Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Will Paul Ryan be the "Fiscal Cheney"?

A funny thing has happened to the last three Republican tickets.  Sometimes people seemed to forget who was at the top.  During the Bush Administration, Cheney often seemed to be the sinister puppet master pulling GWB's strings.  When McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, overly enthusiastic fans said that it was a shame he was dragging her ratings down.  And when Romney chose Paul Ryan, all the focus was on the Ryan budget and how Ryan's vision would govern a Romney administration.

Of course, these things are not all alike.  Ryan and Palin were charismatic figures added to give a moderate nominee more appeal to the Republican base.  Cheney no doubt advocated for policies that the base favored, but his charisma and personal likeablity scores ranked down there with Richard Nixon's.  Cheney had a considerably heftier resume than his boss, especially on matters of foreign policy and national security, two areas in which Bush lacked experience.  Sarah Palin, by contrast, had been a reasonably competent governor of Alaska, but had neither the knowledge not the interest in national affairs to carry much weight in actual policy issues.  If McCain had won the election, Palin could have joined forces with First Lady Cindy McCain advocating and raising funds for developmentally disabled children -- a worthy cause, but not quite one of presidential caliber.

Well, if Romney wins, I think we can safely assume that Ryan will not be Palin.  As a 14-year Congressman and chairman of the House Budget Committee, he is going to be more involved and influential than Sarah Palin.  The real question is, will he be Cheney.  Obviously, he will not be Cheney in the sense of running foreign and national security policy.  While this is not Romney's strong point and he will have to do a lot of delegating, neither is it Ryan's strong point.  The question is whether he will be the "fiscal Cheney," acting as de facto President in budgetary matters.  That was the idea set forth in this column.  Ryan, as fiscal Cheney, would control the budget process in the Romney Administration, pushing for huge tax cuts at the top, huge cuts in programs for the poor, transformation of Medicare into a voucher system and, if possible, of Social Security into a 401-k.  This will all be wildly unpopular, but Jonathan Chait, at least, thinks he could pull it off.  Daniel Larison, by contrast, things Ryan is too much of a team player.

What is really interesting, though, and what makes me tend to be skeptical, is that Cheney so dominated the Bush Administration in foreign policy because that was Bush's weak point.  Romney, by contrast, regards and pitches economy and budget as his strong points.  Romney's commitment to fiscal and monetary tightening is dubious.  Ryan's is undoubtedly sincere.  Whether Romney allows Ryan to dominate in that matter will no doubt be a question of what he thinks is most politically expedient.  And that will be a matter of who Romney is more concerned about pleasing -- the general public, or the Republican base.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

More CEO's for President

So, now that we are on the subject of CEO's for President, how does Mitt Romney compare with other candidates.

Herbert Hoover

I will start with Hoover.  Romney's big disadvantage compared to Hoover is that he lacks Hoover's international experience and prestige.  Furthermore, since the US is the world's only superpower, foreign policy is more important now than it was in Hoover's day.

In terms of administrative competence, no doubt Romney has it, but Hoover would be a tough act to match.  Besides, Romney has a disadvantage in that regard.  Hoover favored administrative competence in general, either in the private or the public sector.  Romney belongs to a party that is opposed on principle to administrative competence in government (at least in its mommy functions).  For anyone, even a Republican President, to display administrative competence in government would be ideologically threatening to many of today's Republicans.

On the other hand, if the Hoover Administration proved one thing, it was that it takes more than administrative competence to make a successful President.  Some have suggested that Hoover's failures were because he never learned to be a politician.  But I am unconvinced.  The only way to know how many of Hoover's failing were the result of poor political skills, one would have to see him as President under more normal circumstances.  That option is not available to us.  I believe that Hoover's failure was the result, not of poor political skills, but of a conventional wisdom that forced him into taking harmful actions.

Either way, Romney has the advantage here.  Unlike Hoover, he had been chief executive of a government as well as a business.  While some in the Massachusetts legislature complained* that he had an autocratic CEO style, he was able to work with them and did get a good taste of what running a government is like.

Furthermore, although the conventional wisdom of the 1930's is all too strong today, it is by no means as unanimous.  And Romney may not be captive to it.  He has sometimes sounded suspiciously Keynesian, and has also hinted that he may favor monetary expansion.  I suppose it will all depend on how much power he gives Paul Ryan.  (More on that in a later post).

Ross Perot

Ross Perot ran for President in 1992, campaigning mostly on the budget deficit, and later founded the Reform Party.  Although I briefly considered voting for him, I decided against it, at least in part because he showed alarmingly autocratic tendencies.**  The most popular joke about his was that he would be in for a rude surprise when he found out that the President couldn't fire Congress.  But jokes of that sort are usually not really jokes.  He really did seem to favor some sort of elective dictatorship and to lack patience with the delays and inconveniences of democracy.

