Monday, November 29, 2010

Stop Being Afraid of Obama

It is time to back away from the fear of President Obama. He is not going to transform the US into a socialist dictatorship. Mind you, there was plenty of reason to be worried about Obama in 2008 and early 2009. He used Fascist and Communist symbolism during his campaign. He talked about reviving the "Progressive Traditions" and it turned out that the Progressives of the early 20th century were on a first name basis with the Socialists and Fascists. He even appointed some communist-sympathizers. The county went wild over a photograph of the president-elect in a swim-suit in Hawaii. Celebrities pledged themselves to Obama. New York Times columnists, among others, openly called on Obama to suspend the Constitution, Congress, and the Supreme Court for a year or two and to just "fix things". Early in his administration, Obama announced to the heads of the largest banks that he "owned them". He did own GM and Chrysler after the government became the largest stockholder. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize days after taking office and awarded it during his first year based on his potential. With super-majorities in both houses of Congress, the Republicans had become inconsequential and were likely to become a regional minority party that only appealed to the shrinking older, white middle-class.

Now, less than two years later, it is obvious that Obama is not going to subject the United States to a grand transformation. He lost his super-majority in the Senate and his majority in the House. Most of the states are now controlled by Republicans. A majority of the country has rejected his signature accomplishments of the stimulus and health care reform. He has tried several proposals overseas and has nothing to show for them. He couldn't even get the Olympics for Chicago. What happened?

It is easy to blame the economy for Obama's fall but that lets him off too easy. Reagan's first mid-term election came during a similar economic downturn (unemployment and inflation were higher) but his Congressional losses were nowhere as deep. FDR managed to stay in office and keep his majority for 12 years during the Great Depression. If voters automatically turned out the party in office during economic hardship then Washington should have had a revolving door.

No, Obama's problems come from within. He sees himself as the ultimate authority on everything. He has been quoted as telling someone who interviewed for a White House position:

"I think that I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director."
This is backed up by a quote from Obama's long-time advisor and friend, Vallerie Javertt:

I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. ... He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability —the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. ... So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. ... He's been bored to death his whole life. He's just too talented to do what ordinary people do.

From this, Obama's problems can be distilled down to two traits - he is sure that he knows more than anyone around him but he is easily bored. We can see evidence of this in how he has governed.

He misread his mandate and his own role in his election. More people voted for Hillary Clinton than Barrack Obama in the primaries. Obama won because he did better in caucuses than Hillary did and because he husbanded his resources better. The same is true for the general election. He spent most of the Summer with a lead that was so slim it was within the margin of error. The Republican convention and Sarah Palin's nomination for Vice-President put McCain ahead until the financial meltdown. Obama was the first Democrat to win more than 50% of the vote since 1976 and won a higher percentage than any Democrat since 1964. The fact that those Democrats were Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson shows how little the percentages mean.

Obama is wildly popular overseas and he expected his rock star status to carry over to foreign leaders. Instead, many of them are dismissive of his policies. They are important leaders in their own right and resent him putting himself on a higher level. The Olympic committee should be the most important people involved in selecting a site but Obama's visit meant that they could not even cross the lobby of their hotel.

Obama made enemies. In his State of the Union speech, he told the Supreme Court to their faces that they had reached the wrong conclusion then made a misstatement about the effects. He made it easy for the Republicans to vote against him. Early on he lectured them saying "Elections have consequences" and "I won". He also suggested that Rush Limbaugh led the party.

All presidents eventually reach the conclusion that the White House Press Corps is an enemy. The Obama administration seems to have decided this on day two of the administration.

From the beginning it was obvious that Obama disliked Washington. His advisers tried the same trick that school-teachers use - field trips. He typically leaves DC at least once per week.

Obama's policies have long puzzled observers. His financial policy favors Wall Street. His foreign and security policies are refinements of George W. Bush's. He never outlined what he wanted from a health reform bill. After taking over the automotive companies and banks, he let them go again.

