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Saturday, January 31, 2009

David Brooks shadows forth a conservative Obama

As part of his Big Thoughts Boiled Down series, David Brooks gives us Hugh Heclo's On Thinking Institutionally:
As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

Funny that Brooks did not relate his paean to institutional norms to the current state of the union. He was writing just a week after a new President took office promising to "restore science to its rightful place," to judge each Federal program by a standard of "whether it works," and to "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" while prosecuting war and anti-terror measures -- while tapping into the New Testament for his moral underpinnings.

Nor did Brooks mention the Bush Administration's wholesale assault on the precious norms of government built up over two centuries -- such as prosecutors eschewing political concerns in their investigations, armed forces eschewing torture, industrial policymakers respecting science, and Presidents obeying the law.

An "institutionalist" as defined by Heclo is conservative in the best sense, saving the acquired wisdom that institutions are designed to capture. In these terms, Obama is conservative and Bush is a scorched-earth radical.

I guess this was one of Brooks's "apolitical" columns. Why?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

What "restoring honor and dignity to the White House" really meant

From the New York Times today, a slice of life from the Bush Administration. Told that Obama had issued "business casual" dress guidelines for the White House on weekends, and had arrived for a Saturday briefing in "slacks and a gray sweater over a white buttoned-down shirt,"
Veterans of the Bush White House are shocked.

“I’ll never forget going to work on a Saturday morning, getting called down to the Oval Office because there was something he was mad about,” said Dan Bartlett, who was counselor to Mr. Bush. “I had on khakis and a buttoned-down shirt, and I had to stand by the door and get chewed out for about 15 minutes. He wouldn’t even let me cross the threshold.”
So, for Bush & co., what constituted an honorable and dignified Administration? Politicizing federal prosecutors?- Check. Suppressing scientific conclusions that undercut favored policies? Check. Letting corporate lobbyists rewrite Federal regulations? Check. Torturing enemy combatants and gutting Americans' core civil liberties? Check. Cooking intelligence and lying relentlessly to the public about the motives underlying policy? Check. Doing it all in jackets and ties? Double check.

Perhaps their memory will put the final kabosh on formal western attire.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Gospel according to Obama

Update: Original Sin at Notre Dame

Christianists insist that the United States is a Christian nation. Obama is not a Christianist. He told us in his inaugural address that "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth." While he believes that moral values absorbed through religion have a place in the public sphere, he imposes strict ground rules on those who would invoke religious teachings:
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason (The Audacity of Hope).
Obama's religious allusions accordingly are usually of the most universal kind: I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper. And yet, a second look at his inaugural address made me feel that his thinking is more specifically informed by Christian scripture than I had previously believed. Early in the speech, he swerved into slightly less familiar Biblical language -- the Apostle Paul's "when I became a man, I put away childish things." The full context of that Pauline dictum, I believe, opens a window on the extent to which Obama's understanding of America's secular scriptures, the Declaration and the Constitution, are underpinned by his reading of Christian scripture.

Here is Obama's allusion to 1 Corinthians 13:

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
The call to put away childish things had a simple denotation, familiar to anyone who has followed Obama's speeches: to get past the Rovian attack politics that according to Obama have paralyzed our policymaking -- "a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism," as he put it in his March speech on race. The way he followed that thread, identifying other "childish"political tenets and practices he asked us to move past, is worth a separate post.

But here, I'm more interested in a family likeness between Obama's historiography and Paul's theology. For Paul, becoming a man means achieving, to borrow a favorite phrase of Obama's, a more perfect union:
1If I speak in the tongues[a] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing.

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

For Paul, to become a man means to become perfect in love. It means to fulfill a human potential that can never be completely fulfilled in this life: to love God perfectly. This life is a quest for a more perfect union that will be attained in the next.

Obama, like Lincoln, and the Transcendentalists before him, and countless Americans afterward, asserts a similar movement in American history. The Declaration and the Constitution express political principles as perfect in their way (so Obama's invocations of them imply) as Paul's love. Indeed, Obama has asserted that they are in effect political translations of that love. Here's how he put it in his great speech on race in Philadelphia on March 18:
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

The title of that speech was "A More Perfect Union." The premise was that the principles expressed in the Constitution have not been fulfilled but are in process of being fulfilled -- that what distinguishes America is the country's constant progress toward fulfilling them:
This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.
In the inaugural address, Obama portrayed our progress toward realizing our ideals as being in midstream, and projected their eventual fulfillment beyond our shores to encompass the world:
And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
Once again, his core message was hope. Faith. Love. Those three. Ultimately, Obama keeps it simple.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Getting used to change

In "It's a Wonderful Life," after a highly eventful day at the office, newlywed George Bailey gets a buzz from his altered life condition when he's told that "Mrs. Bailey is on the line" and realizes that it's his wife, not his mother, calling.

I got a similar frisson from the very ordinariness of this lede:

Jan. 25 (Bloomberg) -- White House officials warned Americans that economic prospects are darkening as they sought to ensure rapid Congressional approval of President Barack Obama’s $825 billion stimulus package.

Vice President Joe Biden told the CBS program “Face the Nation” that “it’s worse, quite frankly, than everyone thought it was.” Larry Summers, Obama’s top economic adviser, said the economy faces “very difficult” months, speaking today on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

"White House officials" triggers a conditioned reflex: skepticism, wariness, brace for outrage. Don't want to entirely let go of that. All administrations spin, and screw up, and yield to the wrong pressures. But the distrust reached pathological proportions over the past eight years -- across the political spectrum, eventually. Now hope is fresh that most of the time at least we'll credit the rationality and good faith of what we hear from "Administration officials."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bring on the realists: on attaining "very concrete things" in war zones

Joe Klein flags this "significant shift in tone from the Bush Administration" from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates:
I think one of the -- one of the points where I suspect both administrations come to the same conclusion is that the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future, are too future-oriented, and that we need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of reestablishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after alQaeda, preventing the reestablishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people, some very concrete things.
Compare Obama, pushing Ryan Crocker toward an attainable definition of success in Iraq last April:

And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.

If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.

Gates and Obama have long implicitly differed - and probably continue to differ - about the pace of withdrawal from Iraq. But they have long been on the same page when it comes to setting realistic goals and priorities with an eye to available resources.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Our bankers sell a cow

Reading this morning about new proposals for the Federal government to buy and "ring-fence" banks' bad assets,' and reflecting briefly on the whole phenomenon of banks being stuck with billions in nearly worthless securities, I was reminded of a folk tale about a man who sets out to sell a cow:
...when he had gone a bit of the way, a man met him who had a horse to sell, so Gudbrand thought 'twas better to have a horse than a cow, so he swopped with the man. A little farther on he met a man walking along and driving a fat pig before him, and he thought it better to have a fat pig than a horse, so he swopped with the man. After that he went a little farther, and a man met him with a goat; so he thought it better to have a goat than a pig, and he swopped with the man that owned the goat. Then he went on a good bit till he met a man who had a sheep, and he swopped with him too, for he thought it always better to have a sheep than a goat. After a while he met a man with a goose, and he swopped away the sheep for the goose; and when he had walked a long, long time, he met a man with a cock, and he swopped with him, for he thought in this wise, " 'Tis surely better to have a cock than a goose." Then he went on till the day was far spent, and he began to get very hungry, so he sold the cock for a shilling, and bought food with the money, for, thought Gudbrand on the Hill-side, " 'Tis always better to save one's life than to have a cock."
But the story doesn't end there. Like many of our bank chiefs, the man pulls out an ace in the hole. Here's what happens when he turns in at his neighbor's on the way home:

"Well," said the owner of the house, "how did things go with you in town?"

