Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This Isn't Socialism

Wherever one looks in the conservative media, Obama’s economic plans are invariably referred to as “socialistic.” Glenn Beck frequently refers to Obama’s policies as “socialist,” and National Review editor Rich Lowry suggested that Obama is charting a “socialized course.” Both John Boehner and Jim DeMint have referred to Obama’s policies as “socialist.” It is inevitable that the charge of “socialism” will be a central feature of the GOP message for the 2010 midterms.

Many liberals (though not the ones in charge of Democratic party strategy) agree—Newsweek recently ran a cover proclaiming that we are all socialists now. Huffington Post blogger Robert Scheer agrees that the United States is now socialist, or nearly so, though he doesn’t think the US has gone far enough to the left.

It is incredible that all these voices cry “socialism,” without, apparently, knowing what socialism actually is. Socialism is harmful and intrusive from a conservative point of view. So are Obama’s policies. But socialism and what Obama advocates are far from the same thing.

Wikipedia defines socialism as a “set of economic theories of social organization advocating public or state ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and a society characterized by equality for all individuals, with a fair or egalitarian method of compensation.” Does that sound like what Obama is attempting to do?

It shouldn’t, because Obama isn’t trying to accomplish any of that. True, the banking system, and much of the auto industry, is nationalized and government-controlled, which sounds like a socialist thing to do. But there are two important differences here, which separate Obama’s policy from socialism.

First, all this nationalization is temporary and limited—the plan is that eventually GM, Chrysler, and the banking system will become private and autonomous again. The current system is meant to be only temporary. And the government’s power over these companies, while considerable, is still limited—the nationalized companies still have a say in how they are run.

The second difference is that these nationalizations were more or less voluntary; the corporations here surrendered their independence to the government in return for government assistance. The federal government didn’t forcibly take over these companies—they asked to be taken over.

If Obama’s policies really were socialist, he would have taken these corporations by force, put government agents in charge, and the corporations would have remained in that condition in perpetuality. Instead, these nationalized companies will eventually regain their independence, after first getting billions in taxpayer dollars, which is a good deal if you can get it.

Conservatives point to other Obama policies, such as cap-and-trade, higher taxes, and increased government regulations. It may be that none of these things are desirable. But neither are they socialistic. Socialism is an economic policy.

What Obama is really pushing is a statist version of the Third Way (or a mixed economy), which is a sort of combination of capitalism and socialism, in which the private sector is free to set its own course within the bounds of government regulation. (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were prominent Third Way proponents). The market is allowed to work—but its first allegiance is to the state. There are different versions of this philosophy—it’s the dominant philosophy in Europe, and in less benign countries is usually called fascism. (Fascism emphasizes nationalism and militarism, which separates the third way from fascism).

In Obama’s version of this philosophy, government doesn’t take over big business—it complements it. The good news: that isn’t socialism. The bad news: it’s worse, since it combines the intrusiveness of socialism with the greed found in capitalism.

Why is this distinction important? Two reasons. The first is that words mean things, and it’s important to get labels right, if for no other reason than because misusing simple terms makes one look silly. The other is that if conservatives wish to oppose what Obama is doing, then they should know what it is they are fighting. In any conflict, the first rule is to know your enemy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Scattered Thoughts

Just a few random thoughts…

There was a time when it seemed that America would never get tired of Barack Obama—he seemed a mythic president, like Lincoln or Kennedy. He’s come back to earth now—it feels like people are getting tired of his constant television appearances, his approval ratings are starting to fall back to earth. That was to be expected—no one could live up to Obama’s expectations—but it has come much quicker than anyone would have anticipated.

Nobody thinks Timothy Geinther is doing a good job as Treasury Secretary—but cut him a little slack. There still haven’t been any other treasury officials confirmed. It’s been two months, and the treasury is an important position. It’s unbelievable that these spots haven’t been filled.

Why is Senator Judd Gregg the only senator warning of America’s debt level? He pointed out in an MSNBC interview that America couldn’t join the European Union if it wanted to because of its crushing debt. How come more Republicans aren’t making this point? And how is it possible that Europe is more fiscally responsible than the United States?

Congress is considering regulating the way the BCS selects bowl teams. There’s probably room for improvement—but how can Congress possibly justify forcing college football to change the way it decides its champion? And even if Congress could justify this, aren’t there a few more important things to do?

Even more depressing—Orrin Hatch is one of those actively pushing this bill. Seems that Utah hasn’t forgotten their championship game snub, so Hatch is giving them some help.

Senator Benjamin Cardin has proposed a newspaper bailout bill, which has some obvious flaws. But pretend, for the moment, that there wouldn’t be any sort of conflict of interest there, with newspapers being forced to report on the very entity that owns them. The deeper question is: is there any business left in America that isn’t eligible for a bailout? For all the stereotypes about Republicans being tools of Big Business, Democrats are doing more for business than Republicans ever did.

Some Swiss banks are banning their employees from traveling abroad over fears that they will be detained and questioned about bank secrecy. That fear seems to be much more similar to something found in a fascist state than anything Bush did.

