Uncategorized


My close friend Todd and I have a running political debate about the legacy-in-the-making of Pres. Obama. This debate dates back to a wee hours of the morning dinner in Vegas after a full day of watching the Mosley – Mayweather fight and playing countless hours of poker, but please overlook its dubious origins, as I do.

Todd is fond of ticking off the legislative accomplishments of the past two years. Stimulus, healthcare reform, financial regulation reform, and here of late, the tax cut extensions, START treaty and repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Personally, I have strong disagreements with some of these accomplishments. I think the healthcare reform that finally passed is a bizarre amalgamation of ideas that somehow collectively fails to address either imperative facing us: the imperative of universal coverage and the imperative of cost containment. Todd would say that presidents have tried and failed (or not even tried) for decades to address this issue, and Obama should be lauded for getting this done. True, but ultimately there is something not at all satisfying about the result. I also rather dislike the recent tax cut extension legislation, for its devastating impact on current deficits.

But I do give Todd his due. Obama’s legislative accomplishments have been astonishing. Where Todd and I begin to part company is the long view. It is Obama’s failure to capture the zeitgeist of America these days, or, perhaps better said, having briefly captured it, his failure to keep hold of it and shape it. There was a window, roughly from the time that he vanquished Hillary Clinton in the primaries until the Republicans seized control of the healthcare debate narrative, during which Obama was perfectly aligned with America’s mood. His particular brand of political freshness and intellectual candor felt just right.

Since the end of that period, America’s mood has shifted rapidly while Obama’s pitch has not. This puts Obama’s legacy in peril. Already, a Republican-majority House of Representatives prepares to thunder into town with the very specific intent of clipping the wings of Obama’s healthcare program, his energy program, his budget vision, his financial reforms. Count me among those who believe Obama will win reelection, probably even handily. This is based on two core ideas: that the economy will continue to improve over the next two years, and that Obama remains by far the most popular policial brand in the country.

Even assuming his relection, though, I think the question is completely valid: What will remain of Obama’s legislative legacy after six more years? After 20? This is what I have been trying to express to Todd. Is it good enough if a president leads Washington through an amazing legislative agenda, only to find that the country hasn’t deeply embraced the political values needed to sustain that work? For example, Pres. Bush led us through a dizzying recalibration of the national security/personal liberty tradeoff in the wake of 9-11, telling us — correctly, in my opinion — that this required a multigenerational commitment to defeating the forces of radical Islam. Yet less than a decade later, our personal liberty values are once again overtaking our national security concerns, as support is dissipating for everything from military action in Afghanistan to aggressive TSA screening procedures. It seems to me that Bush was more successul at getting the policy implemented than he was at forging an enduring national consensus around those policies.

That sounds like Obama. I contrast both Bush and Obama with two presidents who I think transcended these political boundaries. The first was Franklin Roosevelt. Of course he sheparded a staggering remaking of the legislative map in the 1930s, but he went far beyond that. He ushered in five decades during which his progressive vision dominated the political landscape. Through presidencies Democrat and Republican, the nation consistently reflected that progressive mentality, with a willingness to employ the powers of government to shape our economic and cultural lives. The result was the creation of the broadest, strongest middle class in history of the planet.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan came along, and his message of the danger of overextended government has remained the single most dominant theme in American politics for three decades now. Even with mostly Democratic control of Congress during those years, and the presidency of Bill Clinton, Americans have remained solidly committed to this defining principle. Voters proved this in 2006 and 2008, brusquely shoving aside even Republicans, usually reliable partners of the limited government ethic, for their failure to adhere to the creed.

This brings us to the Obama question. Is he merely the next in a succession of elected leaders consigned to operate within the Reagan framework, or is he the first in line to set the nation on a new political course for the decades? Obama’s curse may be that his unmatched rhetorical skills during the campaign gave us a tantalizing whiff of being the next FDR or Reagan. He felt transcendent. But so far, despite his towering legislative achievements, he has not transcended. That’s not a horrible indictment. Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton would be listed among such competent presidents who rode their respective existing waves to considerable policy advancement.

Five years from now, or ten, or twenty, the nation will face challenges that demand courageous, thoughtful, far-sighted action by our government. Today’s political reality is that, shaped by the Reagan legacy, we are not disposed to trusting our government to do so. If Obama is able to transform the landscape, give back to us a willingness to invest our government with confidence and optimism, then he will have transcended the political conventions of his time and ushered in a new era. Otherwise, we will face these challenges with the underpowered armature of a Reagan-era viewpoint.

I hope he succeeds. I haven’t seen it yet. Lots of important legislation, Todd, but not that.

Advertisements

Lots of people have stepped forward to defend WikiLeaks on a free speech / free press basis. That seems a fairly obvious conclusion, almost to the point of inarguable. There might be no freedom we hold more dear than free speech, believing as we do that no other freedoms can long endure without this one foundational right. Even if WikiLeaks is not afforded a constitutional protection, it not being a U.S. citizen, that principle is so deeply ingrained in our national character as to cover even WikiLeaks.