"Rather so so," said Gudbrand. "I can't praise my luck, nor do I blame it either," and with that he told the whole story from first to last.

"Ah!" said his friend, "you'll get nicely called over the coals, that one can see, when you get home to your wife. Heaven help you, I wouldn't stand in your shoes for something."

"Well," said Gudbrand on the Hill-side, "I think things might have gone much worse with me; but now, whether I have done wrong or not, I have so kind a good-wife, she never has a word to say against anything that I do."

"Oh!" answered his neighbour, "I hear what you say, but I don't believe it for all that."

"Shall we lay a bet upon it?" asked Gudbrand on the Hill-side. "I have a hundred dollars at the bottom of my chest at home; will you lay as many against them?"

Who says that credit default swaps are always risky? Our peasant was trading on (fully disclosed) inside information:

Yes, the friend was ready to bet; so Gudbrand stayed there till evening, when it began to get dark, and then they went together to his house, and the neighbour was to stand outside the door and listen, while the man went in to see his wife.

"Good evening!" said Gudbrand on the Hill-side.

"Good evening!" said the goodwife. "Oh, is that you? now God be praised."

Yes! it was he. So the wife asked how things had gone with him in town.

"Oh! only so so," answered Gudbrand; "not much to brag of. When I got to the town there was no one who would buy the cow, so you must know I swopped it away for a horse."

"For a horse," said his wife; "well, that is good of you; thanks with all my heart. We are so well to do that we may drive to church, just as well as other people; and if we choose to keep a horse we have a right to get one, I should think. So run out, child, and put up the horse."

"Ah!" said Gudbrand, "but you see I've not got the horse after all; for when I got a bit farther on the road I swopped it away for a pig."

"Think of that, now!" said the wife; "you did just as I should have done myself; a thousand thanks! Now I can have a bit of bacon in the house to set before people when they come to see me, that I can. What do we want with a horse? People would only say we had got so proud that we couldn't walk to church. Go out, child, and put up the pig in the stye."

"But I've not got the pig either," said Gudbrand; "for when I got a little farther on I swopped it away for a milch goat."

"Bless us!" cried his wife, "how well you manage everything! Now I think it over, what should I do with a pig? People would only point at us and say, 'Yonder they eat up all they have got.' No! now I have got a goat, and I shall have milk and cheese, and keep the goat too. Run out, child, and put up the goat."

"Nay, but I haven't got the goat either," said Gudbrand, "for a little farther on I swopped it away, and got a fine sheep instead."

"You don't say so!" cried his wife; "why, you do everything to please me, just as if I had been with you; what do we want with a goat! If I had it I should lose half my time in climbing up the hills to get it down. No! if I have a sheep, I shall have both wool and clothing, and fresh meat in the house. Run out, child, and put up the sheep."

"But I haven't got the sheep any more than the rest," said Gudbrand; "for when I had gone a bit farther I swopped it away for a goose."

"Thank you! thank you! with all my heart," cried his wife; "what should I do with a sheep? I have no spinning-wheel, nor carding-comb, nor should I care to worry myself with cutting, and shaping, and sewing clothes. We can buy clothes now, as we have always done; and now I shall have roast goose, which I have longed for so often; and, besides, down to stuff my little pillow with. Run out, child, and put up the goose."

"Ah!" said Gudbrand, "but I haven't the goose either; for when I had gone a bit farther I swopped it away for a cock."

"Dear me!" cried his wife, "how you think of everything! just as I should have done myself. A cock! think of that! why it's as good as an eight-day clock, for every morning the cock crows at four o'clock, and we shall be able to stir our stumps in good time. What should we do with a goose? I don't know how to cook it; and as for my pillow, I can stuff it with cotton-grass. Run out, child, and put up the cock."

"But after all I haven't got the cock," said Gudbrand; "for when I had gone a bit farther, I got as hungry as a hunter, so I was forced to sell the cock for a shilling, for fear I should starve."

"Now, God be praised that you did so!" cried his wife; "whatever you do, you do it always just after my own heart. What should we do with the cock? We are our own masters, I should think, and can lie a-bed in the morning, as long as we like. Heaven be thanked that I have got you safe back again; you who do everything so well that I want neither cock nor goose; neither pigs nor kine."

Then Gudbrand opened the door and said,—

"Well, what do you say now? Have I won the hundred dollars?" and his neighbour was forced to allow that he had.

And like a good neighbor, Treasury's there....

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tina Brown catches a vibe

A bit of emotional intelligence from Tina Brown:
A mysterious exchange has already taken place between our burdens and the president's demeanor. The more joyous we have become, the more sobriety Obama has assumed. His inaugural speech was free of literary exhibitionism. It was a litany of our challenges and his solemn promise to meet them. His words were purposeful, almost business-like, with the tautest of poetical flourishes.
True dat.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama responds to Osama

At one point in his inaugural address, Obama seemed to respond to a taunt from Osama bin Laden, delivered in the audiotape that was released last Wednesday. As reported by the BBC:

President Bush, the message said, was leaving his successor with a "heavy inheritance" and he doubted that the US could continue fighting al-Qaeda for decades.

"If he withdraws from the war, it is a military defeat. If he continues, he drowns in economic crisis."

Osama, who believes he brought down the Soviet Union, also thinks with some reason that he's bankrupting the U.S. To my ears, this from Obama today was an answer to the prophet of imperial overstretch:

And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

Obama's Inaugural: dark skies, stark challenges

Obama's tone in his acceptance speech on Nov. 4 was somber. Today, it was almost apocalyptic -- the dangers evoked tonally overshadowing strong assertions of "yes we can" confidence. Early on, after the by-now-familiar litany of formidable challenges, he raised a stark specter:
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
That's painting it a bit dark, isn't it? Obama's long been saying that the American dream feels like it's slipping away, but I would have thought 'decline' a rather Carteresqe third rail.

Of course there was Obama's signature counterpoint of confidence:
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.
But at the end, again, Obama framed "our common dangers" in the starkest terms:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Whoa. We are facing a deeply alarming economic seize-up. But we're not exactly bleeding in the snow. Does Obama know something we don't?

In the 'yes we can' vein, there was perhaps an echo of Martin Luther King in a compressed version of Obama's familiar historical argument: that we shall overcome because we have overcome in the past, that 'courage is having been there before':
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
The perfect tense here -- "we have tasted the bitter swill...and emerged stronger" -- holds the mirror up to King looking forward from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963:
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.
Obama always presents our quest for a more perfect union as being in mid-course: much injustice still to overcome, much already overcome. Here, he affirms that we have got at least some of that bitter swill digested -- leaving him free to extend King's dream of a nation free from prejudice and tribalism from the U.S. to the world.