All of this points to a President who goes beyond delegation. He outsources jobs that he has no interest in. The economy bores him so he outsourced it to Geithner and Ellison, his economic team. He hates dealing with legislation so he allowed Nancy Pelosi to take the lead in writing his signature legislation and pushing it through Congress. He turned the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over to the generals as much as he was able to politically.

So instead of a strong leader using a cult of personality to transform America we have a distracted leader who is easily bored and willing to turn over major policy decisions to others. He has gone from Man of the Year to Underachiever of the Decade.

In Defense of Libertarianism - Part 2

I've been deconstructing this unsigned rant which claims to prove that Libertarianism is wrong. See part 1 here.

Markets are a central part of Libertarianism but the author does not understand them. The Libertarian view is that markets arise when someone wants and someone else is willing to supply it for a price that the first person is willing to pay. Libertarians often talk about the "invisible hand." While this term may have meant religion in the 18th century, modern Libertarians use it to describe the collective human wisdom that goes into creating a market. When you consider every piece that is needed to supply a market then you begin to understand that they are highly complex with many subtleties that go beyond the power of government to control.

One example is Apple Computers. Apple has very tight control over how its products are made in China. It not only employs the workers, it feeds and houses them in a dormitory complex. Despite this level of control, they do not really know where their raw materials come from. When asked if the materials are "conflict free", Apple CEO Steve Jobs could only say that the suppliers' contracts said that the materials were supposed to be but he has no way of knowing for sure. A different, and darker, example is the drug trade. The US government is the most powerful in the world but it is unable to stop the flow of illegal drugs into its cities. This market operates completely underground with millions spent annually to stop it but it still reaches every city in the country. No one planed it and it has to change around as drug routes are blocked. No one involved knows every piece but it works. This is the invisible hand in action (and the reason that many Libertarians feel that drugs might as well be legalized).

On a different level there are EBay, the artist site Etcy, and Amazon's partners. Between these there are tens of thousands of people selling unusual or unique items. Libertarians love these type of markets the the author ignores them completely.

Libertarians believe that government interference in markets causes problems. Prices are distorted. Corruption flourishes. Sometimes these interferences can be tragic. The world produces enough surplus food to eliminate famine but corrupt governments stop food shipments either for money or for political purposes. 

The author of the piece does not see the whole of this. He only sees bits and pieces and he hates those.

So, back to the article taking it up at "effects".

The author hates having to depend on groups of people to make the "right" decision.
Free markets are not simply collective, but do have a centring effect.
This quote from Eric Raymond (original now offline) sums up the libertarian attitude:

As for whether open-source is 'techno-libertarian' -- well, I invite you to note that there is no coercion in it anywhere. It's a pure example of voluntary cooperation in a free market. The fact that open-source development leads to mostly cooperative rather than mostly competitive behavior is consistent; market economies are the most marvelous cooperative engines ever.

That is why markets are wrong: they produce social and technological uniformity. They 'centre' society. However, for some libertarians, that is exactly what makes them right.
I bet that he is still upset because VHS beat out Betamax. Of course, free markets often produce multiple choices. You can buy a PC or an Apple computer (or even Linux). There are multiple car makers and multiple classes of cars and trucks. But that is not enough for him. There might be a multitude of choices but they are not the "right" choice.

He sees Libertarians as being imperialistic because they want a Libertarian world. Nearly every economic theory holds that it would make the world better off. Libertarianism is no different here. The difference is that Libertarians expect to win naturally instead of through force. The fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of most other communist countries proves their point.

What's the conclusion to this? The author wants an outside authority (the state) to establish moral authority and have the power to redistribute wealth and land in order to promote fairness. To his, government's anti-Libertarian goals should be:

  1. to restrict tradition and heritage, to limit transgenerational culture and transgenerational community - especially if they inhibit innovation
  2. to restrict 'national values', that is the imposition of an ethnic or nation-specific morality
  3. to permit the individual to secede from the nation state, the primary transgenerational community
  4. to limit market forces, and their effects
  5. to permit the individual to secede from the free market
In other words, he wants nothing less than the authority to commit cultural genocide and to set wages and prices. This not only puts him in opposition with Libertarians, it also puts him against the Constitution of the United States and various UN universal rights.

