Last Build Date: Wed, 08 Apr 2009 00:20:00 -0600Copyright: Copyright 2009
Wed, 08 Apr 2009 00:20:00 -0600Also, President Obama wants to digitize and collect all patient health care data initially because such data could assist in assessing best practices. This is, for certain, a controversial and vastly expensive universal coverage proposal; it would cost between about $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion over 10 years. But the full scope of the president's health care policy ambitions cannot be understood without accounting for his claim that he needs to do health care this year as part of his long-term plans to reduce the deficit. While some emergency-room and related cost savings would be realized if everyone had health insurance, no one seriously suggests that such savings would even put a dent in the $1.5-2 trillion that this proposal would cost in tax increases and debt issuance in the first 10 years. The president's claim only would make sense if this huge proposed undertaking were to be merely the first step in a series of timed policy changes on a path toward nearly comprehensive federal government regulation and management of health care. What follows is my surmise of what the administration hopes the path to America's future health care system will look like. Currently, a little less than one-fifth of the American economy is devoted to health care. Of that, about 68 percent of it is in the private sector, with 32 percent run by the government (Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Affairs, Defense Department health services, etc.). This year, the Democrats hope to pass the above described universal coverage law, which would include creating a public insurance option, that is, the federal government would offer health insurance plans to compete with the private-sector health insurance that most of us purchase through our employers. In the face of government's undercutting the cost of private-sector health insurance, more and more Americans would choose to come under the federal health system. At some point, the age eligibility for Medicare may be lowered (perhaps to 50 or 55), and the income ceiling for Medicaid may be raised, thus further increasing the percentage of the public covered by government rather than by private-sector health insurance. According to Tom Daschle (Obama's first choice to design and implement his health care policy), in order to manage federal cost by prescribing permissible treatment procedures and medical technological use (and proscribing diagnostic and treatment methods deemed not cost-effective), a regulatory board to establish standards for public health care delivery in the United States would be created modeled on how the Federal Reserve Board and Securities and Exchange Commission oversee banks and corporations. Technically, it only would oversee the public health systems. But in his book last year on how to redesign health care, Daschle suggested: "Congress could opt to go further with the Board's recommendations. It could, for example, link the tax exclusion for health insurance to insurance that complies with the Board's recommendation." After first squeezing the private insurance policies by undercutting their offerings with a subsidized federal government health insurance, the government then could undercut the private insurance further by denying the insurers tax deductibility unless they complied with federal health service regulations. As only the wealthiest could afford to buy private health insurance if the cost were not deductible, private health insurance companies would be compelled to follow federal benefits and cost regulations. At that point, almost all Americans would get their health care pursuant to federally regulated systems. Then the president would be able to begin to deliver on his twin pledges to reduce the cost of entitlements and make health care overall contribute to lower deficits. The federal regulators could do merely what the British regulators do currently: --Constantly reduce the compensation of doctors and all other skill[...]
Wed, 01 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600And that is the vital lesson that my friend Mark Levin instructs us on in his new book, which is already a best-seller in America -- and also should be so in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Beijing. Individual freedom should be a universal blessing. That it isn't is a cause for lamentation. That it miraculously was born and thrived in America is a cause for thanksgiving and celebration. That we are losing it should be a spur to rise to its defense. "Liberty and Tyranny" is precisely such a stiff, sharp goad to the body politic. This is really a superbly useful book. It is the perfect companion for the college freshman to fortify the student against what he or she is about to hear. It is an ideal detoxicant for the graduating senior. Most vitally, it should be read by those who do not consider themselves conservatives, because it carefully lays out the central historic, philosophic and constitutional relationship between conservative principles and our individual freedom. Even for ilk such as me (now in my fifth decade as a conservative activist, government official, lawyer, author, journalist and commentator), this book is very useful. Mark has an eye for exactly the right historic examples, current facts and obscurities that illuminate well-known events. In the last instance, I learned from this book the bigoted reason that the constitutional misconception of separation of church and state became the law of the land through the Supreme Court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision. I knew anti-Catholicism had supplied a unifying principle for a majority Protestant culture threatened by fragmentation and decline in the first half of the 20th century. And because Catholicism seemed to represent unification of church and state, many Protestants came to use the Jeffersonian language of "separation of church and state" in generally opposing Catholic participation in politics and education. What I learned in Mark's book (pages 30-31) is that former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black -- who wrote the fateful, culturally damaging, precedent-breaking 5-4 decision -- was described by his own son as an avid reader of the vilest anti-Catholic hate literature. This fact contradicts the usual excuses for Black's former membership in the Ku Klux Klan (youthful indiscretions, socially required, etc.). So this American Civil Liberties Union-cherished provision was not the product of 18th-century enlightenment, but 20th-century rural anti-Catholic Protestant bigotry. Fascinating and useful. In another instance, Mark pinpoints and explains precisely the right Supreme Court case that killed federalism, authorized national central economic planning, and established precedent for new congressional laws and regulations that, no doubt, soon will be enacted and fatefully retested by today's Supreme Court (pages 53-54). One cannot understand how we got to the legal plausibility (though, I hope, ultimate overruling) of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's shocking proposal last week to possess legal discretion to seize any private-sector business in America without understanding the 1942 case of Wickard v. Filburn. This case broke my heart when I studied it 40 years ago as a law student. Could there really be such wickedness in the high court? In a nutshell, it found that a farmer who grew some grain on his own property and himself consumed it on that same property had entered interstate commerce (and thus could be regulated by Washington) because by not being in interstate commerce, he was affecting interstate commerce and thus was being in interstate commerce. That decision could only be written by a clinical lunatic or a smart person intent on subverting the unambiguous meaning of the Constitution. In 1942, it was written or endorsed by nine men, none of whom was clinically lunatic. "Liberty and Tyranny" is a battle cry and a battle plan to take our Constitution back from such people.[...]
