Mr. Roger C. Altman
55 East 52nd Street
New York, N.Y. 10055
You may recall that I wrote you a couple of years ago in connection with some ideas for the Kerry campaign. I didn’t hear back, which didn’t surprise me, although now that I think about it, the fact that I gave you your first job in investment banking, from which you have springboarded to ever greater visibility and prominence, might have entitled me to the minor courtesy of a rubber-stamp acknowledgement.
You may also recall that I sent along a copy of an unpublished book I wrote back in 1992, about where I thought this country was headed wrong and what to do about it. That the book never saw publication looks in retrospect to have been a pity, since all of the more dire prognostications I laid out have come true. Making those predictions required no genius on my part, although it did take a form of thinking conspicuously absent in what I then described as the American “overclass”: intellectual honesty, not to mention a touch of moral imagination.
In the book, I also put forward a number of prescriptive notions—some radical in fact, others only so in perception—that basically involved the application of common sense both to the way we live now and to the way we seem quite happy to see others live. Among these were suggestions regarding Congressional pay and staffing, a sensible tax structure, market-based incentives for individual educational accomplishment and so on.
My purpose in writing that book was to suggest, by example if you will, that it is no longer practical, even if eminently feasible, to attack the ills that beset this great Republic with further dosages of bullshit, although I recognize that in some circles this substance—of which Professor Harry G. Frankfurt has written with uncommon eloquence—is thought to have the same therapeutic effect on overclass social guilt that Zoloft does on clinical depression.
And that brings me to the Hamilton Project, The Wall Street Journal report on which prompted me to look up your Web site and download the mission statement. This I read with great interest, several times, and what I read prompts me now to write to urge that you and your colleagues in this amazingly self-congratulatory undertaking cease and desist.
I say this in a kindly, even condolatory way. The “Project” has absolutely no chance of success—unless, of course, you equate (and it occurs to me that by now you may) a certain measure of P.R. exposure with achievement. For one thing, there are no new ideas in the statement. “Economic security and economic growth can be mutually reinforcing” is not a new idea, nor is any to be found in the page-long gloss that follows the enunciation of this bold new “principle.” If I may paraphrase Churchill’s well-known apothegm on the late Soviet Union, what we have here is platitude wrapped in cliché inside bromide—over and over and over. And this begs the question, for this nation at least, of a nation-fixing mission statement that nowhere (unless I am blind) includes the word “immigration.”
Another reason that the “Project” has absolutely no chance of success is—how am I going to put this gently?—the people behind it. Your advisory council consists of 25 individuals. Of these, 12 come from Wall Street, broadly considered. I cannot say for sure whether experience in grossly overpaid lines of work such as hedge funds and derivatives trading and private equity and giving merger advice equips one to understand, let alone deal with, the vexations—such as how to get a job, pay the doctor, put food on the table—faced by the people in this country we need to worry about, but it seems conjectural at best.
Another 10 members of your advisory council come from academe, which requires no further comment—a consideration that also applies to the member who comes from the never-neverland of management consulting. Two others make their home in think tanks. At a time when enterprises like General Motors and Ford are back-to-wall, one might have thought some representation from the make-and-do and hire-and-fire sectors of American commerce would have proved helpful, even insightful. Perhaps even someone from Wal-Mart.
That said, I have no doubt that the “Project” will achieve its real goals. It will commission studies, enable consultants, stage conferences and symposia and panels, publish full-page newspaper ads, generate press coverage and the like, in the same inspiring manner as its ancestor in blather, the Concord Coalition of blessed memory.
But is this really the point? If there were some way to monetize self-congratulation, or to convert into B.T.U.’s the energy released by stroking the chin while gravely pursing the lips, I would argue otherwise. But the chances seem twofold: slim and none. The sad truth seems to be, at least in the eyes of one who has spent enough time at the Four Seasons to have a sense of how this stuff works, that this really isn’t a program about helping the less-advantaged or getting the country straightened out in a fiscal and intellectual sense; this is an advertisement for a government-in-waiting.
In conclusion, let me say that this letter is written in darkest self-interest. The day you receive this letter, I shall turn 70. Years ago, I took my design for living from a famous New Yorker cartoon, in which a very fancy mother says to her child, “Eat your broccoli, dear,” and the kid, after inspecting his plate dubiously, replies, “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it!” The sun will soon enough go down for the last time for me, and already the chances are that its final twinkling rays will be blotted out by the giant mounds of spinach with which the American landscape has been heaped by self-aggrandizing Panglosses in pinstripes. I beg you not to add to the pile.