There was also a deep confidence underlying Obama's unequivocal rejection of the Bush Administration's malign perversions of executive authority - torture, suspension of habeas, kangaroo courts -- coupled with a message to the entire world that as we reject these abuses we will reassert our leadership:
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
Finally, to match his raising of the threat level, Obama raised his call "change our politics" to the level of Biblical injunction:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
We elected an adult. In the primary, Obama made the Clintons look small; in the general election, he made McCain look small. Now, he's calling on all to follow his example -- of magnanimity to opponents, focus on substantive issues, and disinterested pursuit of policies likely to work. And he's warning us: the consequences will be dire if we don't.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Stone made flesh at the Lincoln Memorial

Speaking at yesterday's pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Obama found a rather lovely way to physically connect the crowd, and more generally Americans living at this moment, with the historical narative he always invokes in his speeches.

Throughout his campaign and the transition, Obama has framed the change he's calling for as a continuation of American traditions of overcoming injustice in an ongoing struggle to form a more perfect union. Standing in front of tens of thousands of radiant supporters lining the reflecting pool,, he pivoted from the stories encased in the surrounding stone monuments to the living history embodied in the crowd:

What gives me that hope is what I see when I look out across, this mall. For in these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith — a faith that anything is possible in America. Rising before us stands a memorial to a man who led a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against the army of an Empire, all for the sake of an idea. On the ground below is a tribute to a generation that withstood war and depression — men and women like my grandparents who toiled on bomber assembly lines and marched across Europe to free the world from tyranny’s grasp. Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character’s content. And behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible.

And yet, as I stand here today, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you — Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there....

You proved once more that people who love this country can change it. And as I prepare to assume the presidency, yours are the voices I will take with me every day I walk into that Oval Office — the voices of men and women who have different stories but hold common hopes; who ask only for what was promised us as Americans — that we might make of our lives what we will and see our children climb higher than we did.

It is this thread that binds us together in common effort; that runs through every memorial on this mall; that connects us to all those who struggled and sacrificed and stood here before.

Perhaps this trope will find its way into Obama's Inaugural Speech, which will overlook the same 'monumental' landscape from the other end. A few days ago, Obama defined his inaugural challenge like this:
I think that the main task for me in an inauguration speech, and I think this is true for my presidency generally, is to try to capture as best I can the moment that we are in...
For Obama, capturing the moment has always meant framing it within his idealized version of U.S. history. There was a magic in that stone-made-flesh and flesh-making-history moment yesterday. I suspect he'll conjure it again tomorrow.

In a related vein: James Fallows has complained recently about Obama submitting to the wearisome political imperative of ending every speech with the formulaic "God bless America" - the verbal equivalent of the flagpin. In yesterday's speech Obama varied the formula -- and again, in a sense, made stone flesh. Here was the signoff:
Thank you, America. God bless you.
"America" was the crowd, and the larger electronic crowd beyond. He was not blessing an abstraction, but rather the faces in front of him. Let's see if that makes it in tomorrow, too.

Gates the knife?

In today's Financial Times, Clive Crook argues bluntly that Obama's call for "shared sacrifice" means -- must mean -- new taxes. He proposes a 4-point fiscal reform program for the U.S:
Here is what needs to be done, starting in 2011, but to be announced and enacted as soon as possible. First, raise the retirement age. Second, phase out income tax relief on new mortgage loans. Third, introduce a carbon tax. Fourth, introduce a national value added tax, tied to healthcare reform.
Raising the retirement age and and taxing energy consumption are no-brainers. Reducing state support of homeownership violates U.S. taboos but makes sense at least on the margins, e.g. for second homes or for mortgages over a certain amount. A VAT to fund healthcare reform would be, to borrow a pet Obama phrase, a steep hill to climb in political terms, but makes sound fiscal sense.

Crook did not, however, address a spending target that looms as large as social security: defense. Obama stressed throughout the campaign that drawing down the U.S. occupation of Iraq would save an unspecified portion of a $120 billion yearly tab. Even if the withdrawal goes more or less as planned, some of that money will support tens of thousands of remaining troops and some will go to the Afghanistan/Pakistan morass -- where Obama doubtless aims to spend some of his international political capital on obtaining more help from allies.

Most fundamentally, however, Obama will likely take aim at the Pentagon's long-term procurement programs. And in this struggle he will have a no less formidable and savvy ally than Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has already been working to reign in the Pentagon's deep-rooted penchant to overinvest in a vast array of high-tech hardware designed to win a prospective World War III.

In a series of speeches and writings this year, Gates has outlined the need to shift spending toward counterinsurgency capability -- pilotless drones, well-armored vehicles, more soldiers. These things are not cheap, but they're a lot cheaper than massive procurements of next-gen hardware designed to fight a militarily competitive nation-state. Here's Gates speaking to the Heritage Foundation, on May 13, 2008:
In a world of finite knowledge and limited resources, where we have to make choices and set priorities, it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military. And it is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms – ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank – for some time to come.
Two days later, speaking to military contractors, Gates highlighted the Herculean task of turning Pentagon priorities:
A common mantra at Defense is that the rest of the government isn't at war. Well, a lesson I learned fairly early on was that important elements of the Defense Department weren't at war. Preoccupied with future capabilities and procurement programs, wedded to lumbering peacetime process and procedures, stuck in bureaucratic low-gear. The needs of those in combat too often were not addressed urgently or creatively.
More recently, outlining the National Defense Strategy in the current Foreign Affairs, he cast Pentagon budgeting as a problem of risk management:
The most likely catastrophic threats to the U.S. homeland -- for example, that of a U.S. city being poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack -- are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states...It is true that the United States would be hard-pressed to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice, but as I have asked before, where on earth would we do that? U.S. air and sea forces have ample untapped striking power should the need arise to deter or punish aggression -- whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, or across the Taiwan Strait. So although current strategy knowingly assumes some additional risk in this area, that risk is a prudent and manageable one.
For forty years, it's been politically toxic for a Democrat to make cuts in military spending. Obama doubtless recognizes the need. And Gates gives him essential cover as well as unmatched know-how.

I should add that I don't know whether Gates sees his calls for "balance," risk management and triage as a means to cut defense spending or simply to control its growth. Note, however, that while lamenting 1990s reductions in "national security" capabilities in the Foreign Affairs article, Gates focused not on military spending per se but on the instruments of soft power:
In many ways, the country's national security capabilities are still coping with the consequences of the 1990s, when, with the complicity of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, key instruments of U.S. power abroad were reduced or allowed to wither on the bureaucratic vine. The State Department froze the hiring of new Foreign Service officers. The U.S. Agency for International Development dropped from a high of having 15,000 permanent staff members during the Vietnam War to having less than 3,000 today. And then there was the U.S. Information Agency, whose directors once included the likes of Edward R. Murrow. It was split into pieces and folded into a corner of the State Department. Since 9/11, and through the efforts first of Secretary of State Colin Powell and now of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the State Department has made a comeback. Foreign Service officers are being hired again, his and foreign affairs spending has about doubled since President Bush took office.
And while Gates' list of spending priorities is not short, his sense of finite resources is acute:
When it comes to procurement, for the better part of five decades, the trend has gone toward lower numbers as technology gains have made each system more capable. In recent years, these platforms have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are being fielded in ever-dwindling quantities. Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns. A given ship or aircraft, no matter how capable or well equipped, can be in only one place at one time.
In any case, on the broadest strategic question - whether and how much to cut the Pentagon budget -- Gates is not "the decider." Obama is.