Wed, 25 Mar 2009 00:10:00 -0600When I wrote last week's column, before the AIG fury erupted, I argued that we in Washington should dial back our rhetoric because public passions were already dangerously high -- and we have so many hard decisions in probably hard times ahead of us that we need to face as a united people. Little did I expect that within hours of my writing those words, congressmen would be calling for the names and addresses of AIG employees to be made public -- even though the congressmen had been told that the lives of the employees' children had been threatened as a result of the uproar. Congressmen who would risk the lives of innocent children to save their own political skins are not likely to provide noble leadership in the months and years to come. Sound policy is unlikely to be formed when the screaming voices of a multitude are ricocheting off the legislative chamber's walls. Yet rather than speak to calm the anger and the passion, many of Washington's finest figures fed it. Rather than stand athwart the onslaught, they chose to lead it. But Washington's threat to the nation and the world is from more than acts of crass political expediency -- hardly an unknown phenomenon in any nation's capital. I am struck -- and chilled to the bone -- by the fact that in the face of this perhaps unprecedented economic storm, both political parties (with, of course, several individual exceptions) are reflexively and unthinkingly sticking to their normal economic and policy nostrums. The Republicans -- feeling guilty for drifting away from their principles of fiscal responsibility and limited government -- have returned with a vengeance to those principles without seriously considering their application to this strange economic moment. For example, on the question of whether to bail out failing giant financial institutions, too many Republicans argue against it (which may or may not be the right policy) not on specific analyses of the policy's consequences, but merely with abstract ideological assertions. While the Democrats -- flush with the rising expectations of finally having a chance to enact much of their health, energy, climate, labor, trade, tax and educational social policies -- are themselves refusing to reconsider whether such vast legislating efforts, expenditures and tax increases are consistent with protecting us from economic catastrophe. For example, the Obama administration asserts that we have to deal immediately with health, education and energy issues because those problems are what caused the economic condition. Yet it refuses to present any analysis to support such a proposition -- a proposition that has been rejected by economists from right to left. Like too many Republicans, Democrats simply assert their ideology. Both parties, from different angles, may be on a collision course with reality. If ever we were in a non-ideological moment, it is now. The moment calls for pragmatic, careful and analytical reasoning. It may be that after such a process, both sides -- using all their mental capacity -- would conclude that their various ideologies perfectly describe the policies to follow in every instance. But I doubt it. Although I am a free market, limited-government conservative, I believe there is a strong case for government intervention to strengthen our financial institutions (and then, when the danger has passed, to get government back out of the private sector quickly). I have liberal Democratic friends who believe in single-payer health care and who, in private, think it is foolish to deal with health care while the world's economy is aflame. But what is happening is that as national fear and anger rise, the electoral bases of the two parties are rallying powerfully to their core ideological principles. And most members of both political parties are playing to their respective bases -- some out of sincere belief, many out[...]
Wed, 18 Mar 2009 00:20:00 -0600On the president's side, a high-toned prizewinner called the GOP arguments "fraudulent," saying they intend to push the U.S. economy over "the edge of catastrophe." A prominent opponent of the president's was identified as having a history of drug dependency. The White House itself ran a campaign to demonize Rush Limbaugh. And according to Politico, President Obama's transition chief is coordinating a "left-wing conspiracy" that intends to go after the president's critics personally. Politico quotes one of the participants: "There's a coordination in terms of exposing the people who are trying to come out against reform -- they've all got backgrounds and histories and pasts, and it's not taking long to unearth that and to unleash that, because we're all working together." Things have gotten nasty fast, even on the same sides. Conservatives have had two very vituperative intramural fights, over Rush Limbaugh and over Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. On the liberal side, Jon Stewart has been personally very rough with fellow Obama supporter Jim Cramer -- after Cramer sharply criticized the president's economic policy. And in the media, Newsweek had a full-cover picture of Rush Limbaugh with what looks like black tape across his mouth with the word "enough!" on it. For a storied journalistic enterprise such as Newsweek to suggest the forcible silencing of dissent should be considered shocking to all journalists and others who champion the First Amendment right of free speech. And we are less than two months into President Obama's term. In my 30 years as a Washington player, I never have seen the tone deteriorate on both sides so fast. In the summer of 1993, Newt Gingrich still was working cooperatively with President Bill Clinton on passing the North American Free Trade Agreement. While there were periodic outbursts, it took a couple of years for things to get really ugly back then. Even George W. Bush, who came to office viewed by some of his critics as an illegitimate president because of the way he got into the White House, was able to work in partnership with no less than Ted Kennedy on education reform during his first year in office. The old joke that debates in academic lounges are so nasty because so little is at risk does not apply, in my opinion, to national politics right now. Rather, precisely because we stand on the edge of possible economic catastrophe in a world that seems more out of control than anytime since 1939, both sides feel more deeply about policy decisions soon to be made. We earnestly believe -- on both sides -- that decisions made in Washington in the next several months or few years may drastically reshape the very nature of our country forever. So policy argument easily slips into personal calumny in a desperate effort to win the debate. But precisely because these fateful policy decisions may well be decided by a few votes in the Senate -- leaving almost half the country appalled at the decision -- it is vital to dial back the rhetoric of the debate to make acceptance of such decisions more manageable. At least I am going to try to dial back my rhetoric. Don't construe the foregoing as an ode to goo-goo bipartisanship. I stand with Maggie Thatcher in believing in conviction politics, in which individuals and parties do not compromise their first principles in order to get along. It is better to lose a vote or an election on principle and let the public judge whose policy was the wiser than to stand for nothing -- and thus stand for anything. But with gun, ammunition and gold sales way up these past few months, the American public obviously is bracing for some very rough times in some very practical ways. And as we Americans are going to be in the same boat as we enter what may be a pitiless storm, we owe it to ourselves to be as united as possible. We [...]