I always find worries that America’s best days are behind it silly and premature—after all, conditions in America have seemed bleak at many times in our nation’s history, yet America has always prevailed. But such fears now seem less silly than they did in the past—Obama has apparently given up any notion of a manageable national debt, given his plan to triple the debt in ten years. And Obama seems overwhelmed by the very difficult problems he faces—his economic stimulus plan wasn’t an example of strong leadership, and he seems unsure of himself on foreign policy. It doesn’t see as though America has the will to fight through this—as though American’s have lost confidence in their nation.

Foreign policy has never been one of Obama’s strengths. During the campaign, he touted his opposition to the Iraq War a great deal, and promised to withdraw U.S. troops quickly. Then, as soon as he was elected president, he discarded that particular policy. North Korea’s upcoming missile launch seems an example of the president’s foreign policy paralysis—he just doesn’t seem to know what to do. Talking to one’s adversaries is fine—but you have to have something to say.

Apparently, Eric Cantor courted a small amount of controversy by not correcting a C-SPAN caller who called Obama’s policies fascist. This is hyperbole, especially considering that the word “fascist” now means “someone who disagrees with me.” But if fascism is the combination of big business and big government—well, that seems to be happening now. America is nowhere near fascism—but fascistic elements do seem to be creeping into our government.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Blaming AIG

“Get the bonus, we will get your children.”

“I don't hope that bad things happen to the recipients of those bonuses. I really hope that bad things happen to the children and grandchildren of them! Whatever hurts them the most!!”

“You f***ing suck. Paying bonuses to the d*****s that made bad bets losing your company billions of dollars. I want to f***ing puke. Publish the list of those yankee scumbags so some good old southern boys can take care of them.”

These emails are just a sample of the hate mail that AIG has gotten in the wake of the AIG bonus controversy. Granted, many of these writers are just cranks (the sort of people who post nasty comments in blog comment threads), but some aren’t—AIG CEO Edward Liddy feared to release the names of the AIG employees who received bonuses out of fear for their safety, and many AIG employees have hired security firms to protect their homes.

The attitudes in these letters are extreme—but they are simply lunatic fringe expressions of attitudes that are shared by many, many people, both average citizens and politicians. And this is worrisome.

Andrew Cuomo is waging a war to try to get the AIG bonuses back, and will apparently do whatever it takes to do so. He’s trying to find a way to take back the bonuses of British AIG employees, in spite of the fact that a) those employees were entitled to them, and b), he doesn’t have any jurisdiction in Britain. (Cuomo allowed that he had a “very aggressive theory about our jurisdiction, but we don’t have a theory that gets us to London yet.” He is, however, looking for a way in)

Thuggishly, Cuomo is threatening to release the names of those employees who refused to return their bonuses. However, regarding those who did return their bonuses, Cuomo said “I don’t believe there’s a public interest in releasing their names.” The message is clear: return your bonuses, or face public humiliation—or worse.

Cuomo is hardly alone in his attitude—he just presents a convenient example. There are plenty of other examples: Michael Moore accusing the rich of staging a coup, Barney Frank calling the bonuses “extortion,” or Obama saying that the financial crisis was caused by “Wall Street greed.” (The financial crisis was caused partly by “greed,” but that explanation is incredibly inadequate, and imprecise. It’s like saying that since money was involved in the collapse, the crash can be traced back to money).

This attitude is pervasive—and worrisome. Not just for its effects on these particular AIG workers (in the long run, they’ll be okay), but for our society at large.

This stance many seem to be taking against the business class (the banking class in particular) seems to me to be perilously close to class warfare. It’s true that Wall Street bears a great deal of blame for the predicament that we are in. But so does Washington. And so do all those hundreds of thousands of people who abused their credit. This crash was a long time coming, and its causes extend far, far beyond Wall Street greed.

Wall Street makes a convenient scapegoat, since it produces nothing tangible and relatively few people work there. But scapegoating Wall Street is both wrong and dangerous—wrong, because our economic problems go far beyond anything Wall Street could do, and dangerous, because it divides Americans, and sets one group apart as villains destroying the American way of life.

This blame game is destructive, if for no other reason that it is impossible to know who will be next. Maybe it will be doctors being blamed for our health care system, or maybe auto workers being demonized for the plight of General Motors and Chrysler. It’s unfair to blame any one group for our country’s problems—but it is convenient to try.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

AIG Fascism

There’s been a lot of careless talk, on both sides of the political aisle, warning that the other political party will transform the United States into a totalitarian state. Most of such talk can be safely ignored; nothing Bush did could have turned America into Mussolini’s Italy, and Barack Obama’s economic policies, while excessively overreaching and aggressive, aren’t out of the Lenin playbook.

Congress’ decision to tax the now infamous AIG bonuses at (or near) 100% is not totalitarianism—it is an understandable, if wholly irrational, response to something that seems (but isn’t) unjust, and something that provides ample ammunition for populists. But it is a fascistic thing to do, and is worrying.