He sees government as a force for good that can purify humanity. The flaw in this is that there is no way to be sure that the people at the top will have pure motives. Once you give that much power to a small group you have also given them the power to order enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of the world. Both Libertarians and the Founders of the United States realized the old adage about power corrupting. In their view, limiting the power of government also limits the potential harm that government officials can do.

Friday, November 26, 2010

In Defense of Libertarianism

I recently ran across this rant against Libertarianism. The author warns us ahead of time that there is no use arguing with him about Libertarianism. He says:

The values of libertarianism can not be rationally grounded. It is a system of belief, a 'worldview'. If you are a libertarian, then there is no point in reading any further. There is no attempt here to convert you: your belief is simply rejected. The rejection is comprehensive, meaning that all the starting points of libertarian argument (premises) are also rejected. There is no shared ground from which to conduct an argument.
I agree with him that there is no shared ground but he is wrong about the rational grounding. Many, possibly most, of his arguments are emotional rather than rational. He mistakes his own passion for reason.

This is not meant to be an attempt at a debate. I'm just doing this for fun. The author, (The article is unsigned but the URL contains the name Paul Treanor. Since I do not kow if he wrote or simply posted this article, I will simply refer to "the author") is not interested in debating nor is he willing to commit himself to an economic system that he thinks is better. We have to infer that from his complaints about Libertarianism. Accordingly, I will point out some of his more laughable mistakes and try to tease out what system he thinks is superior.

The author does not define Libertarianism. Instead he lists a series of principles which he says are affirmed by most Libertarians. This gives him the opportunity to phrase Libertarian principles on his terms. Most of them are correct even if the context he gives them makes them seem undesirable. I do take issue with one of them.

world of emergence
Libertarians attach great value to the outcome of process: it defines the ideal libertarian world. The liberal tradition generally is hostile to utopias, seeing them as attempts to enforce an ideology. Liberals share this aversion with some postmodernists, who see a direct line from European utopian thought to Auschwitz. However, libertarians are an exception to this pattern of hostility. They often have a utopian political style, not hesitating to describe their 'ideal society' (at least, a version set in the USA). This society is usually seen as the result of libertarian process, not the process itself. For example, the libertarian utopia is not simply 'less government', it is what emerges after 25 years of less government. It is not relevant to say that libertarians have 'got their predictions wrong', and that something else would happen. The point is, that libertarianism does have an ideal world, which it intends to substitute for other possible worlds. Inherently, it must then defend this world's existence. And if the absolute free-market had totally unexpected effects (such as a Bolshevik world government), then most libertarians would interfere with its workings, to reinstate their intended ideal world. In other words the libertarian utopia is not a prediction of the effects of libertarian politics, it is a stand-alone utopian vision. It is defined as emergent (or in similar terms), and perhaps it is emergent, but the relevant fact is that libertarianism generally operates under the equivalence "the emergent = the good". By being 'emergent' it is for libertarians a world more perfect, than any ideal city of the European Renaissance. And therefore, it "must" come to existence, and it "must" exclude other existence. Libertarianism can not be understood without understanding this preference, and its emotional depth.
Since when do liberals reject utopias? Liberals and Progressives are all about trying to create a utopia. That is where the Progressives get their name - because they are making "progress" to a better world. This is a coercive progress. In contrast, Libertarians see governmental attempts at changing the world to be a cause of most world problems so their idea of a utopia involves minimal government. The part about free-market leading to a Bolshevik world government is a red herring since such governments have always formed in response to abusive governments (i.e. Czarist Russia).

I also disagree with his take on Libertarians and Collectivism. He has this totally backwards. In a free market, individuals make distinct decisions. Collectively, these choices influence the markets. In a collective state, a few people at the top make all of the decisions in the name of the people. The two have the same relationship as a democracy and a dictatorship yet the author sees them as equivalent.

