Matt Miller - The Archives
The 'No Good Options' Era: We're all Greek now
The Washington Post, May 5, 2010

Greece's union leaders hope today's general strike (which has left three dead at this writing) will paralyze the country. Sounds like a brilliant strategy—as if the country weren't already crippled enough by having to borrow $145 billion on awful terms to avoid bankruptcy, why not show your creditors you'll do everything in your power to renege on a pledge to restore fiscal sanity?

But labor's confusion aside, Greece's dilemma points to a pervasive trend. Does anyone think Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou, who campaigned last year on pledges to boost pay and pensions for public-sector workers while hiking taxes on the rich, relishes the austerity plan he's agreed to implement? Papandreou is about to hike the top VAT rate to 23 percent, raise taxes on fuel, alcohol and tobacco, and cut public-sector wages and pensions. Did Papandreou want this to be his agenda?

Of course not—but he had no good options.

For that matter, does German Chancellor Angela Merkel want to spend political capital explaining why her compatriots need to bail out a nation that most Germans see as profligate, corrupt and merely getting the meltdown it deserves?

Of course not—but she has no good options.

Or take hapless New York Gov. David Patterson, who yesterday offered his legislature a choice: furlough 100,000 state workers or shut down the government. Did Patterson imagine a permanent budget crisis would dominate his accidental turn as the Empire State's first African American governor?

Of course not—but he has no good options.

Nor did George W. Bush, when faced with the looming collapse of the banking system, and thus the distasteful duty to bail out reckless gamblers on Wall Street.

Nor will President Obama, when his debt commission comes back in December with an outline of what it will take to stop America from drowning in debt (preview: It will include tax hikes on the 95 percent of Americans he said he wouldn't raise taxes on, and cuts in the benefits they now expect).

Nor do dozens of governors as their recession-wrecked budgets force them to slash spending even in a tough economy.

To be sure, these current episodes of No Good Options leadership—of governing via the Least Bad Choice—are largely the result of the global economic bust, and the chain of budget and debt crises it has spawned. But they're also a taste of our fiscal future.

In the years ahead, we'll see No Good Options governance become ubiquitous in the West as aging populations collide with unrealistic expectations of how low taxes can be and how high publicly funded benefits can soar. Toss in the rage of a rising generation that realizes it has little discretion to address its own needs via government—and which is simultaneously asked to pick up the tab for its elders' excesses—and you'll have a toxic political brew.

For politicians, No Good Options governance won't be much fun. Fun was what American fiscal politics was in the 1960s and 1970s, when rapid economic growth plus tax bracket creep (through which people were pushed into higher brackets as their incomes rose) created huge piles of revenue for pols to give away. What bipartisan joy there was in competing to see who could lift Social Security benefits more before the next election. Those were the days!

Soon, however, a hefty chunk of political life will be about apportioning sacrifice. Ask Papandreou in a few months how that's working for him.

Or ask New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Christie is interesting not just because of the fights he's taken on to rein in New Jersey's bloated public sector, but because he seems to relish the task. You'd think one of the casualties of the No Good Options era would be the "happy warrior" style that makes the best political leaders attractive. It's hard to be jaunty and optimistic while you're slashing and burning. Just look at Russell Crowe snarling in the trailer for the new film "Robin Hood" and you'll know what I mean.

As Christie's approval ratings plummet in the wake of the bitter medicine he's doling out, we'll see whether his smile fades. But I wouldn't rule out the chance that the coming era of No Good Options governance will call forth a phalanx of "happy warrior" one-termers—public-minded patriots of every stripe, from Santorini to Sacramento, who are eager to craft the big fiscal fix, put things on a sustainable path, and then get out of Dodge.