It takes more than one isolated incident to provide proof, or even evidence, that the nation is on its way to fascism. But then, it is equally true that in any totalitarian government, there is one act that is the first step along the road to tyranny.

Congress’ response to the bailouts is undeniably unjust, and hypocritical, and wrong. Levying a tax only on those who received bonus money from AIG is probably an example of an ex post facto law, and represents of the actions of a government who is willing to forcibly take any money it feels is undeserved.

Even if we assume that those AIG employees shouldn’t have received those bonuses, Congress’ actions are no more justified, given that AIG was authorized to hand out those bonuses in the stimulus bill. It is one thing to pass an ex post facto law, but to pass an ex post facto law that reverses a law that you yourself made only a few weeks earlier is the height of chutzpah.

Congress is trying to do what is right here, but they are going about it in very much the wrong way. The end doesn’t justify the means, and creating an unjust law in order to right a perceived wrong is unacceptable. That sort of thing doesn’t belong in a democracy—it works better in totalitarianism.

Congress’ actions here are high-handed, and unjust. Do they mean that the nation is headed for totalitarianism? No. Just like one swallow does not make a spring, one unjust action is not ample evidence for accusations of fascism. But even if Congress’ proposal here isn’t a sign of impending fascism, it’s still worrying.

First, because it sets a dangerous pattern. No one in our government wants to set up a authoritarian regime now. But if some one ever does want to, it’s laws like this one that provide such people with a precedent, and which undercuts justice and the rule of law. Bad laws have consequences.

Second, the popularity of this proposed law (and really, any amount of popularity is too much in this case) says something about our nation. If this law is really unjust, what does it say about our country that nearly everyone is willing to accept it at the very least, and that many people actively support it? When totalitarianism comes, it is seldom the result of a one man power grab. It usually comes because the population prefers security over freedom.

Will that happen here? Eventually, maybe, but probably not now. (And it is possible that it will all be a moot point—most of the AIG employees involved have bowed under the pressure and returned their bonuses, which would make any law unnecessary) But as Jefferson said, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Anyone, left or right, who loves liberty should oppose this punitive, ex post facto law. It is wrong and dangerous.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The AIG Bonuses: A Bit of Perspective

Everybody’s outraged at AIG. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that he was outraged at least thirteen times in his Tuesday briefing. Budget director Peter Orszag thought that the “outrage was visceral.” John Boehner agreed that the situation was “outrageous,” and argued that the American people are “justifiably” outraged too.

President Obama is doing everything he can. He gave Timothy Geithner a vote of confidence, saying that he has “been making all the right moves.” He has promised to try to find a way to get the bonus money back, which sounds hard since AIG depends on the federal government for its survival. And the checks have been cashed, which makes getting the money back even harder.

(Amusingly, Obama nobly said “I’ll take responsibility,” immediately before saying “we didn’t grant those contracts.”)

And nobody in the White House seems to know just how those bonuses were awarded, or when the White House became aware of them. Geithner claims to have learned of the bonuses March 10, and says he informed the president March 12. (The bonuses went out the following day). But the Treasury Department was notified ten days before, meaning that Geithner is either incompetent or lying.

And nobody knows exactly why the bonuses were authorized. Chris Dodd admitted (after initially denying it) to inserting language that allowed the payouts into Obama’s stimulus package. But he claimed to have put it in at the request of the Treasury Department.

So according to Dodd, Geithner and the Treasury are the bad guys here. Geithner says that it’s all Dodd’s fault. Whatever the truth, someone is undeniably guilty of…

(stop reading now if you are easily outraged)

…allowing a corporation to pay its own employees. (Shock!!!) AIG did nothing wrong. Giving out those bonuses was the appropriate thing to do—in fact, it was the only right and moral thing to do. It is possible that Dodd’s amendment sets a dangerous precedent—but in the present instance, the effects were perfectly legitimate. Nobody should be apologizing, and Dodd shouldn’t have had to lie.

As far as I can see, the outrage over the bonuses exists solely because AIG is effectively government owned. Apparently, this fact means that underperforming employees contracts become null and void. These bonuses weren’t spur of the moment, unearned giveaways. They were a part of the contracts of the employees concerned. Those bonuses were planned years in advance. Should the government have forced AIG to break its contract with these people and renege on what it owed them?

But assume that the bonuses weren’t planned; that AIG CEO Edward Liddy had just paid them out as a reward for a job well done. Is even that such a bad thing? There are effective workers in every company, even failing ones like AIG. Should the federal government decide not to compensate them?

Pretend that GM was taken over by the government (that’s not exactly hard to imagine). Would the government ever dream of stopping the company from paying bonuses to its auto workers? Of course not, and anyone who even suggested such a measure would be painted as a hard-hearted villain.

The situations are perfectly analogous. The only difference: the AIG people lived in nice apartments instead of small ones, and wore power suits instead of overalls, and listened to The Arcade Fire instead of Bruce Springsteen.