His final point, expansionism, has a strange passage:
Libertarians believe that to impose freedom is not an imposition. For them, anything which can legitimately be described as 'freedom', may legitimately be imposed. The Libertarian FAQ, for instance, says "America's free press is envied by freedom-starved people everywhere": implicitly, to allow any other press would be a denial of freedom. In this logic, imposition of a political ideology is a generous response to the suffering of others, who are 'starved' of it.
I'm not sure that you can "impose freedom." The author seems to be arguing that a government-controlled press is a good thing or, at least, a valid choice. This is echoed later when he gives his views of the role of government.

After sort-of defining Libertarianism, the author goes on to describe "the claims and self-image of Libertarianism". This is where the author's own values start to come out.

Under non-coercion:
Some US employers require their employees to smile at all customers, or lose their job. I call that coercion: libertarians call it freedom of contract. There is no point in further discussion of these issues: they are examples of irreconcilable value conflicts.
This is one of several "gotcha" moments where the author mixes terms and meanings in an effort to find value paradoxes. Not all employers require their employees to smile. Unless a worker is coerced into taking a job, the work rules cannot be considered a coercion.

After complaining that Libertarianism is coercive, he then turns around in the next point and says this:
Libertarians claim to value the moral autonomy of the individual. However, in the free market which they advocate, there is no connection between individual action and social outcome. A one-person boycott of meat will not stop the slaughter of animals. In reality, the individual is powerless in the face of the market - and without some decision-making power there is no real moral autonomy.
So, under moral autonomy, he complains that Libertarianism is not coercive. He is correct that Libertarianism will not force people to be vegetarians but it will not force them to be carnivores, either.

Under "political freedom" he equates Libertarianists and Anarchists. Libertarians want a limited government within prescribed limits. These include national defense, enforcement of laws, and a court system to enforce contract law. The exact extent of the ideal legal system is a matter in debate but all Libertarians include violent crime.

The Libertarian Party of the United States, for instance, seeks to impose a libertarian system on the United States. It is an imposition, and can not be anything else. Unless they are prepared to accept the division of the country, they will have to deal with millions of anti-libertarians, who reject the regime entirely. They might call the riot police the Liberty Police, they might call the prisons Liberty Camps, but it's still not 'political freedom'.
In all seriousness, when was the last time people rioted because they wanted more intrusive government? The closest thing that I can think of are the demonstrations against government cutbacks and the anti-free trade street theater that accompanies G-20 meetings. Some of these have turned violent but nothing like the author suggests.

I'm going to backtrack a bit. Under "Instrumental Claims", the author refers to "bad trucks" as described in an earlier section.
As Friedman says, "The capitalist truck was built under a system of institutions in which people who build bad trucks are likely to lose money". So in the end, no more 'bad trucks' will be built, and Friedman sees nothing wrong with that. For him, and many other libertarians, it is self-evident that certain things are 'bad': they deserve no existence, and society should be designed to punish them out of existence.
This is nothing radical. It is market economics. Any free market system will produce these results. "Bad" means a product that cannot be sold for a profit in sufficient quantities. That this can happen causes great anguish to the author. During the mid-2000s, Chrysler brought out a number of expensive, 4WD vehicles that were poorly made (according to Consumer Reports) and had poor mileage. No one bought them and they were all dropped. These would qualify as "bad" cars. Should the government have insisted that Chrysler keep making them when they were bailed out? Of course not but the author classifies this as a soviet-style shop.

