there should be at least a halfway decent reason for it, a reason that isn’t laughable on its face.
Obama isn’t even bothering to do that. To my mind, that is being a moral cretin — essentially picking on people who will have a hard time fighting back simply because it will make you look good among the elite.
Look: federal workers aren’t Jews in Nazi Germany. They aren’t Blacks under Jim Crow. At the Victimization Olympics, low-level and underpaid federal workers won’t make it anywhere close to the medal round. But they sure as hell aren’t the favored class, either.
This reminds me a little of President Clinton’s decision to sign the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Essentially, he decided to sign the thing because he didn’t want to take the political risk. But at least there, it was in the middle of an election season. At least there, Clinton’s signing statement didn’t make an argument for the bill; in fact, he went out of his way to restrict its meaning, and he certainly didn’t hold a press conference to announce it. Even then, signing it was one of the most cowardly things that Clinton did as President. IIRC, he didn’t even mention it in his autobiography.
One of the central principles of the Law Of The Schoolyard is: pick on someone your own size. If he wanted to make a symbolic statement, he could have agreed not to take a salary himself: he’s earned millions from his books. Or he could have proposed cutting Congressional salaries. Or he could have even said that he would freeze all federal salaries over $250,000 (which would have been a nice touch given the tax debate). Or rented out Camp David. Or whatever. He didn’t do that.
Instead, he decided to take it out on tens of thousands of people who are not at fault, who don’t make a lot of money, for no decent policy reason, just so some Very Serious People would say that he is being Serious Just Like Them. Except that, of course, they won’t: they will say that it’s a gimmick. But he won a news cycle. Maybe.
To me, that is being a moral cretin.