This kind of class warfare is destructive, and should stop. People who work in an official are not morally inferior to people who work in a factory. Wall Street people earn big bonuses because they are, for the most part, worth it. No corporation failed because of big bonuses. This is class warfare, plain and simple.

Republicans shouldn’t have anything to do with it. They will, of course, because most normal Americans are outraged, and want to see heads roll. With luck, Republicans hope to tarnish the Obama Administration, and do their best to ensure that Chris Dodd’s name is mud. They’ve got a good chance of succeeding—all based on outrage over a “crime” that is no crime at all, but perfectly justified and right.

It shouldn’t have come to this.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Changing

Two observations. First: things are looking up, a little, for the Republican party. Barack Obama’s administration didn’t hit the ground running like he planned—there were a lot of corruption issues, and Obama’s Cabinet is still not filled. (Most glaringly, Timothy Geinther is alone in the Treasury department—Obama hasn’t appointed anyone else to any Treasury positions yet).

And voters aren’t responding to Obama’s economic policy the way he wanted them to. The stimulus package had a lot of supporters, but also a great many detractors, and it represented a big target for anti-pork Republicans. The omnibus bill was even worse—it seemed to exist solely for the purpose of providing pork.

There is evidence that voters are responding to Obama’s mistakes. Recent polls from Rasmussen and Pew show Obama’s approval rating slipping (though it remains high). And a new Rasmussen poll shows Republicans with a small lead on a generic congressional ballot. So if the situation is not quite ideal for the Republican party, it is at least better than it has been for some time.

Second observation: many, probably most, conservative strategists agree that the Republican party needs to rebrand. They agree that too many voters see it as out of touch, corrupt, and without principle, and that in order for the party to remain viable, it must fundamentally change its message.

But it is not inconceivable envision a scenario in which the GOP doesn’t change, and still remains viable. If the economy doesn’t improve, and Obama and the Democratic Congress make a few more missteps, well, it’s not impossible to see a case in which Republicans pick up seats in 2010. It’s even within the realm of possibility that they could pick up a lot of seats. (A slim chance, but still a chance). Such an event would still have to be classified as improbable—but is still very plausible.

The question is: if the Republican party finds itself in a position to win elections, will it still find the will to change? If, as a result of Democrat bungling, the GOP managed to pick up seats in 2010, that wouldn’t mean that any of the criticisms leveled at the party by reform minded Republicans would be any less valid. The problems would only be hidden. Change usually includes some trouble and pain—could the Republican party change to make it stronger in the long term, even if there were some adverse effects in the short term?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why Bipartisanship Doesn't Work

During the presidential campaign, both candidates touted the benefits of bipartisanship. John McCain couldn’t talk enough about all the times he “reached across the aisle” to work on legislation with Democrats (though the two most prominent examples, the McCain-Feingold Act and his immigration deal with Ted Kennedy, weren’t exactly rousing successes). And Barack Obama was supposed to represent a “new kind of politics,” where party affiliation took a back seat to what worked. He hadn’t had much experience in bipartisanship, since he never really did much of anything in the Senate, but he did pass this one ethics law with Richard Lugar.

Then Obama was elected, and of course all his bipartisanship talk was quickly discarded. Obama (in what was admittedly a brilliant move) kept Robert Gates on as Secretary of Defense, and appointed Illinois Rep. Ray Hood as Transportation Secretary. Another sign of bipartisanship was Obama’s offer of the Secretary of Commerce job to Senator Judd Gregg, and that was tarnished by the fact that Obama would have stripped the Commerce Department of its authority to conduct the census. But apart from those early (and in the case of Gregg, ineffective) gestures, Obama’s administration has been politics as usual: Obama blames Bush for our current economic crisis, and has orchestrated attacks against Rush Limbaugh. The politics of hope seem more like the politics of the status quo.

Of course, you can’t blame Obama for that—that’s just how politics works, and there’s a reason politics works that way. Bipartisanship doesn’t work because it is hard to get productive work done when the other party is doing his best to ensure that you will be out a job next election. This fundamental conflict of interest is a part of all bipartisan dealing, and is the reason why most bipartisan negotiations result in a compromise that neither side likes at all.

Most people, however, wish that things were different; that politicians from both sides of the aisle could join together to find solutions for America. Basically, they hope the Barack Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” might have some reality, and bipartisanship might have a chance.
They shouldn’t. Bipartisanship doesn’t work, at least not in American politics right now. The two parties are far too far apart ideologically for compromise to be a real possibility. It is possible to compromise when the differences are a matter of degree. It is not possible to forge any sort of lasting compromise when the differences are a matter of kind.

Take Obama’s stimulus package. It was a notoriously hard-fought bill; the Republicans fought it every step of the way, and the Democrats fought back just as vigorously. Neither side seriously considered a real compromise. (Although without the GOP resistance, it is very probable that the stimulus would have been much larger, so perhaps the Democrats did compromise, though not very much). But what compromise could have been possible? In conservative ideology, the very existence of the bill is an abomination. The question was not settling the exact dollar amount of the stimulus—the real question was whether the bill should be passed at all. And there is no compromise possible in that kind of either-or situation.