Worse yet, he started making bizarre rants about the Republicans wiretapping his office and seeking to disrupt his daughter's wedding and circulate doctored photographs of her.  As his accusations took on a greater and greater air of outright clinical paranoia, one-times supporters increasingly abandoned him.  Favoring an elective dictatorship was one thing; having a dictator of dubious sanity was another.

Romney certainly comes in ahead of Perot.  As a former state governor, he understands and (presumably) accepts how democratic government works.  And he shows no sign of mental derangement.  But then again, saying that Romney would make a better President than Perot because he is neither a dictator nor insane is not setting the bar very high.

Herman Cain

I have discussed Herman Cain before.  Insofar as he showed none of Perot's disturbing authoritarianism or signs of paranoia, Cain was preferable.  He was, however, totally unqualified to be President.  He was completely clueless about foreign policy and not a good enough politician to understand all the proper cultural cues the Republican base demanded.  But Cain's most serious problem was that he gave no evidence of understanding that running a government is any different from running a business.  He did not appear to understand, as this commentator puts it, that running a business is about, "dedication to the narrow welfare of one firm or economic sector" is totally unlike being President, which calls for "reconciling competing interests and voter blocs for the purpose of advancing a semblance of the common, national good. "  I hold out some hope that Romney does understand the distinction.

Donald Trump

I understand the unanimous, trans-partisan and trans-ideological desire to forget that Donald Trump ever sought to be President.  The mere thought of such a thing is enough to make me want to wash out my brain with bleach.  Fortunately, there was no actual danger of such a thing ever coming to pass.  I will make one comment on Donald Trump's brief candidacy.  To many of the Republican base, obnoxiousness is the most important quality in a leader.  They equate obnoxiousness with firm and unyielding principle.  So I guess is that if you regard obnoxiousness as the prime qualification in a leader, then Trump is perfect.  Otherwise, I can't think of a single good thing to say about him.


Comparing CEO candidates for President, Mitt Romney is way out in front of the pack.  Then again, I would put the disastrous Hoover second.  Romney has better recession-fighting tools at hand than Hoover did and is less likely to be captive to dangerous conventional wisdom.  It is, of course, hard to tell what Romney would actually do or attempt to do once in office.  But I believe we are sufficiently out of danger that even if he gives Paul Ryan a free reign, the damage should be considerably less disastrous than what Hoover witnessed.  And I am reasonably optimistic that Romney would not do anything too self-destructive.  I do give Hoover the advantage in foreign policy, but I suppose we will muddle through.

Distantly trailing Romney and Hoover is Herman Cain who, although unqualified and prone to disastrous policies, is sane and appears to respect democratic norms.  Distantly behind him is mad autocrat Perot.  And bringing up the rear is Donald Trump, who we will all pretend is not there.

*Can't find link.
**One of the reasons Ron Paul makes me so uneasy is that he reminds me too much of Ross Perot.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Brief Look at the Election as it Progresses

Unsurprisingly, Democrats have a strong lead in early voting.  That lead is overwhelming in the very earliest voting and diminishes the closer we draw to the election.  Presumably Republicans will have an equally strong lead on election day.

If Obama does pull off a narrow win, no doubt it will be in large part on the strength of early voting.  Look to Republicans to start shortening early voting, or end it altogether.

(A Certain) CEO for President

One of Mitt Romney's strongest selling points is that his record in business makes him particularly well qualified to set economic policy in our worst downturn since the 1930's.  His shortcomings include that many people doubt whether his background as a corporate raider was actually useful, and his lack of experience on foreign policy and tendency to offend potential allies.

Upon hearing such things, I am tempted to ask people who hold such a view to imagine their ideal candidate for an economic crisis.  You would want a President with extensive private sector success.  If possible, you would prefer him to have worked in a non-financial industry, producing actual physical things, rather than speculating in paper fortunes.  It would also help if he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but self-made, building his company from the ground up.  Since he would be our chief executive, a high degree of administrative competence would be absolutely vital.  You would want him to set aside Obama's sometime adversarial attitude toward business and think of business, instead, as a partner, distrustful of government regulation, and in favor of private initiative.  You would want a real fiscal conservative, one who took balanced budgets seriously and was not afraid to raise taxes on the rich in order to achieve it.  You would want someone who looked upon public assistance with suspicion, fearing it would create dependency, and preferring volunteerism to government action.  Still, it would be good to have someone above any possible suspicion of being a heartless plutocrat -- a leader renowned for his humanitarian work would be ideal.  It would also help if his business experience was of an international scope and he was widely respected and admired the world over.  And, as a final icing on the cake, how about a leader so respected by all across the political spectrum as to seem almost above partisan politics.

Is that the sort of leader you would want in the White House during an economic crisis?  And then, of course, the punchline.  I have good news.  He was in the White House during our greatest economic crisis.  His name was Herbert Hoover.