Wed, 11 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600After 50 days on the job, the average of his job approval polls, according to RealClearPoltics, is 60.3 percent -- almost precisely average for such data on presidents since Richard Nixon. (It would be a little below average if Kennedy and Eisenhower were included.) His negatives in most polls are a little higher than average, which means that initially undecided members of the public are forming opinions a little faster. Ronald Reagan's and Bill Clinton's numbers generally went up from this point in their presidencies; Nixon's and Carter's went down. So the polls don't tell us much. But these polls do not yet reflect the effect on public opinion of his budget announcements. There are two likely effects, one obvious and predictable and the other subtler and more delayed. The first is that those who are to be more highly taxed begin to know who they are. By proposing limiting charitable donations and mortgage interest deductions -- along with higher marginal and capital gains rates -- for the upper-middle class (and, in effect, most of small business), he not only threatens already-hard-pressed charities and churches but also pulls another support out from under real estate valuations. By going straight at the nation's investors with tax increases, he risks undermining already-flagging investor confidence. All this Obama presumably already knew was the political and economic price for getting his hands on more taxpayer dollars to spend. But vastly more dangerous to the Obama presidency (and the nation) was his decision to go full steam ahead to immediately start to transform health care; fight carbon dioxide energy sources with new taxations that will increase the cost of all energy, goods and services; and increase new expensive education entitlements as part of a federalization of American education. It is this decision not to postpone those multiyear, multitrillion-dollar programs until the economy and the financial system are revived that exposes Obama's presidency to a possible catastrophic meltdown in its first term. Obama not only is failing to focus more or less exclusively on protecting the financial system and the economy that depend on it but also is letting his ideological ardor drive him to expend both his own and his administration's attention, along with the vast new tax dollars, on those programs rather than on the financial and economic crises. Thus -- and here is his political danger -- if the financial system fails (and much of the economy along with it), it will be a fair, true and politically lethal charge against Obama that he didn't do all he could as soon as he could to protect us from the catastrophe. It was this decision that shocked even some of his moderate supporters, such as David Gergen, David Brooks and others, who are muttering in private. And this misjudgment is only compounded by the slow and inept start of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the man who has the line responsibility to fix it and who only this past weekend got around to nominating some of his vital sub-Cabinet officials. The failure of both Obama and Geithner, in the five months since the election, to come up with a plan to deal with the toxic assets and insolvency of major financial institutions may well look even more irresponsible than it already does if the derivatives crisis in fact hits the world. The great whispered-about possible crisis that financiers and governments around the world shudder over is what to do about the more than quadrillion (thousand trillion)-dollar notional value of the world's derivatives (what Warren Buffett called the financial WMD) -- should that notional number become crystallized and, thus, real. By comparison, the U.S. gross domestic product is $14 trillion; the U.S. money supply is $15 trillion. The GDP of the entire world i[...]
