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Listening to Arsonists

BERKELEY – I had always thought that Barack Obama made a significant mistake in naming the Republican ex-senator Alan Simpson to co-chair the president’s deficit-reduction commission. Simpson was a noted budget arsonist when he was in the Senate. Indeed, he never met a budget-busting, deficit-increasing initiative from a Republican president that he would not lead the charge to pass. Nor did he ever meet a sober deficit-reducing initiative from a Democratic president that he did not oppose with every fiber of his being.

You don’t pick an arsonist to head the fire department, I thought when Obama named him co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

But perhaps I am ungenerous. Perhaps Simpson has had a change of heart. Perhaps he has traveled his own road to Damascus, come face-to-face with what he had done and who he was, repented, and wanted to repair some of the damage to America and its long-run economic growth prospects that he had caused.

Even in that case, however, naming those who misbehave to important positions of high trust and acclaiming them as bipartisan statesmen gives the next generation really lousy incentives. And it’s not as though Congressional Republicans think they owe enough to Simpson for him to swing a single vote in either chamber of the legislature.