So what is one to make of Herbert Hoover?  When I was growing up and going to school, we were taught that Herbert Hoover was a good man, in over his head, that he did his best under the circumstances, but his best was not good enough.  He attempted to revive the economy with public works and loan assistance, but was not successful. The hatred that rained down on him was mostly undeserved, since he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  None of this was permitted to detract from the magnitude of Roosevelt's achievements.  Simply put, we were given the impression that Hoover's best was not good enough, but Roosevelt's was.

Starting in college, I began to see right-wing views challenging this conventional view.  They argued that Hoover was, indeed, responsible for the Great Depression, not because he did too little, but because he did too much.  If he had only let market forces play out on their own, the economy would have quickly recovered, but he interfered and doomed things to ruin.  The rejoinder to this is obvious -- if Hoover's interference made things so bad, why did the economy improve so much when Roosevelt interfered even more?

It was not until the current crisis that I began hearing serious arguments for how Hoover could be held responsible for the Great Depression.  To Keynesians, his error was trying (most unsuccessfully) to balance the budget.  To monetarists, Hoover damaged the economy by maintaining a dollar peg against gold.  So it turns out that, yes, Hoover really did do a great deal to damage the economy.  Then again, in his defense, Hoover was only doing what conventional wisdom of the day called for.  Everyone assumed that the budget should be kept balanced and the gold standard maintained.  Anyone else in his place would have done exactly the same thing.  Indeed, Roosevelt ran for presidency in 1932 at a "Tea Party" candidate, denouncing Hoover for running large deficits and pledging to make deep cuts in spending.  Devaluing against gold was a terrifying, almost unthinkable act.  And even after they were discredited, the IMF continued to demand similar policies of countries in economic distress up throughout the 1980's and '90's.  And now the European Central Bank is demanding the same of peripheral Europe to this day.

So my final conclusion was that what they taught us about Hoover in school was about right.  He was a good man, in over his head.  He did his best, but the conventional wisdom of the day (which continues to this day, despite all evidence against it) doomed him to fail.  Only when conventional wisdom had been thoroughly discredited was it possible to go against it.  What is clear, though, is although Hoover had perhaps the strongest private sector resume and most impressive administrative competence of any President ever, neither of these credentials did him any good when the country hit its worst economic crisis.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Post Script on Romney and Foreign Policy

On the subject of Romney and foreign policy this post expresses my views perfectly:
[Romney] treats foreign policy as a matter of domestic marketing, and he believes that the people of the United States want our country to be really obnoxious, but not actually take any serious risks.
 This is probably an accurate take on how most Americans feel about foreign policy.  They want America to be loud and assertive and order other countries around, but not to get into any actual wars because that would be messy.  Of course, it is also a terrible way to conduct foreign policy.  Although I believe a well-executed bluff can occasionally be useful, basing one's entire foreign policy on empty posturing is a surefire recipe for disaster.

It is still possible that a President who conducted his foreign policy that way might escape serious political damage.  So long as no U.S. ground troops were involved, any resulting blunders would probably not affect most Americans much.  And people are more likely to notice the chest-thumping speeches the President makes than actual outcomes on the far side of the world.  But this is a terribly irresponsible way for any President to view the world.

The author ends up concluding that, although he dislikes President Obama's foreign policy, at least Obama has a foreign policy and takes it seriously.

As an interesting bonus, consider the same author's preceding piece in which he suggests that maybe Israel is not as unique as I and others have suggested.  If your foreign policy is one of "omni-directional belligerence," then you are apt to allow any ally who wants a war with any adversary to drag you in after them.  Israel is merely the most obvious example, but the same rule may apply to Georgia and even Taiwan.  The result would be to drag us into a lot of wars that are not in our interest, on the general principle of maximalism.

Finally, though not related to foreign policy, I highly recommend this beautiful essay by the same author on the subject of abortion in cases of rape.  He points out that it is perfectly morally consistent for anyone who believes that full personhood begins with conception -- that a one-celled zygote is morally equivalent to a newborn -- refusing to condone abortion even in cases of rape is morally consistent, even required.  But anyone taking that position should honestly face what he is asking of the women in question and not just pretend that, although rape is a horrible thing, it can be a blessing in disguise if it results in a baby.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Election, and Stages of Grief

Supposedly, there are five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Supposedly, they occur in linear order, progressing from one to the next, all the way up to acceptance.

I have always been skeptical.  It all looks a little bit too neat and tidy to me.  Do all people pass through grief in the same linear order?  Are there no individual variations?  My guess is that these traits do all tend to be associated with grief, and perhaps even that they tend to move from one being dominant to another.  But they also overlap, and people may experience one or all at the same time.

That is what I am experiencing as the election is two weeks away and keeps trending more and more toward Romney.  As that prospect gets stronger and stronger, I find myself experiencing some or all of those reactions hour-by-hour and even minute-by-minute.

Denial:  I desperately scan Nate Silver, looking for any sign that Obama may be pulling ahead.

Anger:  I think of all the most extreme positions Republicans have taken, the Ryan budget, tax cuts for the rich, undermining Medicaid and Medicare, itching for a war with Iran and accuse the Republicans of wanting a return to the Gilded Age.