The subject of coercion vexes him, also. He sees everything as coercion:
May fish legitimately be coerced into nets? Is it coercion to demolish a building?
He quotes the Libertarian Party as saying:
We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.
From this quote, it is fair to assume that the Libertarian definition of coercion involves force. The author rejects this. To him, any interference constitutes coercion, especially markets. He also sees markets as potentially evil. He gives this example:
A simple example: two islands exchange crops, to reach a minimum healthy diet. Soil conditions mean that a full range of crops can not be grown: without the exchange the inhabitants of both islands will die. Then an external trader arrives, and sells the necessary crops to one of the islands. The trader sells honestly at fair prices: both parties (trader and one island) are satisfied with the deal. Nevertheless, the inter-island exchange ends. On the other island, the population dies of malnutrition. Obviously, they never contracted to this, yet some libertarians would claim that they are in some sense more free.
This is a simplistic and contrived example. The market-based reality would be very different. Let's define the islands as A and B and the trader as C. A and B have been producing equivalent crops and each needs both crops. Then Trader C appears with a surplus of the crop from Island A. He is willing to sell it for a lower price than A. Island B gets a price break but that leaves Island A with both a surplus of their own crop and a market for Island B's crop. This is great news for Island B and terrible for A.

So, do the people on Island A quietly starve to death? Of course not. They would cut their price to undercut Trader C. They would still be left with a surplus crop and high prices for B's crop but they might be able to sell those through Trader C and establish a new equilibrium. If there were no new markets then things would get depressing. Probably a number of islanders would leave A and either go to Island B or where ever Trader C got his supplies. That would reduce the supply of Island A's crop and the demand for Island B's crop. Prices would stabilize. It might not be pleasant but it would not the the disaster the author envisions. One wonders how the author thinks that things should happen? Would Island D step in and force an embargo on Trader C (causing a black market)? No economic system is going to look good in this contrived case.

This is turning into a long post so I will break here and add a second post on the rest of this rant.

More on the subject here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The TSA and the Public

For all the hubbub about the new security measures, here's what you will actually face - most people still go through the venerable metal detectors. The new "naked scanners" are slower and there is a limited number. When one is open then the next person in line is directed through it. You only get the new pat-down if you refuse the naked scanner or if TSA has a reason to suspect you, even though you have gone through the scanner or the metal detector. That's when you get the full-body grope. There are several medical procedures that will cause the pat-down. These can include joint replacements, mastectomies, a colostomy or urostomy bag, or even a large scar.

The new procedures are a reaction to last Christmas's underwear bomber. They are not meant to actually catch terrorists. They are meant to make the public feel safer and to introduce enough certainty that future terrorists will not repeat tactics that the previously used to successfully smuggle a bomb past security.

Does that make you feel better about grandmother-groping?

The reason that the government reacted this way is the unspoken assumption that TSA has to treat everyone as a potential terrorist. If you buy an airline ticket then you are automatically under a presumption of guilty and have to prove yourself innocent. And, you have to re-prove your innocence every time you fly.

The obvious alternative to this would be to profile the passengers. The problem is that profiling is forbidden. Rather than take the chance that an innocent person who fits a profile might be checked, we check everyone, knowing that 99.999% will be innocent.

I can see taking basic precautions meaning the metal detectors and procedures used prior to 9/11. That's because there were several skyjackings in the early 1970s and these precautions put a stop to them. But terrorism is a different prospect. Blowing up yourself along with an airplane full of people is not something that most people will do. They need extra motivation.

Currently, the only group that provides that motivation is Islam and, even then, it is limited to a small sub-set of Islam. The Underwear bomber is a classic example. He had recently traveled to countries known to host radical groups. Plus, his father had written to the State Department saying that his son was a danger. Even without the warning from his father, there were enough red flags in his behavior to have triggered extra measures. On the other end of the spectrum, the Millennium Bomber was caught in 1999 because he acted suspicious.

The thing to remember about profiling is that innocent people are going to be embarrassed either way but in the absence of profiling, an extra level of insult is added. The process stops being about safety and more about continuing the process. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Battle for Christmas - 2010

First a bit of background - municipal Christmas displays used to be common and elaborate. During the 1980s, a number of lawsuits were filed by anti-Christian groups (seriously, has the ACLU ever filed an anti-Jewish lawsuit) demanding that Christmas displays be removed as an unacceptable endorsement of religion. At the same time, fringe groups like the KKK sued for access to put up their own religious symbol (a cross covered with KKK slogans). Civic leaders retreated and regrouped. During the 1990s, Christmas displays were replaced with non-specific "Winter holiday" displays featuring images like candles, trains, teddy bears, and the "holiday tree".