Wed, 04 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600The other difference is that Bush didn't lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He merely was mistaken. Whereas Obama told a whopper when he claimed that he is not for bigger government. As he said last week: "As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by Presidents Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets, not because I believe in bigger government -- I don't." This he asserted despite the fact that the budget he proposed the next day asks for federal spending as 28 percent of gross domestic product, higher by at least 6 percent than any time since World War II. Moreover, after 10 years, Obama's proposed spending as a percentage of GDP still would be 22.6 percent, nearly 2 percentage points higher than any year during the Bush administration despite the full costs of Sept. 11, the Iraq and Afghan wars and the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina. Consider also this assertion in his not-quite-State of the Union address: "My administration has also begun to go line by line through the federal budget in order to eliminate wasteful and ineffective programs. As you can imagine, this is a process that will take some time. But we're starting with the biggest lines. We have already identified $2 trillion in savings over the next decade." But lamentably, a few days later, The Washington Post reported: "A senior administration official acknowledged yesterday that the budget does not contain $2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade. Instead, the figure represents Obama's total efforts at deficit reduction, including tax hikes (of more than $1 trillion) on families making over $250,000 a year. It also includes hundreds of billions of dollars 'saved' by not continuing to spend $170 billion a year in Iraq." Only a big-government man would think of calling a trillion-dollar tax increase a spending cut or "saving." Technically, of course, it is true. A trillion-dollar tax increase would reduce spending by $1 trillion for those private citizens who were taxed. And from the perspective of the federal government, a trillion dollars taxed is a trillion dollars saved from the greed of the taxpayers who produced the wealth and might well want to spend or invest it in nongovernmental activities. But the foregoing merely are pettifogging numbers compared with Obama's bigger ideas about energy and health care (regarding health care, more in future columns). Our president shares a fascinating idea about energy with most of what used to be known as the "small is beautiful" crowd. It is a curious phenomenon that one needs a very big government to enforce the beauty of small. Obama's secretary of energy, Steven Chu, said last year that the price of electricity in America is "anomalously low." You see how much smarter that Nobel Prize winner is than you? You probably thought you already were spending enough on electricity and fuel. And sure enough, Obama explained last week that in order to make alternative energy sources -- wind, solar, perhaps eventually human muscle power -- economically competitive, he intends to raise the price of carbon-based energy until it is so expensive that even solar power would be such a deal. This level of destructive irrationality cannot be accomplished in the private sector. It would take a very big government indeed to bring such inanities into being. (Disclosure: Being rational, I give professional advice to carbon-based energy producers.) If President Obama were to try to misrepresent his positions for the next four years, there would be nothing he could say that would approach the inaccuracy of his claim last week that he is not for big government. It is the essence of the man and his presidency. He doesn't like America the way it has been since its founding, and it would [...]
Wed, 25 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600
Perhaps it was with those comments in mind that our former president took the opportunity -- while purportedly complimenting his successor -- to advise President Obama that he ought to try to be a little more upbeat about the economy.
(One of the more enjoyable entertainments we can look forward to during the next four years will be watching Bill Clinton sneak in little disparaging statements about his successor every time he pretends to compliment him. Bill obviously is being driven nuts by Obama. After all, as I recall, Clinton once complained that he could have been a great president if only he had had a depression or major war to preside over. How envious he must be of Obama, who may be in the process of turning an economic downturn into a depression and a small war in Afghanistan into a major war in Pakistan. Well, Bill, great men make their own opportunities.)
Nonetheless, things do seem a mite nasty at the moment. And Bill Clinton's advice to be more cheerful reminded me of the closing song in Monty Python's "Life of Brian." Brian, a Christ-like figure in this comedy, had just been nailed to the cross by the Romans and was in the process of dying from his crucifixion, when he broke out in a cheerful little toe-tapping song, part of the lyrics going:
"Always look on the bright side of life.
Always look on the light side of life.
If life seems jolly rotten,
There's something you've forgotten,
And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you're feeling in the dumps,
Don't be silly chumps.
Just purse your lips and whistle; that's the thing.
So always look on the bright side of death
Just before you draw your terminal breath."
It would be easier to be cheerful if Obama weren't telling us this week that he is going to put us trillions of dollars in debt this year by pouring money down various ratholes while saving money by leaving Iraq before victory can be secured, cutting other defense programs, taxing energy, taking a first cut at totally screwing health care (but first expanding health care entitlements, even though we are almost insolvent).
All this and more he is proposing in order to "get exploding deficits under control" and as an act of "fiscal responsibility." As independent analysts estimate that the universal coverage entitlement to which Obama aspires will cost $200 billion a year, I would argue that if he wants to stop "exploding deficits," perhaps he should begin by not lighting the fuse of large deficit bombs.
After going nuts borrowing money on which our children still will be paying interest in 2039 (the maturity date for a 30-year Treasury note issued this year), he offers "fiscal responsibility" by his claim to reduce the deficit he has just created by taxing the crap out of business and anyone left with a decently paying job. Yes, that's the ticket. Promise to raise taxes on any person and any business that still produces anything while promising to give yet more hundreds of billions to people who are already burdens on working Americans.
Some people claim that although Obama was born in 1961 -- and thus is technically a baby boomer -- he is really a post-boomer. Just as he is post-racial (while his attorney general calls Americans cowards for not blathering on about race).
But regretfully, he is the very embodiment of my boomer generation. We will go down in history as the generation that was given everything, took everything, and left nothing -- except debt, debt, debt.