Bargaining:  I tell myself that Romney might be a new Eisenhower, and I could live with that.

Depression:  All the time, especially every time some poll shows Romney pulling further ahead.

I deliberately indulge all these things, hoping to get to acceptance.  I haven't gotten there yet.  Maybe after the election.

Romney-Ryan on Foreign Policy

I have not watched any of the presidential debates -- too stressful.  I did watch the vice presidential debate and followed general comments on the presidential ones.  And the general consensus seems to be that Romney and Ryan that they won't do anything different from Obama.  They will just beat their chests harder and give more belligerent speeches, and this will make them much more effective.  Their reasons for assuring people they won't do anything different is obvious.  The American people are war-weary and have no desire for any more wars.  Actual belligerence is unpopular.  But Romney-Ryan argue that talking belligerent will make the same policies much more effective.  Why the emphasis on talk at the expense of action.  I can think of four (probably interrelated) theories:

They Really Believe It.

It may be that Romney and Ryan believe that words carry immense, almost magical power.  Let us not forget, after all, that many right wingers believe that Ronald Reagan toppled Communism just by saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

And, to be quite fair, a number of Republican Presidents have used the well-executed bluff effectively.  Dwight David Eisenhower ended the war in Korea, refrained from starting one in Vietnam, and held the first Cold War summit with the Soviets.  But he also had an attack dog in the form of is Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.  Unlike today's Republicans, Eisenhower and Dulles were genuine fiscal conservatives who wanted balanced budgets and considered military spending to be "spending."  So Dulles uses loud bluster and threats of nuclear war in lieu of an actual military buildup.  Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't.  Richard Nixon pursued detente with the Soviets, but also encouraged the belief during crises that he was a "madman" who might actually be crazy enough to use nuclear weapons.  Ronald Reagan at least sometimes copied Dulles and Nixon and apparently had the Soviets believing he was a crazed warmonger long after it became apparent to even his harshest domestic critics that he was nothing of the kind.

So belligerent talk can sometimes be effective as a bluff.  It has its disadvantages, though.  For one thing, it rattles allies as well as enemies.  But I suspect that will not bother conservatives.  Most right wingers do not want allies -- only obedient vassals or enemies.*  To actually have to take an ally's interests into account is seen as a threat to our sovereignty.  Bluffs can also have tragic consequences when friends act in reliance on them.  Dulles' promises to liberate Eastern Europe may have encouraged the heroic but doomed Hungarian Revolution that was bloodily crushed.  Less famously, Nixon and Kissenger encouraged Kurdish revolts in Iraq and then did nothing when they were crushed.  Finally, while bluffs might intimidate, say, the government of Iran, we are currently up against a highly fragmented enemy in the form of Islamic terrorists.  No amount of belligerent talk is going to intimidate every individual terrorist or small group of terrorist in the whole world.

It is Purely for Domestic Consumption.

Chest beating and big talk may not move actual events with foreign powers, but they sell well with domestic audiences.  Let's face it.  Most Americans don't especially care about foreign policy.  But they like Presidents who stand tall and talk tough.  So long as they don't start any prolonged wars, who cares whether such talk is effective.  And if anything bad does happen, you are less likely to get blamed for it if you at least sound tough.

Once again, this is not altogether new.  Many people suspect that Dulles' loud talk was aimed largely at a domestic audience.  Truman had been relentlessly hounded for being soft on Communism.  Eisenhower's policies were objectively no more aggressive than Truman's (less, if you consider that Truman fought a major war and Eisenhower didn't).  But so long as Dulles sounded off, he protected his right flank from the McCarthy wing of the party.

It is an Awkward Political Compromise.

This is closely related, of course, but not quite the same.  I did read an interesting suggestion on the subject -- that it is simply an attempt to sound tougher (as a sop to the base) without actually doing anything that might start a war (to please the broader public).  Or, as the author puts it, "Rhetorical argument signals differences with Obama without publicly committing to to any particular one."

It's a Christian Thing.

I owe this one to Fred Clark, the Slacktivist.  Clark argues that to a certain strain of Evangelical Christians, what is in the heart is most important, while actions are secondary, and consequences almost irrelevant.**  Thus good intentions and virtuous attitudes are what is really important.  Actions are far less important than the intent behind them.  If their intent is right, good consequences will necessarily follow.

And come to think of it, just as my second and third possibilities have a great deal in common, so do the first and the last.

*Except for Israel.  Israel is not our vassal; we are Israel's vassal.
**The same attitude applies to programs for the poor.  The important thing is to ensure that people donate freely, with a charitable heart.  Whether the poor are adequately provided for is a matter of no importance.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On Thinking You Are Better Than Other People

In yet another link I can no longer find, David Frum responded to Democrats who are frustrated a Republican populism when Republicans are so much the party of the rich.  Irrelevant, he said, American populist resentment is not directed at the rich, but at the educated.  And the Democrats are the party of the educated.