For some reason, private retailers followed this example. During the early 2000s more businesses than not sold "holiday gifts" and "family trees". This offended many people including religious groups who saw it as suppression of their religion. It also offended secular types like me who saw this as hypocrisy - these stores are pushing us to buy Christmas presents from them even while refusing to acknowledge the name of the holiday. This is especially bad form for the Christmas tree department since no other holiday is celebrated by putting up a tree.

This even spread to public speech to the point that friends were afraid to wish each other a "Merry Christmas", going for the "Happy Holidays" instead.

So, after a few years of public backlash, where do we stand? Christmas is back. Most stores now include the word in their advertising and, presumably, are allowing employees to use "Christmas" when talking to customers.

The American Family Association has a list of Naughty or Nice chains graded on their use of "Christmas". Radio Shack stands out since they advertise a lot on TV. On the other hand, they are now "The Shack". If they can't say their own name, maybe it is expecting too much for them to say "Christmas". Maybe they could compromise and wish people a happy "C-Day". CVS always devotes a couple of isles to decorations and wrapping paper so they qualify as major hypocrites.

So, Christmas is back. Now let's work on Thanksgiving. This year, the term "Black Friday" has taken over. This is Black Friday week. Retailers were hoping to make this Black Friday month. I expect someone to refer to Thanksgiving as "the day before Black Friday" or "the start of Black Friday weekend".

I'm a traditionalist. When I was growing up, my mother drilled into me that Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving were gauche. I can understand why stores are pushing the season - they have a financial state in it. I don't have any sympathy for individuals who have their tree up before Thanksgiving. I can understand stringing the outdoor lights while it is warm but you don't have to plug them in.

It looks like Christmas has become socially acceptable again. Now lets push to get some respect for Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Missing Bush

The newest liberal to suddenly discover that George W. Bush was actually a moderate is Washington Post columnist, E. J. Dionne Jr. He begins:

Will the Tea Party sell out for a mess of pottage in the form of a ban on earmarks?

That's one possibility. But another is that this embrace of a purely symbolic approach to deficit reduction is a sign that the Tea Party's central goals may lie elsewhere - in an effort to push the Republican Party away from those aspects of George W. Bush's legacy that tried to steer the conservative movement in a new direction. The real point may be to get the GOP to say goodbye to the idea of a compassionate conservatism and to Bush's peculiar but real brand of multiculturalism.

Dionne then goes on to compare Bush's multiculturalism and tolerance of Islam with the Tea Party.

It is notable, Gerstle adds, that at "a time in which the United States was at war and Europe was exploding with tension and violence over Islam, Bush played a positive role in keeping interethnic and interracial relations in the United States relatively calm."

Christopher Caldwell, a columnist for the Financial Times, was one of the first political writers to pick up on the significance of Gerstle's essay. Caldwell, an American conservative, used it to critique Bush's multicultural and compassion agenda and to explain the Tea Party's rise. Intriguingly, he suggests that "many of the Tea Party's gripes about President Barack Obama can also be laid at the door of Mr. Bush."

I will not disagree with this last statement - that many of Obama's excesses began in the Bush administration. I do argue with his assertion here and in a linked document that the Tea Party:

Finally (and related to these findings): while there is considerable overlap between the Tea Party movement and religious conservatism, there is evidence that the Tea Party may represent not so much a more libertarian alternative to the Christian Right as an embodiment of a more critical or even hostile attitude toward multiculturalism, immigration and the idea of compassionate conservatism put forward by former President George W. Bush.

Dionne is building a straw man here. He depicts a Tea Party that does not resemble the actual protesters then asks, "Why can't you be more like that nice George Bush?"