It’s the same sort of deal with most other political issues—abortion, gay marriage, bailouts.
So when politicians do try to compromise, the result is an impossible hybrid that neither side likes. Republicans usually adopt the liberal principle that government action is the answer to any crisis. Democrats allow that any government action should be restrained, and that taxes should remain low. So the U.S. spends money (keeping the Democrats happy), while not spending enough (if we assume that government action can do good), or having any way to compensate for its expenditures (which keeps Republicans content).

In some countries, where both sides have the same goals, but different ways of reaching them, bipartisanship may be a good, even necessary thing. But in a country, like in America, where the parties have radically different goals, bipartisanship is at best a necessary evil. Obama’s dream of genuine bipartisanship will remain unfulfilled—and that’s a good thing.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Two Ways To Handle Recession

At least there’s some good news. Citibank just announced a profit for the last quarter, and indicated that it would probably not require government aid. GM, too had some good news—it said that it could get through March without $2 billion in government aid after all. The Dow Jones is up above 7,100. Economically, things are looking up a bit—Barack Obama has decided that the economy is “not as bad as we think.”

If we are seeing the signs of recovery (and it’s still far to early to make a judgment on that), then it’s interesting to note that it has nothing to do with anything Obama has done, and really, nothing to do with anything Bush did either. (Bush’s biggest achievement here was passing TARP, and that wasn’t exactly a rousing success). It would be ironic, if precedented, if, for all the urgent rush for government aid, the economy recovered on its own.

Economies can recover without, or in spite of, government intervention, and the fact that such a possibility was never even considered here is a failure for conservatism. There are, (very) broadly speaking, two ways of dealing with an economic crisis—the liberal way, and the conservative way.

The liberal method was what Washington (both the Bush and Obama Administrations) used for our current crisis. (As Peggy Noonan said her in column today, it really does need a name). It calls for massive government intervention till the trouble is quelled—bailouts, stimulus, sometimes even nationalization of private corporations. Basically, this view sees a financial crisis as a war, where the federal government has almost unlimited power to try to solve the problem. Nothing is beyond the pale.

The advantage of this way: when it works, the economic problem is solved quickly, and less painfully than it would have been otherwise. And it’s easier to see what went wrong, and to patch up those problem areas in the future.

Problem: this way usually doesn’t work. The New Deal was a much larger version of what Obama is trying to do. It was totally ineffective—after eight years of Roosevelt, the unemployment rate was twenty percent, down from twenty-five when he took office. It was only the start of World War II that ended the Depression.

And during the severe late-seventies/early-eighties recession, government action couldn’t do much to lift “malaise.” It took tax cuts (and, it must be said, massive government spending) to do that.

In fact, in all our nation’s history, it’s hard to find an example of government intervention lifting the economy out of recession.

The conservative solution: do nothing, and wait for the free market to sort things out. Advantage: it always works. Problem: it takes a while sometimes.

Left to its own devices, the free market will always eventually equalize and get the economy going again. Eventually. It can take quite a while.

Look at what would have happened had the government done nothing when the recession started. The housing market would have crumbled. The stock market would have collapsed, losing over forty percent of its value. Unemployment would have skyrocketed, and American households would have lost over ten trillion dollars. There would have been painful bank failures, which would have lost billions of dollars for American families.

Except all that did happen, and even with government intervention. Of course, possibly things would have been worse were it not for the efforts of Henry Paulson and Barack Obama—but it is equally likely things would have been better. And if recovery would be prolonged by a laissez-faire approach, everyone agrees it will be similarly prolonged with Obama’s recovery plan. The liberal economic vision seems to give the same results that the conservative one does—but at a much higher price tag.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Governing: It's Harder Than It Looks

Barack Obama’s first month as president hasn’t really been terribly successful. Too many of his Cabinet appointments have been forced to withdraw (Chas Freeman is the latest example. And yes, I’m aware that he wasn’t technically a Cabinet pick—he was set to head the National Intelligence Council). His stimulus package passed, but not without controversy and staunch Republican opposition, and it and the recently passed stimulus bill were full of blatant pork projects. And his overall approval has dropped—as low as 56%, according to one Rasmussen poll, which isn’t particularly strong considering that Obama is still in what should be his honeymoon period.

Camile Paglia thinks she knows where to lay the blame.

[F]ree the president from his flacks, fixers and goons -- his posse of smirky smart alecks and provincial rubes, who were shrewd enough to beat the slow, pompous Clintons in the mano-a-mano primaries but who seem like dazed lost lambs in the brave new world of federal legislation and global statesmanship.


I think (though I’m not good at predictions; last year, I was convinced that we would see a Hillary-Romney presidential matchup) that more and more liberals will latch on to her explanation if (when?) Obama’s policies are proven ineffective.