Related posts:
Back from the shadows: Can Gates steer the surge?
Goo-goo under Gates
Gates repudiates Rumsfeld's "army you have" doctrine
Gates: Have the army you'll go to war with

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Deflation nation?

Most Americans lucky enough to own any assets have lost - and are still in process of losing - a significant portion of their wealth in the current crisis. Home values will probably have dropped at least 30-40% before bottoming out. People with half their savings in stock funds have lost in the neighborhood of 20% since the fall 2007 peak-- often more, since most bond funds lost too, and most managed funds have outpaced the broad indexes in the downward dive. Those lucky enough not to have lost jobs or gotten seriously ill probably have lost/will lose about quarter of their nominal net worth.

At the same time, wealth is a fluid and relative thing. What we've lost -- if it doesn't reach the level of something that massively impacts current life, like a home or health -- won't be clear for a long time, and may even turn to gain, if we build on more sustainable foundations. That is, if our collective wealth is more equitably and efficiently shared, if we succeed in reforming education and rebuilding effective public safety nets and fostering innovation in sustainable industries. . Life is long, as Salman Rushdie characters bent on revenge like to say -- and so are our economic biographies.

One large set of variables in assessing economic losses is the potential upside of deflation, broadly understood. Deflation, as officially defined by economists, is both a very bad thing -- perhaps the main precondition of a true Depression -- and relatively modest in percentage terms. Like headline inflation over the last two decades, any official deflation we undergo is likely to register in low single digits.

But headline inflation has not captured a far more rapid inflation in the "Three H's" of economic well-being -- homes, higher education, and healthcare. Add to those high costs the increase of major risk in middle class American life -- job loss, loss of health insurance (or loss of adequate health insurance), loss of defined benefit pensions -- and we've clearly suffered a major "inflation" in the sense that solvency and security are more difficult to obtain than they were a generation ago. The convergence and bursting of our several debt bubbles has made it clear that much of our national wealth was illusory.

If real inflation has outstripped officially measured inflation, perhaps a more broadly understood deflation, enabled in part by good policy, will not only far outstrip any official cost-of-living deflation (or co-exist with official inflation), but actually make prosperity and security more attainable. The linchpins of economic well-being should become relatively easier to obtain:
  • Housing: In my New Jersey suburb, 20 miles from New York City, small starter homes scraped $600,000 in 2005. How could even affluent young couples afford, say, a $550,000 mortgage? Probably by taking on some exotic interest-only loan, with the rate escalating in 2-3 years - taken on the assumption that the couple could then either refinance or trade up, financing a more expensive home with profits from the first one. In a year or two or five, that same starter home may cost $400,000 or less, with a mortgage -- if the couple can obtain one -- at a fixed rate under 5%.
  • Higher education: I've never really understood the massive runup in college costs, topping out today at over $50,000 per year at prestigious private colleges. Today it's hard to imagine schools, themselves slammed by the fiscal crisis, lowering costs. What should improve fast, though, is the disgustingly exploitive privatization of the student loan business, whereby schools have steered students into loans with opaque terms and usurious rates, sometimes scraping 20% for students in trade schools training for relatively low-wage professions. Expanded opportunities to trade tuition aid for service commitments should also help to bring college within reach for many. At the same time, a swift, massive cultural shift away from all kinds of spending, stemming from economic hardship, should at least slow tuition inflation.
  • Healthcare: Effective health insurance reform that provides affordable coverage for the uninsured and mandates adequate coverage of catastrophic costs will halt an enormous source of wealth destruction for Americans. If we can't get this done, and at least bring our healthcare costs and outcomes to the levels enjoyed by most advanced democracies, there's simply no hope for continued American prosperity. Can we afford it in the midst of the economic meltdown? As Obama asked in a Dec. 11 press conference: How can we afford not to?
  • Debt and consumption: Harsher bankruptcy laws were supposed to discipline borrowers. Now, a massive wave of bankruptcies is disciplining lenders. In hard times, people will take on less discretionary debt and save more. That's bad for the economy short-term, but it will mean less money spent on debt service for many Americans. Debt servicing aside, spending less money on what you don't need makes you wealthier. And while vast numbers of Americans have been driven deep into debt and bankruptcy by circumstances beyond their control, such as uninsured or underinsured illness, there's no doubt that we've all been culturally inclined to spend more than we need to on nonessentials.
I've always daydreamed occasionally about being offered fairy tale choices, such as Achilles' choice between a long and happy or short and glorious life. One such imagined supernatural game show question that I posed to myself at various points in the election cycle: would you give up, say, a quarter of your worldly wealth to see Obama elected? That is, to have a shot at this country rolling back the shredding of our civil liberties, belligerent adventurism abroad, growing economic inequality at home, accelerated global warming, etc. etc.? Framed as a purely economic choice: would you stand for a drastic downward revaluation of your assets this year, as part of a national and indeed worldwide revaluing and rebalancing, forcing national and international efforts to restructure on a more sustainable footing? To get even deeper into the realm of nonsensical cosmic planning, this time from a future vantage: was it worth eight years of Bush to get us to Obama?

What's the point of framing up supernatural pseudo-choices? Only to get somehow at this: democracy's saving grace is the capacity to self-correct. In the past, the country has recovered from horrendous mistakes to move on toward renewed prosperity, and, as Obama likes to say, progress toward a more perfect union. The election suggests that American democracy has retained that capacity for self-correction. Will we be able to dig ourselves out the hole we've dug. Obama says "yes we can." For this long lovely moment, the country seems disposed to agree.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Make it thirteen...accomplishments of George W. Bush

As media and electorate kick W. unceremoniously out the door, thoughts turn to a perhaps misguided thought experiment I posted in July, "11 accomplishments of George W. Bush," reposted below. At this late date I'd make it a baker's dozen, adding the auto industry stopgap and close collaboration with the incoming Obama Administration on the transition. Without further ado:

Eleven accomplishments of George W. Bush

July 10, 2008

Like most Americans, I think of George W. Bush as a failed President. Worse than that, I think him not simply as a President who chose unwise policies but as one who assaulted the foundations of American democracy and federalism -- by institutionalizing torture, suspending habeas, violating FISA, corrupting intelligence, and politicizing the Justice Department, the CIA, the EPA and probably every other federal agency.

Nonetheless: our institutions are strong, though weaker when he took office; good people have served during his tenure; and not all of his own impulses and goals were warped. After seven and a half years, the Bush Administration has some accomplishments under its belt. Arrayed together, they look like the pillars of an impressive presidency -- if you discount the incoming missiles of multiple disaster. Here's an equivocal list:

1. Disarmament deal with North Korea - five years and maybe 10 bombs late, but there would seem to be at least a reasonable chance that this rogue will be effectively disarmed. After poking the polecat Kim Jong II and stimulating North Korea's successful weaponization, the Bush Administration has patiently tread a multilateral path that's yielded at least the potential of a good outcome.