I have come to conclude, though, that this is only half true.  Real populist resentment is directed toward people who think they are better than you.  Wealth, Republicans are quick to point out, is not in itself resented because most people aspire to wealth for themselves.  But the same goes, to some extent, for education.  As Rick Santorum learned the hard way when he dismissed Obama wishing everyone to go to college as snobbery, most people aspire to higher education for themselves or at least their children.  Education, after all, is the usual key to wealth.

I believe that overall, if people are more likely to resent the educated than the rich, it is because they are more likely to perceive the educated as seeing themselves as better than other people.  And let us admit, there is some truth to that.  People with credentials and expertise certainly do regard themselves as having superior specialized knowledge in their field, and the "I know better than you" attitude gets resented (especially when it clashes with people's cherished religious beliefs).  But that might be forgivable if the educated limited themselves to claiming superior expertise.  What is really most resented, I think, is the unstated suspicion that educated people consider themselves morally superior to less educated people.  And let's face it -- many educated people do consider their education a mark of  moral superiority.  Is it any wonder that such an outlook is resented?

By contrast, rich people do not claim any special superiority because of their wealth -- or do they?  Various theologies that see wealth as a reward for merit are nothing new, after all.  The prosperity gospel remains with us today.  And most significant, the growing frequency of public speeches using phrases like "makers and takers," "job creators," "our most productive citizens," all suggest that wealth is some sort of measure of merit.  At the very least, income is taken as a reasonable proxy for social utility.  Taken a step further, this view assumes that people are either entrepreneurs or parasites.  And furthermore, this simply reflects the views of today's rich and powerful, who firmly believe that their superior wealth is proof of superior merit, if only the ignorant public would just understand that.

And really, taken to its logical conclusion, it is really hard to escape the suspicion that today's Republican Party really does think rich people are better than the rest of us.  This is a problem for the Republican party because, while celebrating success and loudly proclaiming that you admire the successful is an electoral winner, proclaiming that net worth is a good measure of moral worth, that being rich makes you better than other people, is a surefire loser.  Occupy Wall Street has been an overall failure but its basic message -- that this country is turning into a plutocracy, and that we don't like it -- had a lot of resonance.  The Tea Party's primary concerns may be immigration and cutting spending on the poor, but they, too, often express a fear that this country is turning into a plutocracy.  The Republican Establishment interprets this to mean that the Tea Party is mad as hell that this country is not plutocratic enough, and they will do their utmost to correct that.

The Romney campaign ran into trouble so long as he campaigned as a plutocrat.  At the first debate, he shook the etch-a-sketch, announced those old statements were no longer operative, and saw his campaign take off.  How Romney would actually govern is anyone's guess.  But it is emblematic of the Republican leadership's basic problem.  In their heart of hearts, the Republican leaders believe that wealth makes people better.  Their dilemma is how to advance such an agenda and govern in that way without letting the word get out.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My Only Problem with Romney is that He is a Republican

Unlike some people, I am not yet ready to call the election for Romney.  Nonetheless he gets stronger every day, so it is time to consider what a Romney Presidency would look like.  The problem is, it is hard to tell.  After going out of his way to show what a good plutocrat he was during the primary, he shook his etch-a-sketch for the debates and emerged only a few degrees off from Obama.  So, assuming Romney wins an election, what would we expect a Romney Presidency to look like?

I discussed the subject in an earlier post.  At that time, I saw two possibilities for a Romney Presidency -- Romney as hard right, or Romney as Eisenhower, i.e., making Obama's policies unobjectionable because a Republican is supporting them.  At the time, Romney as hard right seemed plausible because a Republican blow-out looked like a real possibility.  Today, that is seeming increasingly unlikely.  Although Romney's chances improve every day, the Senate seems most likely to remain in Democratic hands.  Jonathan Chait believes that enough Senate Democrats will defect to give Romney whatever he wants, for fear of seeming too liberal.  Color me unconvinced.  Senators, particularly in red states, may fear seeming too liberal, but it does not logically follow that they want to be on record voting for huge tax cuts at the top, or for turning Medicare into a voucher system.  Neither of those are popular by themselves; the combination is deadly.  A Republican might be forced to support these very unpopular positions by the threat of a primary challenge, but a Democrat should be able to defy them with impunity.  So I think Romney governing from the hard Right is unlikely, given the likely composition of Congress.

Roughly speaking, I now see two possibilities:  Romney as Bush Junior, and Romney as Eisenhower.

Romney as Bush, Junior:  George W. Bush managed to get bipartisan support for a lot of what he did, by two main tactics.  One was to adopt a superficially Democratic goal but pursue it in a Republican fashion.  Examples include Medicare D and No Child Left Behind.  Republicans distrust federal involvement in education and any expansion of the federal role in healthcare, but were unable to say no to a Republican President.  Democrats favor those things, but were skeptical about how Bush went about them.  (NCLB imposed immense costs on schools, without offering any additional resources; Medicare D was unfunded).  The other approach was to propose measures no one dared oppose for fear of having their patriotism impugned.  The PATRIOT Act and the Iraq war are the most obvious examples.  Tax increases are always hard to say no to, although many Democrats managed.