Basically, Paglia is arguing that Obama has been undone by corrupt, incompetent advisors, that he has been “ill-served by his advisors and staff.” She think that if it were not for the “dazed lost lambs” surrounding him, Obama would be much more effective.

She’s probably right. But what did she expect? Obama came into the presidency without a shred of executive experience, or even much time in the Senate. Ideas alone aren’t enough to make a good president—one must also have the ability to delegate effectively.

While the presidential campaign is underway, there is an odd sort of assumption that the winner will have dictatorial powers, and the ability to get done whatever he pleases. (Particularly in Obama’s case, where his party also controlled both Houses of Congress).

But, of course, the reality is very different. The presidency is a massively complicated and difficult job. It’s impossible for one man to manage everything, or even to oversee everything. That’s why executive experience is such an important attribute in a president—delegation is a very difficult skill to learn.

Assume that Obama is a real visionary politician whose policies represent what it necessary to move the country forward. (They aren’t, but just assume here). All that knowledge is useless without the ability to implement it. And the skills necessary to advance policy are very different from those required to formulate policy. Obama is very good at the latter; so far, he has not been very good at the former.

The most successful presidents have also been the best at delegating. Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln were both very good at getting their goals accomplished. Both were also excellent delegators, very skilled at getting the best from their advisors. (Though oddly enough, neither man’s Cabinet was particularly well-organized—Reagan’s Cabinet was plagued with petty feuds and animosities, and Lincoln’s Cabinet was disorganized and discordant. Apparently, it’s not necessary to have a unified Cabinet—only an efficient one). Obama, so far, hasn’t exhibited that ability.

Of course, another ability shared by great presidents is the ability to adapt, and improve. Lincoln was forced to become a military strategist during the Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt had to fight both the Great Depression, and then World War II. (One of those battles was more successful than the other). Perhaps Obama will adjust as well, and improve his management skills. But for the present, his administration is far from the well-oiled, ready-to-go-on-day-one machine Obama hoped it would be.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama's Spending In Perspective

[Note: I haven't been blogging as much I'd like to recently; I've been really busy and simply haven't had the time. I know that in blogging, it's important to post new stuff regularly, but that hasn't been happening recently. Still, I think I'll soldier on-even if my posting isn't as regular as I'd like, well, it's about quality over quanity anyway. And try to bear with me--hopefully, I'll find more time for blogging. But I haven't forgotten everyone who reads this--life has just been getting in the way.]

Barack Obama has been taking a lot of heat for his extravagant spending habits, and with good reason. His stimulus package was massive—nearly a trillion dollars—and even liberal economists allow that it may have not been worth it, as it is both too small and the spending too protracted to achieve its goals. (And, of course, there is the additional consideration that it provided billions in funding for wasteful pork projects). And today, Congress approved a massive $410 billion omnibus bill, which seems to have been passed solely to provide more funds for pork. (In an inspiring exhibition of that responsibility and conscientiousness that has become a hallmark of the Republican party, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell managed to pull down an impressive $76 million dollars worth of pork for his home state of Kentucky.) And the projected deficit for this year is an astonishing 1.8 trillion, which increases the national debt by nearly twenty percent.

And Obama doesn’t seem to be done with his spending plans. He sees an increased government role in health care, which would be very expensive, and proposes a carbon tax-and-trade plan, which would hurt business a great deal. So Obama has hardly been fiscally responsible.

But while Obama’s fiscal skills may be horribly irresponsible, his skills, or lack of them, may not really matter much in the long run. Obama sees our current financial crisis as being so dire that deficits are irrelevant, and he may be right, on the principle that one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. Because the United States is in a very bad fiscal position, and nothing Obama does can really make things much worse.

First, consider the national debt. The national debt is about ten trillion now (about twelve trillion by the end of this year), an almost unimaginably large number. To put that number in perspective, the entire federal budget last year was about three trillion, the nation’s GDP was about thirteen trillion. Were the federal government to keep its current spending levels, but to spend money only on the national debt, it would take over three years to pay it off. And given that the federal government can’t even balance the budget, it doesn’t look like it will start paying off the national debt soon.

And what happens when you can’t pay off your debts? See Fannie Mae. Except nothing can bail out the federal government.

Even if the national debt were to disappear tomorrow, America still wouldn’t be out of the fiscal woods. Because it owes trillions in future obligations, obligations that will be almost impossible to pay.

In the next half century, the United States owes about $60 trillion, for Social Security payments, Medicare payments, and the like. That’s a little over a trillion dollars a year (and that number will only increase), over and above what it would spend already. It’s hard enough to see how it will afford those payments—but Social Security and Medicare (and the rest of the New Deal and Great Society programs) are perpetual—they won’t stop. So even if the U.S. somehow gets through the next fifty years, those obligations won’t go away—it will only be replaced by an even greater crushing weight of debt.