2. Bringing Gaddafi in from the cold: a long process with an array of carrots and sticks, but the invasion of Iraq may have concentrated this dictator's mind.

3. Massive increase in AIDS aid: perhaps thanks to Christianist prodding, Bush has showed admirable focus and follow-through on one of the greatest threats to global prosperity.

4. Prescription drug benefit: too expensive, the donut hole is inefficient, private insurers have too great a role, and the drug companies got a giveaway. But seniors do have substantial help in paying their drug bills.

5. No Child Left Behind: the mandate's unfunded and the loopholes in assessment are ridiculous. But we have the halting beginnings of assessing where we're at, state-by-state and district-by-district, in educational achievement.

6. No terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11: no one will ever know all the reasons why, and many of Bush's "antiterror" measures have come at a dreadful price. But preventing another attack was probably Bush's top priority -- quite a heartfelt one. And there has not been another attack -- here -- on his watch.

7. The FISA bill he wanted: Bush has to know that he's gone all out on this front probably to hand expanded capabilities to a Democratic President. He's probably been motivated partly by the need to obtain cover for his own crimes in breaking FISA. But again, he's doubtless convinced that the intelligence agencies need the powers he's obtained for them. And they probably do need most of them.

8. Decent stewardship of the China relationship: China-bashing on the economic front is mostly demagoguery; it's in everyone's interest that China continue on a peaceful path to first-world economic stature and attendant global influence. The Bush crew has maintained trust and cooperation; it's doubtful whether more pressure could have shaped Chinese economic or geopolitical decisions more to our liking.

9. Deposing the Taliban: yes, the caveats outweigh the accomplishment: we let bin Ladin escape, we took our eye off the ball, we allowed al Qaeda to regroup and left a foundling government in a shattered country to its own devices. But who's to say the initial campaign couldn't have been botched? The Taliban went down swiftly, with a minimum of blood.

10. Deposing Saddam: again, the price paid and the terms chosen were catastrophic. This was not a job to be undertaken on false pretenses, without winning our chief allies' assent or the world's acceptance; it was the wrong war at the wrong time, and it gave new life to our worst enemies. But Saddam was a threat to stability in the middle east and therefore in the world. Iraqis would have had to cope with his end at some point, and who's to say the transition would have been better without the heavy hand of the hegemon? There is now at least a reasonable hope that a non-monstrous national government will assert control over Iraq. Which suggests another accomplishment:

11. The Surge: if a hedge fund manager loses $700 million out of a $1 billion, do we credit him with decisions that bring the balance back up to a half billion? A poor analogy. Money is easily accounted; lives can't be, and actual historical outcomes can't be compared with might-have-beens. Nonetheless, whatever you think of the decision to go to war or of the first four years of its execution, the surge was an extraordinarily difficult decision that's worked better than basically anyone expected. It was also something of a reversal for Bush, who had lived and died by the Rumsfeld doctrine to that point. I don't think anyone can deny that the opportunity for a decent outcome in Iraq is far greater now than in fall 2006; to deny the surge's centrality in the turnaround is deep denial. Yes, those who designed and executed it got lucky - but they made their own luck. The surge enabled the Sunni Awakening, the Sadr rope-a-dope, and the long-delayed beginnings of legislative progress.

So there you have it. I have not convinced myself that Bush was a good President, or even not a monstrous President -- I consider the institutionalization of torture as established U.S. policy a truly monstrous legacy. So what exactly is the point of this exercise? Perhaps its this: in a long-established democracy, there's almost an institutional inertia toward some constructive action. After a Rumsfeld, institutional pressures and norms will push up a Gates. While stalwart nonpolitical appointees like Richard Clarke may get pushed out, others, like Christopher Hill will remain. Even a bad crew remains accountable to a large degree to voters. As long as people don't vote away their civil liberties or other Constitutional protections, the system self-regulates and self-corrects.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Obama, drinkin' Lincoln

Obama may be taking this Lincoln thing a bit far. Today, he told George Stephanopoulos that in preparation for his inaugural address he's been reading Lincoln, and
Every time you read that second inaugural, you start getting intimidated...
Okay, so in his own terms, how does Obama frame the challenge?
And so, I think that the main task for me in an inauguration speech, and I think this is true for my presidency generally, is to try to capture as best I can the moment that we are in...
Wait...what moment is it 'that we are in'? March 4, 1865:
...let us strive on to finish the work that we are in...
As Obama elaborates, it's clear that the moment that he's in -- deep -- is that damned speech...
I mean, I think that when you have a successful presidential speech of any sort, it's because that president is able to say -- is able to put their finger on here's the moment we're in. This is the crossroad that we're at. And then to project confidence that if we take the right measures that we can once again be that country, that beacon for the world.
Something like this?
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Of course, the optimism that became de rigeur for presidents along the way was not exactly Lincoln's style. I doubt Obama will be wondering aloud on Jan. 20 whether it's God will that all the wealth piled up by the credit card shall be sunk before we pull ourselves out of the financial mess "that we are in."

Supercapitalism run amok

It's fun to fulminate about the folly of Wall Street CEOs who ran their firms -- and the economy -- into the ground. But clearly something larger than individual stupidity was in play.

Take Robert Rubin - plainly one of the best financial minds of our time, who did nothing to help steer Citi away from the cliff's edge. Some may find his valedictory mea culpa a bit lacking in the 'mea' and 'culpa' departments:
My great regret is that I and so many of us who have been involved in this industry for so long did not recognize the serious possibility of the extreme circumstances that the financial system faces today. Clearly, there is a great deal of work that needs to go into understanding exactly what led to this situation and what changes, regulatory and otherwise, must now be implemented to reduce systemic risk and protect consumers.
In fact I think this is a balanced statement - accepting a measure of blame for lack of foresight while focusing on the responsibility now to figure out what went wrong and fix it. As Rubin suggests, there's a complex causal chain to unravel. Links on that chain include metastasized lobbyist influence, botched regulatory reform, and skewed incentives to take on undue risk.

One potentially useful tool for the postmortem is Robert Reich's Supercapitalism (2007) -- though the market meltdown demands some modification, I think, of Reich's central premise. According to Reich, it's relentless global competition among businesses, much more than right wing policy, that has driven the erosion of middle class prosperity, security and opportunity over the past thirty-odd years. Reich portrays a kind of extreme Darwinism that leads corporations to compete as relentlessly in their lobbying efforts as they do on all other fronts:
The citizen in us has a more difficult time being heard now in Washington and other world capitals not because big business has become more powerfully monolithic but for the opposite reason -- because competition among businesses has grown more cutthroat. Companies have entered politics to gain or keep a competitive advantage over their business rivals. The result has been a clamor of competing business interests -- a cacophony so loud as to almost drown out any serious deliberation over the public good (pp 142-143).
Right-wing ideology, favoring ever more deregulation and tax cuts, is more a result of this competition than a cause of it. Lobbying produces the ideology to accommodate business interests.