Wed, 18 Feb 2009 00:40:00 -0600Regarding the Cabinet selection, he famously said he "screwed up." But from a management perspective, the unanswered question is: How did he "screw up"? Did he actively design the failed vetting process and actively assess the various negative pieces of information and fail to see their significance? Or did he "screw up" by letting others design the failed system and assess the data inflow? The former would show poor substantive judgment. The latter would show he wasn't paying sufficient attention to a presumably vital matter. We don't know yet which kind of "screw-up" it was. The second item, President Obama's performance at the Gitmo executive order, provided brief but revealing insight into the president's personal involvement in vital decision making. He had campaigned hard on closing Gitmo. His first public signing as president was that executive order to close it down. The central issue of Gitmo's closing was and is: What do we do with the dangerous inmates? President Bush kept it open primarily because his administration couldn't figure out an answer to that question. Thus, it was breathtaking that at the signing ceremony, President Obama didn't know how -- or even whether -- his executive order was dealing with this central quandary. President Obama: "And we then provide, uh, the process whereby Guantanamo will be closed, uh, no later than one year from now. We will be, uh. ... Is there a separate, uh, executive order, Greg, with respect to how we're going to dispose of the detainees? Is that, uh, written?" White House counsel Greg Craig: "We'll set up a process." To be at the signing ceremony and not know what he was ordering done with the terrorist inmates is a level of ignorance about equivalent to being a groom at the altar in a wedding ceremony and asking who it is you are marrying. Once again, in the third item -- the stimulus process -- his lack of personal involvement in its design is curious. He recently said (incorrectly, I believe) that his presidency will be judged only on whether he fixes the economy or not. Thus, as he has identified the stimulus as essential to the recovery process, his willingness to let House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid design a bill that, even now that it's passed, Mr. Obama has continued to criticize as needing improvement (on bank executive compensation) leaves one puzzled as to why he didn't use his currently vast political clout with his own party allies to shape a bill more to his liking. The final item to examine here is his repeated campaign and post-campaign commitment to bipartisanship. While he was gracious in inviting leading Republicans to the White House for a Super Bowl party, he permitted his congressional allies to completely shut out (except for the three collaborators) all Senate Republicans and all House Republicans, including their leadership and the GOP's titular leader, Sen. John McCain, in the drafting of the bill and the final conference committee. He says he wants bipartisanship. Why would he permit his congressional allies to kill any hope of bipartisanship by their egregious conduct? I can think of four possible explanations for this almost unprecedented presidential detachment from the decision making of policies the president publicly declared to be vital to the country and his presidency: 1) He is a very, very big-picture man, and he delegates decisions even on the central points of vital issues. 2) For tactical reasons, he decided these matters were not worth using up political chits. 3) He is either hesitant or unskilled at management, and he let matters drift until it seemed too late to intervene personally. 4) Or his personality type leaves him surp[...]
Wed, 11 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600It can't be good that the president is making his vice president the public butt of his snickering after only three weeks in office. Not that it is Biden's fault. Along with a fair amount of blarney, Joe Biden also makes more honest and candid observations in an afternoon than many politicians make in a lifetime. One comes away from a conversation with Biden with at least one truthful nugget. The same cannot be said for President Obama. Both Monday night and usually, the president offers his audience one of the finest verisimilitudes of sincerity and manly vigor this side of an old Laurence Olivier performance of "Henry V." One has to listen closely to spot the straw men and general bunk that carefully -- indeed, it would seem, instinctively -- are laced into his answers. While he repeatedly said he was willing to negotiate with Republicans on the stimulus bill, he pointed out that some of them wanted to do nothing. Well, perhaps there may be a few who want to do nothing. But Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate are proposing their own very large stimulus packages that, using President Obama's economists' own methods, would create more jobs faster than Obama's version would. In fact, according to the study, it would create 6.2 million jobs, compared with the president's plan's 3-4 million. Now, whether the president's plan or the GOP's plan actually would create that many jobs, no one can know for sure. But for the president to leave the American public with the powerful implication that the Republicans are not worthy negotiating partners because they just don't want to do anything in the face of the crisis is a particularly sordid bit of rhetorical manipulation. Mind you, he didn't lie. There are a few backbench Republicans who propose nothing. But as the leadership, backed by the overwhelming majority of GOP members, is proposing big plans and is trying, without success, to engage in negotiations with either the president or his congressional party allies, the president willfully misled, by implication, his public. In another statement that can't have made liberal Democrats any happier than it made conservative Republicans, he contrasted his reasonable self to both liberal Democrats who measure education success only by how much money they spend and Republicans who want to "blow up" public education. As the family friend and educational partner of Bill Ayers, who actually did blow up public buildings, the language was a little cheeky. But more importantly -- and more shrewdly -- he grossly mischaracterized both his opponents and his allies to make himself look like the only decent man in Washington. As he patronizingly says (over and over again), it has taken Washington a long time to develop its bad habits and it will take time for those in Washington to get over their partisanship and ideology. But by gosh and by golly, good-natured optimist that he is, our plucky president will keep trying to hold out the hand of reason and cooperation. Our president has let it be known that he is an admirer of Abraham Lincoln's -- as well he should be, as are we all. He should take the time to read Old Abe's speeches and public letters. Honest Abe was exactly that. He would make his cases with meticulous and honest presentations of facts. He would describe his opponents' arguments honestly and fairly and then knock them down by genuine reason harnessed to a profound sense of morality. Lincoln wasn't fast and clever; he was slow and honest, and he carved out a place in the pantheon for the ages. He also noted that "you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." He thus left his newest admirer at least two lessons[...]