So, would that work this time around?  Presumably what Romney would propose would be some sort of tax cut, primarily but not exclusively at the top, a move to "save" Medicare or make it more "sustainable" by going to a voucher system, and a block grant of Medicaid, Food Stamps, and perhaps other programs for the poor, combined with deep cuts.  Throw in a war with Iran and the question is, could he bully Democrats into going along?  It's hard to say, but my guess would be it would be more difficult this time around.  For one thing, the 60-vote threshold is by now so well established that getting rid of it would be very difficult with Democrats in the majority.  Romney might be able to peal off a few Democrats on purely budgetary matters, but they would be much more willing to follow the Republican precedent and filibuster any major structural changes in Medicare, Medicaid or Food Stamps.  Posing as champions of Medicare is always a winning tactic.  Championing programs for the poor is less so, but "balance the budget on the backs of the poor" (which is certainly what the Ryan Plan proposes) is a slogan with emotional resonance.  Finally, there is not much appetite for war right now.  Alas, it is unlikely that Democrats will do much to stop the use of torture by a Romney Administration.

In short, I do not think the Democrats will be as easy to bully as in the past.

Romney as Eisenhower:   Alternately, Romney switched to a moderate tone in the debate that has pushed him so far ahead.  He could agree to work with a Democratic Senate to achieve genuinely bipartisan goals.  He might agree to reform, rather than repeal, Obamacare and Frank-Dodd banking reform, in ways that reduce red tape while keeping the basic goals (universal coverage, keeping banks from taking too many risks) in place.  He could propose an eminently sensible economic program of short-term stimulus combined with long-term cuts.  He could scare the bejesus out of people about the future of Social Security and Medicare and reach some bipartisan deal combining Republican goals (spend less) and Democratic goals (protect the vulnerable).  He could get Republicans to go along by cracking the whip and demanding they obey a Republican President, and also by assuring them that it is okay for the government to spend money so long as a Republican is doing the spending.  Would this work?

It's really hard for me to say.  I will say, that the residual resentments over Bush, Jr. and Obama make it a lot harder than it once would have been.  Republicans have so strongly identified themselves with certain ideological positions that it will be hard for them to back down, regardless of who is in the White House.  (Not long ago, they were arguing that it didn't matter if Romney was a moderate, he would sign whatever Congress passed.  But back then Republicans could largely assume that they would hold the Senate.  That is seeming less and less likely).  And besides, much as the Democrats would like to get something constructive done, they really can't afford to come across as pushovers, considering how obstructionist Republicans have been.

And that is why ultimately, I remain dead-set against Romney, even if he turns out to be the second coming of Dwight David Eisenhower.  I would probably support most of an Eisenhower Romney's policies, but in today's climate, politics have to trump policy.  If Romney is able to work with Democrats and achieve much of what Democrats want, the result will still be to reward Republican obstructionism.  It will be to show that Republicans can deliver and Democrats can't; that Republicans can govern and Democrats can't.  It will realistically convince a lot of people that our partisan deadlock was all Obama's or the Democrats' fault.  And it will allow Republicans to succeed in their blackmail -- elect us, or we will make the country ungovernable.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Business: The New Military?

I used Jessup's rant in my last post because I consider it emblematic of a certain attitude I have been seeing these last few years among Republicans.

Jessup's error is clear enough.  He starts with a perfectly reasonable premise -- the military is necessary, it protects us, and the front line troops should be honored for it.  But he leaps from that to an utterly different conclusion -- that the military should therefore be unaccountable and not bound by laws other than its own.  His call for a lawless and unaccountable military assumes that military men are morally superior to civilians, and front line troops to support forces.  It also assumes that this superiority is great enough to make front-line troops immune to the normal failings of human nature -- the temptations of power, the tendency to confuse one's personal interests with the public good, and so forth.  Taken to its ultimate conclusion, it is the logic of military dictatorship.

I have no doubt that many professional military men agree with Jessup, nor that many right-wing civilians also do.  Certainly, in times past (say, when Dole or the senior Bush ran for President against Dukakis or Clinton), many right wingers were quick to hold up military service as proof of moral superiority and treat anyone who had not served as morally unqualified to hold office.

