Friday, October 12, 2012

Valerie Jarrett: Checks and Balances Rebooted

    On October 19, 2009, President Obama's longtime friend and one of his closest Senior Advisors, Valerie Jarrett, spoke at the Washington 2009 Conference of the National Jewish Democratic Council.  Ms. Jarrett spoke on a wide range of issues, alternately plugging the president's proposals and thanking the NJDC for their past support.  Towards the end of the speech, she refers to the 2008 financial crisis and how the administration would be counting on the NJDC's support for "federal regulatory reform," a reference to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that passed Congress in 2010 and was signed into law by President Obama.  Jarrett's characterization of the need for reform, however, was framed in a rather curious choice of words.  The video selection (transcribed below) runs from 13:29 to about 13:57 (sorry, cannot pre-set start time):

Valerie Jarrett from NJDC on Vimeo.

"But what we're not gonna do is try to go backwards to where we were when we got into this mess and what is clear is that without adequate checks and balances of the federal government, we can't just rely on the free market system to work blindly - it won't - and people, innocent people, um, not just on Main Street but throughout the world will be impacted if we don't provide the necessary checks to make sure we're never in that si- in that situation again."
    Jarrett has been a lawyer for 30 years and involved in politics for a significant portion of that time.  The fact that she chose to twice use the phrase "checks and balances" to refer to the federal government's regulation of the private sector could not be accidental.  Needless to say, this phrase is jarringly out of the context in which most Americans place it, and probably have since they were children.  For crying out loud, School House Rock did a video called "Checks and Balances," and it wasn't about government reining in out-of-control capitalists:

    "Checks and Balances" has long been shorthand for the United States's system of divided government, the fail-safe mechanism built into the Constitution to prevent one branch from assuming too much power and overwhelming the others.  And yet Ms. Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President of the United States rather casually borrows the terminology and stands it on its head.  Not only does Jarrett transplant the "checks and balances" out of the intragovernmental context where it normally resides, she also implies that it runs in only one direction.  In her world, the people (private sector) are not being guarded from a too-powerful government, but rather the federal government is placing checks and balances on the "free market system" that is working "blindly" and apparently destructively.  Not only is Adam Smith's "hand" invisible, it's blind.

    I am not suggesting that Ms. Jarrett is in favor of removing the original checks and balances from the federal government, but rather she is appropriating a familiar phrase for a very different purpose.  It's as if "separation of powers" referred to antitrust laws, or "separation of church and state" meant purging God from public life (oh wait, bad example...)  It's as if Jarrett was trying to throw weight behind the White House's proposals to "reform Wall Street" by making it sound as if they were merely applying the principles of the founders.  Either that or Ms. Jarrett has become so isolated from those principles that the misappropriation was unintentional.  Neither option speaks well of her novel use of "checks and balances."

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