What Reich might want to rethink is his assumption that what's been bad for our politics has been good for business. In Reich's telling, the business interests that have helped to erode democracy and community have served us all supremely well in our capacities as consumers and investors. Reich's admiration extends from technological innovation to financial engineering:
Capital markets--including stock exchanges, banks and other financial institutions, and money market funds -- are far more efficient than they were decades ago, though still far from perfect.
While briefly acknowledging weak points, such as Wall Street's short-term focus and money managers' conflicts of interest, he writes: "Yet for all this, investors have triumphed, just as consumers have" (p. 95).

Uh huh. What we've now learned is that the hypercompetition Reich chronicles has been maladaptive for businesses -- starting of course with financial companies -- as well as for government, citizens and workers. As Barack Obama memorably put it last March: "What was bad for Main Street was bad for Wall Street. Pain trickled up." Among the skewed incentives: pay packages that provide individuals enormous reward for short-term gain, with no personal financial risk should gain turn to loss. A market that punishes those who eschew short-term gain that comes at the price of undue risk. A regulatory regime that weakened capital requirements, refused to regulate the market for securitizations that divorced lending risk from loan origination, and turned a blind eye to blatantly fraudulent underwriting practices. And on the international stage, global trade imbalances that flooded the U.S. government, businesses and consumers with cheap money, inducing debt-fueled consumption that proved unsustainable.

While the value of evolutionary analogies to market forces is dubious, an evolutionary tale told by Stephen Jay Gould seems at least metaphorically apt. The Irish elk flourished for a brief period from about 12,000 to 11,000 years ago before abruptly becoming extinct. During this time the male's antler set evolved to enormous proportions, eventually reaching approximately 90 lbs. According to Gould, this development was driven by competitive display -- a large set signaled dominance to other males and provided access to females. Extinction followed when the climate and habitat changed abruptly.

The analogy would be more satisfying if the 90-pound headset itself doomed the elk, but Gould doesn't assert this. What does seem relevant is that natural selection can operate in a kind of cul-de-sac in which the trait that leads individuals to success does not serve the species' overall survival capability. Evolution may be no more "efficient" than markets. Our own task, at any rate, is to shape our own environment -- to align incentives with the interests of society as a whole.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Mind-Bogle-ling certainty from Vanguard pere

In the Jan. 8 WSJ Vanguard founder John Bogle, chief evangelist for low-cost index investment, implicitly poses as one who could have kept our portfolios on dry ground as the tidal waves rolled in. Among his time-honored - not to say time-worn -- prescriptions was this old guideline:
How much in bonds? A good place to start is a bond percentage that equals your age. Although I don't slavishly adhere to that rule, my bond position accounted for about 65% of my personal portfolio in early 2000. Because returns on my bond funds since then have totaled 50% and returns on my stock funds were negative 25%, bonds are now about 75% of my portfolio, still close to my advancing age.
It's pretty rich that Bogle here recommends (somewhat equivocally) a conservative bond allocation. In 2006, Vanguard rejiggered its TargetRetirement funds and cut the bond allocations to less than half that benchmark: TargetRetirement 2025 (presumably fit for 44 year-olds) went from approximately 40% bonds to less than 20%. Bogle also scolds performance-chasing over the past couple of years in emerging markets. In that same reallocation, Vanguard added an infusion of emerging market funds into the TargetRetirement family.

The TargetRetirement funds, which blend funds invested in broad stock and bond indexes, are supposed to offer one-stop asset allocation, and consequent peace of mind. Hence, when Vanguard airily informed investors by letter that it was increasing the funds' stock allocations , without even bothering to specify the new allocation, I was incensed. I called and learned that in the TargetRetirement 2025 fund, in which I had a bit less than half my retirement assets, the allocation was changing from approximately 60-40 to 82-18. I said, "I didn't pick my asset allocations out of a hat. Who's going to help me preserve them?" The short answer: no one. I ended up breaking up my Retirement 2025 holdings into their component parts (total stock market, total bond market, european and Pacific indexes). And a good thing too, or I would have lost even more in the recent crash than I did in fact.

To be fair, Bogle has been openly at variance with current Vanguard management for some time. He doesn't say so here, but current management fell prey to the very errors he's fingering here.

And even if they didn't... in this piece, Bogle repeats all his mantras: keep expenses low, don't feed the Wall Street advice racket, don't chase expense exotic assets, pick a rational asset allocation and stick to it. I'm a believer; I've done all that -- with a more conservative stock allocation than Vanguard recommends. And I still lost big -- and don't expect to recover any time soon.

Bogle could do with a bit of introspection and rethinking. To wit: while investors shouldn't chase performance and generally shouldn't try time the market, they should always be prepared to question established principles, to consider that unprecedented new conditions can arise at any time, and to adjust accordingly. It would have been prudent to pull most assets out of stocks at several stages of this 16-month collapse. Signs were ample that things were going to get worse for a long time, that losses would quickly mount that could take years to recoup. The Vanguard buy-and-hold approach failed, along with so many other investing principles.

A central Vanguard premise has always been, don't play a rigged game. The rigged game in Vanguardville is money management - the notion that one's own expertise -- or more commonly, hired expertise -- could beat the market. According to Vanguard, the management fees enrich the manager only, severely cutting the investor's profits. All true. But it turned out that the rigging was more pervasive than Vanguard perceived: it was not just the valuation of advice that was corrupted, but the valuation of all assets.

To be fair, again, there's ultimately never any place to hide. You could have all your money in 4% CDs now -- and get killed by runaway inflation in a year or two. But the index-and-asset-allocation strategy has to be questioned with everything else.

Calm at the center...

All right, so Democrats in Congress want more spending on infrastructure in Obama's stimulus, and Republicans want more tax cuts and less spending overall. What else is new? Here's David Axelrod's response to the incoming fire:

“Obviously, it’s a big answer to a big problem and there are a lot of component parts to it,” Mr. Axelrod said in an interview after meeting with balky Senate Democrats. “These folks are not potted plants. They’re elected officials, and they’re doing their jobs.”

He added, “It’s a collective process, and we’re willing to listen to people’s ideas.”

Asked if they were willing to adopt people’s ideas, Mr. Axelrod said: “We’ll see. It depends on the idea.”

Ah, the no drama team. How long will the sang froid last?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The sum of economic fears

What's so scary about a really deep recession or Depression? Behind the prospects of lost jobs and reduced wealth lies the specter of political upheaval. Martin Wolf frames the danger:
Now think what will happen if, after two or more years of monstrous fiscal deficits, the US is still mired in unemployment and slow growth. People will ask why the country is exporting so much of its demand to sustain jobs abroad. They will want their demand back. The last time this sort of thing happened – in the 1930s – the outcome was a devastating round of beggar-my-neighbour devaluations, plus protectionism. Can we be confident we can avoid such dangers? On the contrary, the danger is extreme. Once the integration of the world economy starts to reverse and unemployment soars, the demons of our past – above all, nationalism – will return. Achievements of decades may collapse almost overnight.
From Depression to aggression -that's the road to ruin that lurks at the back of everyone's mind.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

"A president forgtten but not gone"? That's a bit Rich...