That approach is no longer viable.  Since the Vietnam war, our elite of both parties have usually been able to avoid military service, and besides, our military has shrunk enough that large portions of the population never serve.  And there was a long gap for anyone to young to have fought in Vietnam and too old for Iraq when the opportunity to fight in a major war just wasn't there.*

But it is sort of startling the way that attitude has now been shifted over from military service to running a business.  Part of it is no doubt the fact that the Republicans have nominated a former CEO as their candidate and want to play up that part of his biography.  But one heard that sort of talk, the general attitude that anyone who had not run a business did not really contribute, well before Romney was nominated, before primary season even began.  The basic view that businessmen are "job creators," that wealth is created only at the top, and that income is a reasonable surrogate for contribution to society.  Romney is pitched as the ideal President in an economic crisis because his private sector experience, just as a retired military man (think McClellan, Eisenhower) was pitched as the ideal candidate to win a war.  But the attitude has moved beyond that.  Just as many people used to regard anyone who had not served in the military as not morally worthy to hold office, today's Republicans seem to regard anyone who as not run a business as not morally worthy to hold office.*

There are some obvious problems to treating running a business as the equivalent of military service.  Business management and the military are both specialties that are not for everyone.  No society could possibly function in which everyone is a soldier, and no modern industrial society is possible with everyone running a business.  Nonetheless, in certain military emergencies, extremely broad drafts have been instituted.  Some societies, now and in the past, have had systems of universal military service, so that everyone with a few exceptions does have military experience.  Claims that lack of military service disqualifies a candidate from office have usually been made in societies in which service is the norm and failure to serve is the exception.**

But there is no equivalent system of requiring everyone to run a business.  Extreme economic emergencies have sometimes forced people to become entrepreneurs in the sense of selling apples and the like, but hardly in the sense of knowing what it is to run a business and make payroll.  And while organizations like Junior Achievement may encourage people to have the simulated experience of running a business, the thought of any system of universal conscription is simply absurd.  In short, think of not running a business as morally disqualifying for holding office, and you exclude the majority of population.

Add to that the view that businessmen should be held to no laws except the law of supply and demand, and accountable to no one except the market, and certainly the view that no lesser mortal may criticize them, and you get the businessman version of Colonel Jessup.  The ultimate logic of such a view is not military dictatorship, but plutocracy.

*Ironically, A Few Good Men and Colonel Jessup were products of this era.  For all his ranting about lives being on the line, Jessup was not actually fighting a war.
**Both Dole and the senior Bush fought in WWII, a war that caught up most able-bodied men of their generation.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Rage of a Privileged Class

The New Yorker did a recent piece on why the super-rich feel victimized by Obama, even though they are economically doing quite well.  Their basic answer is that Obama criticizes them instead of praising them as "job creators,"  and that speaking ill of the rich and powerful is divisive and amounts to class warfare.  Needless to say, they don't see anything divisive or class warfare in dividing the country into "makers and takers," "people who work for a living and people who vote for a living," or Romney saying of 47% of the country, "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Felix Salmon commenting on the article, is unconvinced.  He is unconvinced that it is anything as superficial that the super-rich can't bear to be criticized. After all, the worst Obama has said about them pales in comparison to what they have said about him.  (One financier compared Obama's attempt to eliminate their preferential taxation to Hitler's invasion of Poland).  

Instead, Salmon sees three main reasons so many billionaires are outraged at Obama.  One is that the outrage is largely confined to the financial sector.  Another is that they really, really like Romney who is, after all, one of their own, and that they have to justify their passion for Romney with a countervaling hatred toward Obama.  I am less convinced on that one.  After all, this hatred began well before Romney had locked up the Republican nomination.

More plausible and appalling is the final answer.  Salmon points out that Wall Street strongly supported Obama in 2008.  Various reasons have been suggested why this was so -- that Obama resembled Wall Street's financiers in background and education, or that Wall Street is socially liberal and therefore dislikes Republicans.  But Salmon believes that hard self-interest was at work.  Obama, far more than McCain, recognized just how serious the financial crisis was, and financiers were confident his team would do whatever was necessary to prevent the financial system from collapsing.  McCain inspired no such confidence.  But once the financial crisis was over and profits came back, they saw no reason for anything to change from before the crisis.  They certainly didn't see themselves as bearing any blame for the crisis, or the crisis as grounds for stronger regulations.  That's crazy talk!

In other words, the two political parties hold two ideologically consistent views about finance.  Democrats fear financial crashes and will bail out the banking system, but in return want tougher regulations to prevent a repeat performance.  Republicans want to leave things to the free market -- let banks do as they please and if they fail, so be it.  (Presumably they think that a serious financial crisis will scare enough sense into the surviving banks to prevent a repeat performance).  So financiers respond to this in the most economically rational way possible -- support Republicans in good times and Democrats in bad times.  Then they can run riot all they want and be bailed out if they run into trouble.  This is a great deal for banks, but understandably unpopular with everyone else.

This is possible, but maybe we should be taking bankers at their word, that they hate Obama because they resent being criticized.  Quite simply, they are economic royalists.  They believe that, as agents of the free market, they must be treated for all intents and purposes as infallible, and that no lesser mortals have the right to criticize them. Obama is a lesser mortal.  One of the bankers said that he had never worked a day in his life.  When called on it, it turned out that he meant Obama "never made payroll.  He's never built anything."  In other words, if you do not run a business, you are not really "working" and certainly don't have the right to criticize people who do.  Or, to paraphrase Colonel Jessup's rant, "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who walks and sleeps under the blanket of the very wealth I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.  I'd rather you just said thank you."  That, I suspect, is what really lies at the root of it all.