But WikiLeaks posting all these documents is only the second half of the story, isn’t it? The first half covers WikiLeaks obtaining them. Receipt of stolen goods is a crime. At the very least, isn’t it patently obvious that WikiLeaks committed that crime? It is not clear to me to what extent they actually organized the theft of these documents, but if that was case, then the criminal quotient goes up even more. If people acted on WikiLeaks’ instructions or instigation, or if WikiLeaks paid people to obtain these documents for them, then they are more criminally complicit still.

Maybe the publishing of the documents didn’t add to WikiLeaks’ rap sheet. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t do grave wrong and shouldn’t be held to account.

I just heard an appalling radio ad. The narrator, in the role of president of some foreclosure assistance firm, was recounting the story of his parents. How they got a mortgage to buy their home, “did everything right,” and then both got laid off. This dutiful son, so it seems, stepped in, but after seven months could not get the bank to agree to loan modifications. So he “x-rayed” the loan agreements, found illegal terms (“like are in 80% of all mortgages”), and sued the lender. The proud punch line? “Twenty-seven months later, they are still in their house.”

The part of the story overlooked in the ad is, of course, that these probably apocryphal parents weren’t actually paying the loan! That’s a damned big detail to omit.

We all grieve personally for the brother, mother, neighbor, co-worker, laid-off ex co-worker and others who have lost their homes through this dreadful housing and employment market. Still, can it possibly be the right or equitable solution to prevent lenders from seizing the legitimate collateral securing the legitimate loan from people who are truly not paying their debts?

Of course not. Just another example of the greedy something-for-nothing culture that has taken hold of this nation.

Instead of all this nonsense, how about we attend to our “safety net” — remember that quaint notion? We can’t prevent people from stumbling. But we can ease them back onto their feet when they do.

Do you consider yourself a limited government type of voter? Are you looking for a path to find the political solution to runaway government spending? I am here to provide a word of caution. Consider, please, these facts:

  • Ronald Reagan: Federal spending in 1981 (the oldest year I have comparable data for) = $697.8 billion. Federal spending in 1988 = $1,066.9 billion. Average annual increase: 6.3%.
  • George HW Bush: Federal spending in 1988 = $1,066.9 billion. Federal spending in 1992 = $1,427.8 billion. Average annual increase: 7.6%.
  • Bill Clinton (pre-Gingrich with Democrats in control of the House): Federal spending in 1992 = $1,427.8 billion. Federal spending in 1994 = $1,463.0 billion. Average annual increase: 1.2%.
  • Bill Clinton (with Gingrich & Republicans in control of the House): Federal spending in 1994 = $1,463.0 billion. Federal spending in 2000 = $1,788.6 billion. Average annual increase: 3.4%.
  • George W Bush (with Republican control of Congress): Federal spending in 2000 = $1,788.6 billion. Federal spending in 2006 = $2,659.2 billion. Average annual increase: 6.8%.
  • George W Bush (with Democratic control of Congress): Federal spending in 2006 = $2,659.2 billion. Federal spending in 2008 = $3,145.3 billion. Average annual increase: 8.8%.
  • Barack Obama First Year: Federal spending in 2008 = $3,145.3 billion. Federal spending in 2009 = $3,516.1 billion. Average annual increase: 11.8%.
  • Barack Obama Second Year (annualized): Federal spending in 2009 = $3,516.1 billion. Federal spending in 2010 = $3,445.6 billion (annualized using data through September). Average annual decrease: 2.0%.

All information sourced from http://www.fms.treas.gov/mts/mts.xls.

Okay, I confess. I don’t have anything to say about Sen. Boxer’s actual hairstyle. Looks good enough to me, but I’m totally unqualified. For as many years as I remember, I have been doing nothing more than shampooing and running a little gel through my hair with my hands, enhanced by the occasional conditioning. Whatever Sen. Boxer is doing with her hair is far above my pay grade.

But I did want to comment on why Carly Fiorina’s open mic gaffe is important. It splashes cold water in the faces of all us voters. It forces us to dredge up a sickening feeling that, I dare say, most of us have about most of our political representatives — namely, that the persona so carefully constructed for public consumption has nothing to with the actual human being we don’t get to see.

For some, it is fear that the calm, measured, moderate Obama displayed to the public is, in secret reality, the radical Christomuslim terrorist from the world of Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers. For others, it is fear that the decades-long public/private service of Dick Cheney is, in secret reality, just a clever disguise for the energy industry controlling policy in Washington. In the end, we reject Hillary Clinton because we suspect the scarcely-glimpsed hot-tempered bitch is the real her; maybe she shouldn’t be the one answering the call at 3:00 a.m. We reject Sarah Palin because we suspect the scarcely-glimpsed (okay, maybe a little more than scarcely) self-serving prima donna is the real her. In our hearts, more than the excesses of liberalism and conservatism, we worry that our elected officials clock out at the end of the day, and head off to the bars for a night of non-partisan gloating over our gullibility. At some primordial level, we worry that our elected leaders are akin to a scene from a Mission Impossible movie, ready to peel off the full-head latex mask to reveal the incompletely unforeseen character underneath.