So does fiscal responsibility matter? Yes, because it’s no good making a bad situation worse. But really, Obama’s spending won’t matter so much over the long run—the nation faces much larger budget problems than Obama’s contributions. And sadly, it is hard to see a plausible solution to the problem, especially given that America almost certainly faces at least four more years of a Democratic government.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Conservative Derangement

After Bush was elected in 2000, many liberals were unhappy. They had two ways to deal with that disappointment—a) accept that they lost and vow to get ‘em next time, or b) embrace paranoia and start accusing Bush of stealing the election and becoming a dictator and lying the country into war and torture and fascism. They chose b.

So we got eight years of Michael Moore suggesting that Bush and bin Laden were playing for the same team, and of Keith Olbermann calling for Bush to resign, and dozens of crazy conspiracy theories about Iraq being a war for oil waged in order to prop up Halliburton.

This phase must have been embarrassing for rational liberals. It’s one thing to disagree with someone, it’s another to be become unhinged over Bush’s existence. But conservatives made hay with all the liberal insanity—they labeled it Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS for short) and used it as proof that liberals weren’t serious about the real problems facing the nation. Among themselves, conservatives swore that no matter how bad things looked, they’d never stoop so low as to engage in Obama Derangement Syndrome.

Then Obama got elected, and they didn’t waste any time. Conservatives managed, for the most part, to avoid the stupid sort of trutherism that said that Obama wasn’t actually a natural born citizen. But the restraint stopped there. Since Obama’s inauguration, the conservative response has been a) tax cuts, b) Rush Limbaugh, c) Atlas Shrugged, and d) accusations of socialism.

Obama’s stimulus package was a flawed bill—incredible amounts of pork, and it meant massive deficits. And it was (and still is) doubtful whether it would even succeed in its stated goal of pushing the economy out of recession.

All devastating points, and the Republicans did use them. But their solution? Tax cuts. Which would have been a great idea, except that Republicans have made tax cuts the centerpiece of their response to every financial crisis since Reagan. And given the size of the deficit (even without Obama’s stimulus package), cutting taxes would simply be irresponsible.

No conservative managed to particularly distinguish himself in the fight over the stimulus bill, so people looking for a leader of the Republican party looked to Rush Limbaugh for inspiration. And that caused a significant controversy, with liberals angrily demanding whether Republicans support Rush, and conservatives divided into pro-Limbaugh and anti-Limbaugh camps; the former considering Rush a real asset and a true conservative leader, and the other vociferously disagreeing.

How about third option: who cares? Well, everyone does now, due to size of the controversy. But it shouldn’t have been a controversy at all. If you like Rush, enjoy him by all means. If not, find a new leader you can get behind. But Rush isn’t going to go away just because some people think he’s too influential.

Some dispirited conservatives are suggesting we live in an “Atlas Shrugged” scenario, where the government will take over the entire economy, and debating whether we should all go “John Galt,” which apparently means stoping producing and hoping that the economy falls apart. Because nothing says “responsible guardians of the economy” by having your supporters run around citing some literary enormity which advocates a stupid, sophomoric philosophy, right?

The whole “Atlas Shrugged” idea brings me to my last point, which is the constant accusations from the Right that Obama advocates socialism. “Socialism” is a serious charge, one that should not be carelessly directed at anyone. So it’s a pity that so many Republicans obviously have no idea what socialism is.

Socialism’s main goal is state control of production and distribution of goods. Seen much of that in the Obama Administration? (There have been some banks nationalized, but that was one of Bush’s plans, not Obama’s) Another goal is a “fair” wage scale. Hasn’t been much regulation of wages either. Obama is simply not a socialist. There are words for what he really is—“statist” is certainly one; “corporatist” is another that seems to fit. You could even make a case (though not a very strong one, in my view) that his program incorporates elements of fascism. But he’s certainly not a Socialist.

So far, conservatives have stayed far away from the level of crazy that many liberals sank to during the dark days of Bush. But still, their performance since Obama’s election has been very poor—they’ve spent most of their time either pushing stupid economic theories or engaging in dumb, counterproductive power struggles. If conservatives haven’t become “deranged”, they still certainly haven’t acted very responsibly.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

More About Rush

In my last post, I wrote about Rush Limbaugh’s role in the Republican party. I said that while Rush makes a very good spokesman for the conservative movement, leadership of the GOP is best left to politicians. Rush should play a William F. Buckley role—lead the movement, not the party.

Given some of the sentiments expressed around the conservative blogosphere on the topic, that isn’t good enough for many conservative pundits. They think that Limbaugh’s brand of conservatism is outdated—angry, exclusive, backwards-looking, and tinged with racism. In this view, Rush Limbaugh, while he may have his uses, should stay well away from any leadership position.

There is, perhaps, some merit to that viewpoint. But those who agree with forget one thing. If Rush Limbaugh speaks for the conservative movement, there is a reason that is so. His ideas resonate with millions of people, and those people are willing to invest time and social capital into listening to him.