I have no admiration, no soft spot, really no respect for George W. Bush. I think he's wrought terrible damage -- to our Constitution and civil liberties first and foremost, to U.S. interests and influence, to our economy and our environment. But I also think that this week Frank Rich guilds the lily with his bitter denunciations of the outgoing president. The piece is full of false analogies and overdrawn conclusions.

Start with Rich's take on the Administration's attempts to deal with the shoe-throwing incident:

Condi Rice blamed the press for the image that sullied Bush’s Iraq swan song: “That someone chose to throw a shoe at the president is what gets reported over and over.” We are back where we came in. This was the same line Donald Rumsfeld used to deny the significance of the looting in Baghdad during his famous “Stuff happens!” press conference of April 2003. “Images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over,” he said then, referring to the much-recycled video of a man stealing a vase from the Baghdad museum. “Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?” he asked, playing for laughs.

Not all attempts to minimize an event are equal. Rumsfeld's blithe dismissal of U.S. forces' failure to stop a looting epidemic was a disgustingly callous write-off of a catastrophic problem. Rice, in contrast, can claim with some justification that the rage expressed by one individual -- notwithstanding that it was widely embraced by many Iraqis -- is not the main story in Iraq right now. She is speaking in the wake of hard-won, not to say miraculous, improvements in levels of violence and of government control of Iraq. The changes may not hold, but they are real.

Rich is surely right that the Bush Administration's "Accomplishments" booklet presents a risibly one-sided view of its record in Afghanistan, Pakistan, on the environment, etc. (My own take on eleven Bush 'accomplishments': "Arrayed together, they look like the pillars of an impressive presidency -- if you discount the incoming missiles of multiple disaster.") But really, what Administration does not idealize its own record?

In the same vein, Rich might be taking on any president's special pleading when he complains:
The president who famously couldn’t name a single mistake of his presidency at a press conference in 2004 still can’t.He can, however, blame everyone else. Asked (by Charles Gibson) if he feels any responsibility for the economic meltdown, Bush says, “People will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived.”
That's true. Bill Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Blilely act tearing down the walls between investment and commercial banking. Robert Rubin and Larry Summers opposed regulating derivatives. Clinton pressured Fannie Mae to loosen requirements for subprime lending (albeit in ways that look tame compared to the fraudulent and manipulative underwriting that took off in more recent years). That's not to minimize the destructive effects of the Bush Administration's much more aggressive antiregulatory zeal. But Bush is not out of line to point out that financial deregulation was in large part a bipartisan project.

Finally, while Bush deserves no pity and little honor, Rich willfully misunderstands -- or absolutely refuses to credit -- Bush's account of his internal experience:
The crowning personality tic revealed by Bush’s final propaganda push is his bottomless capacity for self-pity. “I was a wartime president, and war is very exhausting,” he told C-Span. “The president ends up carrying a lot of people’s grief in his soul,” he told Gibson. And so when he visits military hospitals, “it’s always been a healing experience,” he told The Wall Street Journal. But, incredibly enough, it’s his own healing he is concerned about, not that of the grievously wounded men and women he sent to war on false pretenses. It’s “the comforter in chief” who “gets comforted,” he explained, by “the character of the American people.” The American people are surely relieved to hear it.
Bush really did undertake a grueling number of visits to wounded soldiers and the families of those killed in action. That doesn't excuse rushing to war under false pretenses. But it also doesn't mean that he's not sincere in acknowledging the emotional toll that exposing himself to soldiers' and their families' suffering took on him, or in recounting the consolation he took from such meetings. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln are both reported to have taken a similar consolation, as Bush doubtless knows. It's not unflattering to the self to speak of such consolation. But I don't think it's faked, either.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Oh, balm, ah: a soothing history lesson

The economic crisis began roughly when the our late, great, endless presidential campaign began. As the crisis ripened and metastasized, Obama has adapted a bit of boilerplate into a kind of mantra, perhaps his own version of "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

The boilerplate is an historical argument: the U.S. can solve daunting problems because it's done so before. As David McCullough wrote, quoting someone, of Harry Truman's long comeback campaign in 1948: courage is having been there before.

Before the economic crisis hit its acute phase in mid-September, this message was chiefly a means for Obama to pull the country's political center to the left -- to argue, in effect, that new government action to reduce income inequality and help the poor and middle class was "conservative" in the sense of restoring core American values of fairness and shared prosperity. Now, it's morphed into an implicit rebuttal of a rising chorus of speculation that the United States is in decline. The implicit message: imbalance, political paralysis and economic hard times are cyclical, not linear phenomena. We let things get out of whack, and we self-correct--and with each self correction, move closer to fulfilling the ideals expressed in the Declaration and Constitution. Our historical path is three steps forward, two back, three forward -- not one long climb up, and a long glide down.

Here's that historical balm in the tail of Obama's radio address for this week:

I am optimistic that if we come together to seek solutions that advance not the interests of any party, or the agenda of any one group, but the aspirations of all Americans, then we will meet the challenges of our time just as previous generations have met the challenges of theirs.

There is no reason we can’t do this. We are a people of boundless industry and ingenuity. We are innovators and entrepreneurs and have the most dedicated and productive workers in the world. And we have always triumphed in moments of trial by drawing on that great American spirit—that perseverance, determination and unyielding commitment to opportunity on which our nation was founded. And in this new year, let us resolve to do so once again. Thank you.

No one who would be President can refrain from flattering the American people and paying fulsome tribute to the nation's history and ideals. But again, Obama's signature way of making these gestures contains an historical argument in which his "yes we can" is embedded. It's a would-be successor not only to "the only thing we have to fear" but to "ask not" and "morning in America."

Related posts:
What Will.i.am had to work with
A nation's education: Obama's conversation
We've been here before: how Obama frames our history
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

Friday, January 02, 2009

Death of literature...greatly exaggerated

David Frum laments:
Literature is a declining presence in our modern society, increasingly an academic preoccupation. Intelligent young people read literature at university, and when they graduate, they stop. When they feel the need to feed the imagination, they turn to movies or television shows.
His evidence?
Here in the blogosphere, certainly, the contrast is stark. I just did a Google blogsearch. For "Franz Kafka" and "The Trial," 7900 entries. For HBO and "The Wire," 59,000. For HBO and "The Sopranos," 72,000. For "Battlestar Galactica," 399,000.
Sorry, David, that won't fly. People don't do internet searches to prove their virtue; they use them to pursue their interest and pleasure. And there was never any population in any place in any era in which a large majority would not be more viscerally interested in The Wire, The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica than in an abstruse and allegorical text like The Trial. In fact, I think The Trial's relative blog authority is remarkably strong. Must be all those paper assignments.

Frum is also blithely certain that "movies and TV are more arresting, more accessible, and less demanding than text." Hmm. Someone should have given him Steven Berlin Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You over the holidays. A couple of snippets, cribbed from a Wikipedia summary:
In film, Johnson highlights the recent trend of mind-bending films: Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pulp Fiction. He argues these films have become popular despite their use of avant-garde techniques, which normally would restrict their accessibility and economic viability. The popularization of narrative experimentation in these films works to further Johnson's main thesis, which highlights an increase in complexity and viewer involvement throughout mass culture in the last twenty years....

