Piloting the Plane of State

How Barack Obama is like Capt. C.B. Sullenberger of Flight 1549.

US Airways Flight 1549 after its landing in the Hudson River

If one were searching for an appropriate metaphor—and, at times like this, one is always searching for a metaphor—it would be hard to do better than US Airways Flight 1549, the plane that crash-landed safely in the Hudson River last week. This extraordinary event was, if you like, the anti-9/11: A plane hurtled into central Manhattan, but its pilots, instead of aiming for a skyscraper and killing thousands, aimed at the river and thus saved the lives of all 155 people onboard.

There was no panic. “Witnesses described a scene of level-headed teamwork,” the Washington Post reported. Instead of screaming, passengers scrutinized the emergency doors in the seconds before landing, the better to open them quickly. Once in the water, strangers helped one another out of the plane. Tour boats 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 brought safely ashore. The pilot, Capt. C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger, walked up and down the aisle to make sure the seats were empty before leaving the sinking plane himself.

As you listen to President Barack Obama speak Tuesday, as you watch him parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and dance at the 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, the fact is that almost no one in mainstream politics did so, any more than anyone ever predicted that a flock of geese could bring down an Airbus. Like that pilot, Obama’s task now is to prevent the unexpected financial crisis from leading to a major 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 of the new administration’s various “bailout” plans worries me in particular: the assumption, which seems to lie behind them, 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 it, steal it, or simply misuse it. Following the initial failure of the federal government during Hurricane Katrina, for example, government money poured into New Orleans in the weeks and months afterward. The result: large-scale fraud, massive dissatisfaction, and mobile homes so badly built that they could not be used.

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

My greatest fear, on Inauguration Day, is not, therefore, 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 fix 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 their private or locally inspired equivalents. My second-greatest fear is that multiple company “bailouts” will ultimately produce fewer jobs and more wasted resources than the regeneration that could follow a string of intelligently managed bankruptcies.

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