Fans of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live,” will recall Emily Litella, a character played by the late Gilda Radner on the “Weekend Update” segment, hosted by Chevy Chase.
Miss Radner, as Litella, delivered the weekly “editorial,” during which she opined about some outrage or injustice. In the middle of her rant, Chevy Chase would lean over and whisper the truth in her ear, after which Miss Radner would turn to the camera and sheepishly say, “never mind.”
Alan Greenspan played Emily Litella last week when he testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a name that invokes George Orwell at his best. Oversight and reform are “Newspeak” for what this committee has failed to offer, especially when it comes to the behavior that led to the current financial meltdown.
“I made a mistake,” said Mr. Greenspan, four words that almost never cross the lips of anyone while serving in office. Members of the committee, who had both feared and revered Mr. Greenspan when the Golden Goose was laying so many eggs, turned on him like Lex Luthor turns on a Superman weakened by kryptonite.
Were all those rosy scenarios Mr. Greenspan once painted solely his fault, or should Congress share the blame for rarely questioning his judgment? The Washington Post said Mr. Greenspan was once viewed as “the infallible architect of U.S. prosperity.” The newspaper said Congress treated Mr. Greenspan “as an oracle.” This is religious language, requiring a type of blind faith, or at least more faith than anyone should place in another human being.
Congress loves to get on its high horse when things go wrong. This is partly to divert attention from its own failed responsibility. Like the suckers who once believed the 19th-century snake oil salesmen - “step right up ladies and gentlemen; this magical potion will cure everything from dandruff to athlete’s foot, all for just one American dollar” - many members of Congress were all too eager to shell out whatever it might take to keep voters fat and happy. They were enablers and co-conspirators and share the blame for their failure to provide proper oversight, especially to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Notice how, when things came tumbling down, Mr. Greenspan, the now former chairman of the Federal Reserve, becomes the scapegoat.
But what about us - yes you reading this newspaper? Snake oil requires a buyer. We wanted to believe the sky was the limit when it came to prosperity; indeed, we came to believe there were no limits. Home values were supposed to go up every year, along with a booming stock market. And with our increased profits we bought more stuff, renting public storage units for the overflow, because marketers told us stuff would make us happy. When we didn’t achieve happiness through material gain, we bought more stuff, believing the pot of gold was just at the end of the rainbow and surely our new and expensive (naturally) GPS system could find it.
The prevailing view on Capitol Hill, in the media and with much of the public seemed to be that if one couldn’t trust Alan Greenspan, whom could one trust? The answer to that question is the ancient wisdom practiced by those of long forgotten generations. You know them as “old sayings,” like, “always live within your means” and “haste makes waste” and this one from the early 17th-century poet, George Herbert: “By no means run in debt; take thine own measure. Who cannot live on 20 pounds a year cannot on 40.” For truly ancient wisdom, try this from The Teaching of Merikare (circa 2135-2040 B.C.): “A fool is he who is greedy when others possess. Life on Earth passes away; it is not long.”
One of the nice things about ancient wisdom is that it doesn’t expire, like milk left too long in the refrigerator. Those who believed and practiced ancient instructions and virtues aren’t sweating the economic downturn. Those who didn’t and believed in the “oracle” and “infallible architect” Alan Greenspan, may wish to consider them. Or, they could say, “never mind” and plod on to their next mistake.
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.