Prior to "multiple threading", television episodes contained one or two main characters and one storyline. With the additional "collection of distinct strands" to the episodes, the public became willing "to tolerate more complicated narratives".[10] This allowed the audiences to comprehend more storylines and characters as well as linking different episodes, improving their cognitive skills. In television shows like The Sopranos multiple threading is a common tactic used to provide information to the audience in an interesting way. Johnson explains, "The narrative weaves together a collection of distinct strands-sometimes as many as ten, though at least half of the threads involve only a few quick scenes scattered through the episode".[11] He believes that due to the rising technology in pop culture the audience is conditioned to comprehend the increasingly difficult plots developed with multiple threading. Essentially, then, Johnson's theory of "multiple threading" is based on the increase of narrative complexity through time.

Mind you, multiple threading was popular in medieval romance too -- Mallory's Morte d'Arthur interweaves the stories of many roundtable knights, each followed in their turn. And Frum, like many cultural doomsayers, is right that the reading of books has lost market share as a leisure activity. But how do we know that that trend is not creative destructive, rather than destruction plain and simple?

Reading and writing are blending with other media and other pursuits. My 18 year-old son spends half his leisure time in front of a computer -- rummaging through Digg, reading, watching video clips, writing to friends whether via IM or Facebook walls or plain email. The degree of mental challenge or aesthetic stimulus in his choice, in everyone's choice, depends more on his own propensities than on some absolute measure of the quality of cultural artifact available to him. And that's the way it's always been and will always be.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The year of correction

As a signoff on 2008, here's Xpostfactoid's 10/10/08 anniversary post ("The Year of Obama"):
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Yesterday was xpostfactoid's first birthday (discounting a couple of false starts). It's been an attempt, as the bio at right suggests, to fathom "how democracy works, how it malfunctions and self-corrects." Self-corrects is the operative word: the capacity to "throw the bums out" is what gives governance in functioning democracies the crooked straightness of a good walking stick.

About ten years ago, while reading a Stephen Ambrose's biography of Eisenhower, it occurred to me that the electorate is smarter than I am -- in fact, smarter than any of us. A lifelong Democrat, I realized that the country would not be better off if Democrats always won. Eisenhower, notwithstanding the immoral and destructive coups he authorized in Iran and Guatemala and his abdication on civil rights, was a prudent steward, an able cold warrior, and a constant brake on the military-industrial complex he decried at the end of his tenure. Reagan too has my respect, though I loathe much of what he did to the Federal government's capacity to protect and further social welfare. He did not "win the Cold War," but he did engage Gorbachev with just the right progression from toughness to negotiation to trust. He stepped back and let the Soviet Union unravel itself, providing the right incentives for glasnost and the unwinding of empire.

I had some family evidence of the way democracy works. My paternal grandparents, lifelong Democrats, voted for Reagan in 1980. My father couldn't bring himself to do it, but he voted for John Anderson. Carter's was a failed presidency. Americans recognized it, as they've now recognized Bush's failure. A little late for my taste, but there were reasons for that, beginning with Monica Lewinsky, running through a kink in the Constitution (Nov. 2000), a national trauma (9/11) and a bonding over the year following with a wartime president that was almost but not quite undone by his folly in Iraq.

At the same time, I've wondered through the Bush years whether American democracy retains and will continue to retain the capacity for self-correction. Given the horrendous governance of the Bush team, it's been possible to imagine that a combination of curbs on civil liberties, deregulation, lobbyist empowerment, gerrymandering, media degeneration and advanced political marketing could eventually foreclose the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power -- a truly contested election. 2006 provided major reassurance. Democracy in America is not dead yet. But I still think it's on the endangered list.

The greatest danger to American democracy is the Bush Administration's assault on civil liberties. We've barely noticed, but the Bill of Rights has been gutted. The Administration has successfully asserted the right to deem anyone it wishes an "enemy combatant," hold such people indefinitely, and torture them at will. This has been done to American citizens. Just this week, meanwhile, we learned that peaceful protestors against the death penalty were classified as terrorists by the Maryland State Police. Americans have largely accepted and even embraced this disinheritance. Only a bare majority tells pollsters that torture is wrong--a smaller majority than in any developed democracy, smaller even than in China. This past primary season, the Republican candidates for President were vying do outdo each other in their fervent support of torture and suspension of habeas. McCain, the best of that lot on this crucial front, betrayed his own prior opposition to torture, first by agreeing to loopholes in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, then by voting against a provision that would have ended the CIA's exemption from the prohibition against torture in the armed services.

As of now, the executive branch of the federal government can assert absolute control over the corpus of anyone it wants. Habent corpus - they have the body. If we don't change course, the executive may widen the scope of those over whom it asserts such control at any time -- say, after the next major terrorist attack. McCain will not roll back executive power. It's not even certain that Obama will do it. On this front he's right: it's not about him, it's about us. Lovers of liberty will have to be ready on day 1 to hold his feet to the fire.

Despite these dangers, and all the viciousness of various phases of the presidential campaign, this election season has also been a time of tremendous hope. For me, the (first) year of xpostfactoid will forever be the Year of Obama. I have wrestled with "naivetephobia" -- the fear of looking foolish, and later recognizing the folly, of buying into a presidential candidate's calls for renewal embodied in...himself ("it's not about me, it's about you," is at best a paradox). But Obama is right on this point: we have had great leaders before at times of great peril. We have made great changes -- abolishing slavery, building the core citizen protections of the New Deal, enacting civil rights legislation and making it stick.

For those of us who have dared (sorry!) to hope for great things from Obama, the Lincoln parallel is the great repressed reference point. The New Yorker, in an extraordinary endorsement essay, obliquely invoked this charged analogy:
Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
Like Lincoln, Obama rose to national prominence by sheer force of intellect as evidenced in speeches. Exactly contrary to what his critics claim, his speeches are effective not because of soaring empty rhetoric but because his calls for renewal are underpinned by a clearly articulated reading of American history and an equally explicit enumeration of the priorities that his policy proposals are designed to advance.

Those priorities are to restore "fairness" in our tax code, roll back rising income inequality, and revive effective regulation; to invest in projects essential to prosperity in the next century (alternative energy, universal healthcare, education); to reduce the power of lobbyists and change the tenor of political discourse; to recenter our antiterror efforts on Afghanistan/Pakistan; and to re-establish diplomatic engagement and nonmilitary aid as pillars of our foreign policy. He spells them out repeatedly, and he has won over what looks to be a majority of Americans with this multi-pronged pitch. That's not to say that Obama's campaign is free of hokum and pandering. But the outlines of what he aims to accomplish are clear.

If this blog has any value, it's mainly in the year-long attempt to listen to Obama, to highlight the internal logic of his metapolitics, his foreign policy, his economics, and his political strategy. If he wins and is immediately whipsawed by events, if he proves as feckless as Carter or as slippery as Clinton, the blog will serve to remind only myself (who else will read back?) of my own folly. If he does indeed prove to be a transformational president, an instrument of democratic self-correction and American renewal, I'll be proud to have tuned in early.