Andrew Sullivan is all but calling the election for Romney.  Time will tell, I guess.  At the very least, the debate stands as a warning not to do electoral post-mortums on a live election.  Of course, I was calling the election for the Republicans way back in May.  I could yet turn out to be right.  I hope I turn out to be wrong.

I will now return to my regularly scheduled blogging and hope not to despair too much.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Economic Royalism, Not Fascism

I want to do a series of posts on the increasingly open identification of the Republican Party as the plutocratic party.  I realize that the reason Democrats have found it so frustrating the the white working class votes Republican is the view that the Republican Party is the party of plutocrats.  But since the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, and especially with the Romney-Ryan ticket, the tendency is becoming increasingly open.

The Republican Party is more or less openly positioning itself in favor of the unrestricted power of big money interests.  Some people on the left refer to this as fascism, but that is not accurate.  Fascism was a populist movement that often expressed resentment of big money elites.  Fascist paramilitaries were not hired guns for the elite, but popular organizations outside their control.  Granted, big money elites ultimately cut a deal with the fascists in Italy and Germany because they feared left-wing revolution from below, but it was always an uneasy alliance.

Romney-Ryan Republicans, by contrast, are advocates of big money interests plain pure and simple. Plutocracy would be an accurate description of what they advocate.  But I prefer the term economic royalism.  (I will, nonetheless, often use the term plutocracy because it is shorter).

There are immistakeable similarities between old-style royalism and economic royalism.  Old-style royalists believed that the social order was ordained by God, and that any questioning of it was blasphemy against God's will.  They believed that kings were agents of God and that their actions must be regarded as God's will.  They used the expression, "The king can do no wrong, " but they did not mean it quite literally.  The view that no king ever did anything wrong was impossible to maintain in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  But what they did argue was that the king was answerable to God only, and that no lesser mortal was ever permitted to challenge the king's actions.

Well, then, economic royalists believe that the social order is ordained by the free market and that any attempt at reform is blasphemy against the free market.  They believe that capitalists (both independent entrepeneurs and corporate managers) are agents of the free market and their actions must be seen as the will of the free market.  They do not actually claim that capitalists never make mistakes because the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.  But they do maintain that capitalists are answerable to the free market only, and that no lesser mortal may legitimately question their actions.  The big difference is that old-style royalists believed that the social order God ordained was immutable and should never change.  Given the disruptiveness of the modern-day free market, economic royalists do not maintain that position today.  Instead, they view any disruptions as the free market may create as part of its will and see any attempt to soften or mitigate them as blasphemy.

Economic royalists often regard themselves as libertarians.   They say that they are not supporters of big money interests, but simply opponents of any government interference with the free market.  Thus they oppose most government regulations interfering with the freedom of private actors.  But in case of conflict between one set of private actors and another, their preferences are revealing.  They oppose unions, for instance, even though unions are private actors.  Ditto homeowner's associations trying to keep out a developer.  Often they say that unions or homeowners' associations are cartels unfairly interfering with the workings of the free market, which should be consumer-driven.  But then libertarians turn out to be advocates of tort reform, seeking to limit consumers' ability to sue for products that harm them.  Alternately, libertarians say that the economy is property shareholder-driven, rather than consumer-driven.  But libertarians are not notably friendly to shareholder derivative suits against corporate management.

In short, economic royalists who call themselves libertarians invariably favor not only private actors over government regulation, but producers over consumers, employers over employees, developers over homeowners, and corporate management over shareholders.  If this is not a presumption of infallibility of the management and championship of its interests, it is a remarkable imitation.  It reached its apotheosis during the 2008 economic crisis when an extraordinary number of conservatives were unwilling to admit that the prospect of widespread failures of banks and the auto industry could possibly have anything to do with mistakes by management, and must be the result of government regulation and unions, respectively.

And now the presumably infallible agents of the free market see their status as threatened and they are mad as hell.  That will be the topic of my next post.

One Thing I Do Understand About the Economy

One thing I do understand is a phenomenon that I have notices and has a plausible explanation.  Weekly reports of unemployment applications are invariably revised upward.  Monthly job creation reports are also invariably revised upward.

The explanation in both cases is that the reports are based on incomplete information.  Most unemployment applications or jobs created have been reported when the announcement comes in, but a few trickle in later, moving the number upward.

Friday, October 5, 2012

And Another Thing I Don't Understand About the Economy

How do you manage to have a household survey that shows an 873,000 job gain in September and an employer survey showing 114,000?  Oh, yes, and how can that possibly add up to a 0.3% decline in unemployment in one month despite more people entering the job market?

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not one of these conspiracy theorists.  It's just really weird.