Wed, 04 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600"'Business as usual is no longer an option,' according to one of the internal briefings prepared in late October for the presidential transition, copies of which were provided to the Globe. 'The current and future fiscal environments facing the department demand bold action.'" However, Obama gave no hint of these plans (if he has them) during the campaign. At the time, I preserved the Obama-Biden campaign Web site pages on defense policies just in case the day would come when Obama started to cut the defense budget. Here (in part, but it goes on for pages like this) is what Obama's Web site promised during the campaign: "A Military Under Strain: Currently, our soldiers, seamen, airmen and Marines are deployed around the globe, working valiantly to defend our nation. Yet, these heroes are under-resourced and asked to do too much by a policy that has too often taken their sacrifice for granted. Due to their incredible courage and ingenuity, they persevere, but at incredible cost to themselves and their families. "Recruitment and Retention Problems: A country of 300 million strong should not struggle to find enough qualified citizens to serve. Recruiting and retention problems have been swept under the rug by an administration that does not understand the value of service to our nation. "A System Not Serving our Troops as Well as They Serve Us: As the shameful events at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the recent reports on growing numbers of homeless and unemployed veterans show, we simply are not taking proper care of our wounded warriors and veterans. "Fully Equip Our Troops for the Missions They Face: Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe we must get vitally needed equipment to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines before lives are lost. We cannot repeat such failures as the delays in deployment of armored vehicles, body armor and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that save lives on the frontlines. "In this Section "--Invest in a 21st Century Military "--Build Defense Capabilities for the 21st Century "--Restore the Readiness of the National Guard and Reserves "--Develop Whole of Government Initiatives to Promote Security "--Restore Our Alliances "--Reform Contracting" That makes it sound as if he was planning to increase spending dramatically. We shall see. But even his decision to keep former President George W. Bush's defense secretary, Robert Gates, could be judged shrewdly if he plans cuts. A Republican holdover is in the weakest possible political position to defend his department's budget. If Obama had selected his own powerful Democratic Party politician for defense secretary (as he did with Hillary Clinton at the State Department), that person would fight to defend his or her budget. You can bet Hillary will bring all her power to bear on increasing the State Department budget. But as a Republican, Defense Secretary Gates has no stick to fight possible defense budget cuts. Even Obama's decision on which Republican political appointees Gates could keep was revealing. He let Gates keep about two-thirds of his appointees -- mostly in the war-fighting parts of the Pentagon budget. But Obama insisted on his own appointees (which he, of course, had every right to do) for those slots that managed family support and other social services (as opposed to war fighting). Now, those are also vital -- taking care of the health, housing and education of our troops and their families. But it is revelatory that politically Obama wants to manage DOD social services closely. However, in the war-fighting and weapons-systems part of the Defense Department, he will leave Bush appo[...]
Wed, 28 Jan 2009 00:40:00 -0600And it is working. Many of my fellow conservative commentators are embarrassingly eager to search Obama's words, groveling for hopeful signs that he is not a radical intent on changing the face and nature of our republic. Some of our Tory conservatives have clung to his words ("hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old; these things are true") as evidence of a deep conservatism. Other smitten conservative commentators take false comfort from his reference to George Washington's "small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river." Free market conservatives point hopefully, pathetically, to the first clauses of these words he said: "Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control." That "watchful eye" he calls for may be as benign as Teddy Roosevelt's anti-monopoly policies, or it could be as constricting as French Socialism -- or worse. Obama offers philosophical hope to all. And how easily (willingly?) some of our fellow conservative commentators are seduced to believe the good parts and hope away the bad bits. What are we to make of the following dismissive assertion by Obama? "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." And then a few paragraphs on, he concludes the thought with the assertion that "what the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply." What exactly are the "petty grievances," the "worn-out dogmas" and the "stale political arguments that have consumed us"? Well, as the most liberal senator in Washington, as a man who has called for redistributive justice and who told Joe the Plumber, "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody," it is a fair guess that free markets, low tax rates and a respect for private property are the worn-out dogmas, petty grievances and childish things that he believes we cynics must move beyond. One man's worn-out dogmas are another man's philosophical lodestars. I believe that Obama intends to craft a new nationalism, using the disassembled timber of our traditional values to build a new, more collectivist and less individualistic ship of state. The planks will look vaguely familiar, but the ship will be quite different. It is as if he would disassemble the warship Old Ironsides and build with its timbers a collectivist's ark. Oddly, my suspicion is confirmed by my liberal friend, scholar and columnist for The Washington Post E.J. Dionne, who wrote last week that "President Obama intends to use conservative values for progressive ends. He will cast extreme individualism as an infantile approach to politics that must be supplanted by a more adult sense of personal and collective responsibility. . And in trying to do all these things, he will confuse a lot of people." Perhaps E.J., hopefully, and I, suspiciously, both have misread Obama. [...]