So if we assume that Limbaugh makes a poor conservative spokesman, the fault lies with all those millions of conservatives who support him. There are so many conservative leaders who seem to assume that Limbaugh’s ideas weakens the movement. Instead, I think the opposite is true—Limbaugh’s ideas are the movement, in that without the glue his show provides, conservatism would be an abstraction, not a living political faction. (Granted, had Rush never existed, conservatism wouldn’t have withered and died—someone would have picked up the slack, though probably not so well).

So if reformer conservatives don’t like Rush, there’s an easy answer—set up your own alternative. Those right-wingers who point out that Limbaugh can attract maybe thirty percent of voters and scare away the rest miss the fact that their ideas are only popular with a tiny population of political junkies who comment on their websites. David Frum thinks Rush’s popularity doesn’t extend much beyond his twenty million strong audience. But Frum’s popularity doesn’t extend much beyond his relatively small group of Internet fans. Maybe Frum’s (and others; Frum is just a convenient example) ideas are really good and will be a fresh start for the GOP and the conservative movement. But so far, new conservatism has been long on ideas and short (inevitably, given its newness) on results. If Limbaugh is outdated, he has had success. Those who attempt to tear him down don’t seem to have anything to put in his placc.

Understanding Rush

Michael Steele probably didn’t think his CNN interview would go like that. When asked about Rush Limbaugh’s “want Obama to fail” remarks, Steele disowned Rush, calling him an “entertainer” and his show “ugly” and “incendiary.” Steele also claimed that he, not Limbaugh, was the de facto leader of the Republican party.

Limbaugh, as you might expect, didn’t like that, and hit back. He accused Steele of a) misunderstanding his job, b) ingratitude, and c) incompetence. Steele backed down and allowed that he might have been a “little bit inarticulate.” (A little bit?). According to Steele, the whole incident was a misunderstanding, the result of a verbal slipup. Which is probably true, though Steele’s “inarticulateness” is truly incredible for someone in his position.

But Steele’s gaffe raises an interesting question: where does Rush Limbaugh fit into the conservative movement? Many (including Rush) consider him the de facto leader of the Republican party; certainly, he has been the only person whose criticisms of Barack Obama have landed with any force at all.

Further, talk radio in general, and Limbaugh in particular, are the only Republican voices with any moral authority or effectualness left. The conservative blogosphere still lacks (with a few exceptions) any real influence. Grassroots Republicans are a tiny group of overenthusiastic political junkies. And the Republican establishment (as personified by the Republican National Committee and the Republican remnant in Congress) is so discredited and tarnished that it is almost powerless.

If Rush isn’t the leader of the Republican party, then nobody is. He is certainly conservatism’s most popular and effective spokesman. But not every conservative thinks that’s a good thing.

Many conservative thinkers (particularly among the younger, less traditional set), think that Rush is at worst a bight on the GOP and at best taken only in small doses. The idea is that moderates will see Rush as a hateful bomb thrower, the same moderates see Rush as the spokesman of the Republican party, moderates leave and it’s goodbye Republicans.

At one extreme of this point of view is David Frum, who goes to far as to suggest that Limbaugh wants Republicans to lose in order to amass a larger audience for himself. At the more moderate and reasonable end of the spectrum is Ross Douthat, who writes that the fact that so many conservatives look to him as a conservativee True North, which makes them look like “starstruck fools.”

So if Rush is the leader of the conservative movement, and/or of the Republican party, is that an undesirable thing?

Yes and no. Rush Limbaugh is a very effective spokesman for the conservative movement. He has seniority—it’s hard to think of anyone who has worked in the conservative movement longer. (George Will, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and a few others, but I doubt any these people could rally a movement, nor would they want to). And he as talented a media presence as exists in America—only Oprah Winfrey has comparable talent. Conservatives could (and probably would) do much worse than to let Rush speak for them.

But if Rush Limbaugh can dominate the conservative movement, he would make a poor leader of the Republican party. A political party is different from a political movement—it requires compromise, and openness, two things Limbaugh isn’t known for.

A parallel (though like most parallels it is imperfect) can be drawn to William F. Buckley’s position during the Sixties and Seventies. Buckley was the undisputed leader (even more dominant than Limbaugh) of the conservative movement, and was every bit as contentious and polarizing as Limbaugh. And his leadership of the conservative movement worked.

But while Buckley was the preeminent name of the conservative movement, his position in the Republican party was very different. He led a growing and increasingly important party bloc—but it was only a bloc. Party leaders such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were the leaders of the Republican party. Conservatives were an important part of the party, but hardly the only element.

But will Rush’s polarization and extremism drive off moderate voters? There isn’t any convincing reason to think so. The Republican party has coexisted quite well with Rush for the past twenty years, and there’s no reason to think that now Limbaugh is persona non grata with moderates. Most moderates voted for Barack Obama this time around, but didn’t feel the need to identify with the Michael Moore wing of the Democrat party. There’s no reason to think that the same wouldn’t be true of Republicans.

(Note: When I say Rush Limbaugh “speaks for conservatives,” obviously, that can never be quite true—there will always be conservatives who disagree with him. But the same will be true of any political leader, and by “speak for,” I mean represent a sizable majority of the group.)