And that is what the Fiorina open mic moment reminds of us. What it forces us to confront. If even for the briefest of moments, we have to confront the utterly depressing possiblity that it’s all a big f&^%ing game, being played at our expense. That our leaders are as petty and small and stupid and cynical and uncharitable of heart as we are. Hell, we can’t even handle seeing FDR in his wheelchair, or JFK wearing his back brace, or Obama smoking. A weak electorate makes for bad candidates makes for inept governance.

Yep, that’s why Senator Boxer’s hairstyle matters.

———————————–

Okay, I posted that only four minutes ago, and already here is something along similar lines that I came across. Seems that ten years ago Meg Whitman shoved an eBay associate, leading to a $200,000 settlement with the employee. The percentage of the population who physically shove people around at work is what, 0.000003%, tops. I’ve been working for almost thirty years, and never once seen anything like it. I’ve met thousands of earnest, smart, ethical, competent, motivated, sincere people. But, nooooooooooooooo. we have to choose from the likes of them for our elected representation. Bullies and adulterers and narcissists and flat-out criminals. For f$^&’s sake.

Is BP an evil corporation, hellbent on purposely destroying the Gulf of Mexico and everything else it can get its capitalist paws on? Hardly. I don’t believe that for a second, and you shouldn’t either. But I do believe that there is a way that corporations, especially large ones, go about making decisions that this whole episodes spotlights. Corporations have a propensity to underestimate high-impact, low probability events. They pursue strategies that work 99.99% of the time. But when the other 0.01% comes around, watch out.

That’s exactly what we have seen these past months from Toyota. That company made decisions about the design and safety of their vehicles, decisions that will work just fine almost all the time. But not all the time. Same thing in the financial sector: the mortgage-backed derivatives fiasco is another case in point. As long as there is not a massive drop in real estate values, all is well. Until it happens. Enron, the same thing. Over and over and over.

There is a classic parable about gambling, supposedly a foolproof way to make money. Here is the scenario. Suppose you play a game with more or less 50% odds of winning each bet — blackjack, for example. Bet $5 on the first hand. If you lose, double your bet on the next hand — $10. Keep doubling until you win. Eventually, you’re going to win a hand, right? When you do — whether it’s on the very first hand, or the 100th — you will recoup all your cumulative losses, plus earn a profit equal to your original bet. So you can’t go wrong. Here’s the problem, though. Sooner or later you will encounter a string of losses sufficient to break your bank. Mathematically, it always happens, sooner or later. Eventually, there always is a Gulf Oil disaster, or a steep drop in real estate values, or a string of safety defects. Any model of governance that is premised on the risk being zero is folly. 

So, let’s not demonize BP. Let’s understand this as the inherent behavior of pretty much any large business enterprise. And therefore, let us further understand that, when the decisions of these enterprises have the capacity to wreak havoc far beyond the provincial borders of the corporate suites, it is incumbent on our government to impose intelligent regulatory boundaries on their behavior.

President Obama is coming under fierce attack for not taking a stronger hand in the Gulf oil disaster. When a Democratic president gets James Carville yelling at him, you know things are reaching a frenzied peak.

The irony of this is that this is the president who has been accused of maneuvering disasterous federal takeovers of the private economy in one action after another. Bailouts to the auto manufacturing industry. Bailouts to Wall Street. Government takeover of healthcare. Cap-and-trade proposals. Each time, he has been excoriated by political opponents on the right, branded as a Marxist, or at least a socialist, leading this country down a catastrophic path to destroy the private sector and quite possibly all of America.

What has been the response of Congressional Republicans to the Gulf oil crisis? Well, Mike Pence (R-In) was on Morning Joe just now. His narrative was, closely paraphrasing here, Obama needs to stop acting as if the buck stopped with BP and be more like Harry Truman: “The Buck Stops Here.” Isn’t that deeply ironic, coming from Rep. Pence? Pence is a devoted limited government conservative. Mike Pence says, “Conservatives know that if you reject these principles of limited government and urge others to reject them you can be my ally, you can be my friend but you cannot call yourself a conservative.” Mike Pence said during the healthcare debate:

“You bet every member of Congress who votes for this bill ought to read it, read it thoroughly, and understand that what we’re looking at here amounts to nothing more than a government takeover of our health care economy, paid for with nearly a trillion dollars in new taxes on individuals and small businesses. And it must be opposed.”

Which is it? Is it the role of government to step in and correct the abuses, excesses, missteps and externalities of the private sector? Or is it not? Why should government not bailout GM, but it should handle the Gulf oil crisis? What exactly is the conservative paradigm of limited government, and how is it to be consistently applied?

Next Page »