Wed, 21 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600Rarely has so much hung on contested economic theories and ambiguous historical references. The first question is whether fiscal stimulus can ameliorate an economic contraction. Interestingly, Obama's chief economist, Christina Romer, according to The New York Times, "concluded in research she helped write in 1994 that interest-rate policy is the most powerful force in economic recoveries and that fiscal stimulus generally acts too slowly to be of much help in pulling the economy out of recessions." Although she now supports Obama's stimulus, many economists fear that by the time a stimulus comes online, the economy already will be recovering and all the stimulus will do is induce inflation. With trillion-dollar deficits and huge expansions of the money supply by the Federal Reserve, the prospect of double-digit or worse inflation in a year or two is a real danger to consider. On the other hand, even many important conservative, free market economists -- including some of former President Ronald Reagan's top economists -- believe we do need a very big fiscal stimulus à la what we had in the 1930s and '40s. And here is where it gets even more confounding. Maybe a trillion-dollar deficit is too small. Most economic historians believe that the Great Depression did not end until World War II because only then was the deficit spending big enough to fully replace the lack of private-sector economic activity. FDR was afraid of big deficits and didn't spend enough to end the Depression sooner. If that theory is right, consider that during WWII, the deficit as a percentage of GDP was: 1943 -- 30 percent; 1944 -- 23 percent; 1945 -- 22 percent. A trillion-dollar deficit in 2009 would be only 8.3 percent of the GDP, although it would be bigger than the previous biggest deficit since WWII -- 6 percent in 1983. So, if the Depression-WWII theory is to be followed, then next year's deficit should not be a paltry $1 trillion, but rather about $2.5 trillion (in order to be about the same percent of the GDP as the WWII deficits were). At a mere trillion, we may be spending enough to badly inflate the currency without spending enough to lift the economy. Of course, economic historians point out that 2009 is vastly different economically from 1943. Back then, we had almost a command wartime economy. There were few consumer products available; our economy was much more self-contained than our globalized economy and financial system is today; we had rationing of food, gasoline and other products; the government was spending the money directly to build and run war material factories; and 16 million people were in the military -- mostly abroad. So how literally do we want to copy the methods of the past to cure today's problem? If we agree to spend trillions of deficit dollars in the next two years, can our political system spend it for the purpose of stimulus, or will it waste hundreds of billions of dollars on pet projects that do not maximize the stimulating potential of government deficit dollars? It is hard not to giggle at that question. There is already abundant evidence of members of Congress pushing for projects that will yield little stimulus but may yield local votes for them in two years. And from what I have heard off the record, team Obama also is checking around to see what politically popular projects they might back around the country. Any experienced political observer must conclude that if we go ahead and spend the trillions of deficit dollars, inevitably a significant percentage of those dollars will get us very few jobs or economic activity per buck. If the spending will bring a prompt recovery, it may be worth th[...]
Wed, 14 Jan 2009 00:30:00 -0600In the past two weeks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Jay Rockefeller and John Kerry and Rep. Barney Frank, among others, have fired significant shots across President-elect Obama's bow. Moreover, as well reported, Rahm Emanuel and Vice President-elect Joe Biden were informed a few weeks ago that they would not be permitted to attend the weekly Senate and House Democratic Caucus meetings -- contrary to the custom with Republicans, who invited Vice President Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and a few other senior aides to their caucus meetings. Why, after waiting for years (arguably decades) for such complete political power, are the congressional Democrats so cranky and turf-conscious so early? On the one hand, it would seem that congressional Democratic resistance is increased the more Obama asks for big change quickly. He may well not understand how hard it is to move big, detailed legislation through the congressional process. Obama's expectation that Congress could authorize and appropriate almost $1 trillion in only three or four weeks was never realistic. It is hard, even in Washington, to get a majority to quickly agree to spend the same trillion dollars. His speech Thursday clearly was seen as a shot across the bow of the congressional Democrats to get on with his stimulus package quickly. While I have noted some Republican complaints about Obama's partisan slap at Republicans' bad policies these past eight years, it is the Democrats who seem to have their noses out of joint from the speech more than do the Republicans. Consider the sequence: First, Obama proposes his stimulus plan in general terms; then the Democrats disagree with important pieces of the bill; then Obama goes on national TV and tells Congress (i.e., the Democrats) to hurry up and get the job done; and then Sunday morning in The Washington Post, there is a report of increased Democratic resistance to Obama's policy leadership. And Obama hasn't even been sworn in yet. The media have been focusing on how wonderfully Obama is ahead of previous presidents in selecting appointees and introducing domestic plans during his transition -- which is true. But what really may be happening is that his early substantive policy stands combined with his early appointments of Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions (for each appointment, there may be a half-dozen or so Democratic senators disappointed that Obama did not pick their candidate) may be truncating his honeymoon with the legislative branch of government. In other words, every presidential personnel and policy decision makes a president more enemies (particularly in his party) and undermines his party's unity. By getting started early on personnel and policy, Obama may have started the inevitable decline of presidential party unity early, as well. Moreover, while his quick and peremptory policy announcements have ruffled some congressional Democratic feathers, his backing away from pre-election liberal stands may be ruffling other Democratic fowl. For example, on Sunday television, Obama was asked to respond to this Cheney advice to Obama: "Before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric, you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it. Because it is going to be vital to keeping the nation safe and secure in the years ahead, and it would be a tragedy if they threw over those policies simply because they've campaigned against them." Obama responded: "I think that was pretty good advice, which is I should know what's going on before we make judgments and that we shouldn't be making judgments on the basis of i[...]
Wed, 07 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600Team Obama lost no time Sunday afternoon turning that embarrassing incident into a classless finger-pointing exercise, as they backgrounded Richardson's treachery. According to ABC News, "Officials on the Obama Transition Team feel that before he was formally offered the job of commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was not forthcoming with them about the federal investigation that is looking into whether the governor steered a state contract towards a major financial contributor." Of course, no one has suggested that Obama knew either of Richardson's alleged conduct or what his transition team was saying to ABC News. Also on Sunday, the normally Obama-friendly New York Times went after Obama's designated secretary of state, with the following headline and lead: "A Donor's Gift Soon Followed Clinton's Help." "An upstate New York developer donated $100,000 to former President Bill Clinton's foundation in November 2004, around the same time that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure millions of dollars in federal assistance for the businessman's mall project." Of course, no one is suggesting that Obama had any personal knowledge of these Clinton transactions at the time he nominated her. It is too soon to tell whether The New York Times' innuendo will threaten her confirmation. Presumably, Obama's Democratic Senate allies will not want to embarrass him with two withdrawn nominations. But it is undeniable that Obama's selection for secretary of state (and her husband) will provide foreign intelligence services with endless embarrassing information to be leaked worldwide during the pendency of her service as secretary of state. Presumably, Obama considered this risk and judged that it was outweighed by the value to him of her vast experience and worldwide reputation as the former first lady and one-term senator. It is rare and inauspicious, though not unprecedented, for a newly elected president to have to withdraw a Cabinet nominee. (Bill Clinton famously had to try three times before finding an attorney general nominee who had not appeared to violate the immigration and tax codes. George H.W. Bush lost his secretary of defense nominee, John Tower, to rumors of drinking and whoring.) But the Rod Blagojevich, Kennedy, Richardson and Clinton messes are merely unfortunate. What history may judge more harshly is Obama's silence (as I write this column) on the Israeli/Hamas war. Even if he speaks by the time this column is published, he has badly mismanaged his "Muslim outreach" initiative, which he described during the campaign as important. Obama famously asserted that he wanted to "reboot" America's relations with the 1.4 billion Muslims. (The term "reboot" itself was an unfortunate choice, given Muslims' disdain for shoes.) He went to Israel during the campaign and said -- referring to Hamas rockets hitting Israel -- that if such a thing happened to his daughters, there is nothing he wouldn't do to stop it. That statement clearly was seen as a green light for Israel to defend itself. Whether Obama intended it that way we will never know. Then, when Israel took action two weeks ago, Obama remained silent. The result in the Middle East was well-described by The Guardian, a British newspaper, last weekend: "Obama is losing a battle he doesn't know he's in. The president-elect's silence on the Gaza crisis is undermining his reputation in the Middle East. (His) chances of making a fresh start in US relations with the Muslim world, and the Middle East in particular, appear to diminish with each new wave of Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets in Gaza. That seems hardly fai[...]
Wed, 31 Dec 2008 00:40:00 -0600There are media reports that he is smoking more than usual. Who could blame him? For many of the rest of us, we wake up at 2 in the morning worried about our family's or our business's finances. Obama has to worry about the nation's and the world's finances -- and wars and threats of yet more wars. Americans continue to not shop (until recently the world, including citizen of the world Obama, condemned Americans for shopping to the tune of 25 percent of world consumption. Now the whole world is begging us to buy more stuff to keep the world from going broke.) How long will it be before President Obama repeats Bush's advice to Americans after September 11 to go shopping. The economy continues its downward track. The bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler have been delayed a couple of months -- to give Obama time to be sworn in as president before the real unpleasantness begins (or the really big bucks are spent to delay the unpleasantness by a few more months). As Pelosi and her colleagues get ready to spend about a trillion dollars to try and stimulate the economy, Obama is going to have to start saying no to his friends on the Hill. Left to their own devices, that $1 trillion will fall well short of the spending urges that get larger by the day. It must be tough to spend a trillion dollars you don't have -- and be called cheap. But even as he must worry whether even a trillion dollars of stimulus can ameliorate the precipitous economic contraction, he must also worry about the real possibility of double digit inflation hitting our economy in six to 18 months -- as a result of all these trillions of freshly conjured-up dollars that will be flooding our currency supply. Beyond the little matters of either deflation or hyper-inflation, Hamas broke its ceasefire with Israel, and Israel started defending herself again last week. Muslims worldwide and our many anti-semitic European friends are crying out for Israel to show "restraint." Nobody cares what lame duck Bush says about this anymore, but the whole angry world awaits the first presidential utterance of Barack H. Obama on the matter of putting the Jews in their place. Will he speak for all the Jew haters in Europe and the Middle East -- or will he speak as every American president since Harry Truman has, and defend Israel's right to exist and militarily protect itself when its civilians are attacked by yet more fanatic, Islamist bombs and rockets? Down the road a piece from Gaza, the Pakistani and Indian fanatics in the subcontinent are gearing up for another of their regular flirtations with nuclear annihilation. As I write, the Pakistanis and Indians are rushing troops up to their mutual border -- but, of course, hope to avoid war. Unless they have backed down by Jan. 20 at noon, stopping war while not antagonizing either of those needed allies will fall to Obama and his vastly experienced Secretary of State (who once rode foreign elephants with Chelsea -- so is superbly equipped to manage Hindu/Muslim fanaticism). And, oh, by the way, the Chinese are talking of building their first aircraft carrier to compete with our blue water navy. To add to the burdens of our young president elect, reports from around the world suggest that the instinct to protect local economies is growing, thus putting more pressure on free trade. While strong arguments can be made in individual trade cases, history is unambiguous about the result of increased protectionism during a period of world economic contraction. Economically beggaring thy neighbor is a sure path to[...]