 It is ironic that during the eight years of the Bush administration, no one in the left would admit that Bush has many admirable traits. Only not that he is out of office will they admit that he wasn't so bad.

Another irony, and one that they will not admit, is that Obama has failed to match Bush on promoting tolerance and understanding. In the two years since Bush left office, anti-Muslim sentiment has grown and is now worse than immediately after 9/11. This has nothing to do with people protesting the size of government. It happened because of a vacuum in the White House. When Dionne talks about multicultural understanding under Bush, he is indirectly pointing out the lack of it from President Obama.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Can Obama Pull a Clinton?

After his party's 1994 loss, Bill Clinton adopted a course of "triangulation." He became more moderate, actually supporting some Republican ideas and taking credit for them. He presented himself between the most radical elements of the left and the right. It worked. He went from having to argue that the presidency was still relevant to winning reelection by a good margin (although still failing to capture 50% of the vote). Barack Obama took a worse drubbing in 2010 with Republicans winning back the house and more state governments than they have held since the 1920s. Will President Obama follow Clinton's example? Is it even possible for him to?

Short answer - no to both questions. Here's why.

Obama is not temperamentally suited to triangulate. Near the end of his presidency, Clinton admitted that he was a "C" level president with a shot at rising to a "B". Obama came to office planning on being an "A" level president. The only question that he had not decided was if he would be an FDR-style trasformational president or a Reagan-style one. A president who triangulates does not go down in history as an "A" level president. Beyond that, Clinton's first priority was always himself. He was quick to abandon health care when it looked like it might hurt him and he accepted a number of compromises. Obama only compromises on his own terms and presses on regardless of the cost.

The Republicans will not let him. In 1995, the Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. They had an agenda that they wanted to pass - ideas that had been pent up for years. They were more interested in pushing their long-term agenda than in picking fights with the President. In 2011 the Republicans will only have been out of power for 4 years, 2 of them with Obama in the White House. Their agenda mainly consists of rolling back everything that Obama did in the last two years. There is not much room for compromise there.

Obama's base will not let him. The far-left Progressives never forgave Clinton for turning his back on them. This is why Hillary Clinton is not president today. She tried to run to the left of her husband but they didn't believe her. They chose Obama over her. They are already upset that Obama did not force single-payer on the country. If Obama moves to the center they will challenge him in 2012.

Congress is different. In 1995, Republicans controlled both houses. In 2011, the Republicans will control the House and Democrats will control the Senate. Anything that makes it through both houses will have to have some bipartisan appeal. That crowds out the space that Obama needs all to himself in order to triangulate.

This could work the other way if Obama was willing. He would have to take a more active position in regard to Congress. So far he has tended to be hands-off, leaving Pelosi and Reid to do the heavy lifting. If he was willing to take a moderate position he might be able to find enough votes in both houses to pass legislation. This leads back to the original problem of Obama's temperament.

In the end, Obama's desire to be an "A" level president and to preserve his achievements from his first two years will probably drag him down. He may be reelected if the economy suddenly improves but he will never rise beyond a "C" level president who did not live up to expectations.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Oklahoma and Sharia

What if someone died without a will and his sons went to the court and said, "We want the estate divided according to our religion which says that we get twice what our sisters get." I suspect that the Left would be outraged. Unless you specified that the family was Muslim. Then, apparently, it would be ok. The same is true for divorce. The Left has been arguing for women's rights during a divorce for decades but Sharia puts the wife at a huge disadvantage.

So why is the Left so outraged at a constitutional amendment that forbids the courts from considering foreign law or Sharia? It appears that they put the feeling of Muslims above the rights of women.

A little background is needed to understand where this amendment came from. Sharia has not been referenced in any legal cases in the US but a separate legal system has been set up in Canada based on Sharia. It is limited to civil cases and participation in this is supposed to be voluntary by all parties but the fact that any woman would agree to this shows that they are pressured by their family and others to go against their best interests. There has been talk of setting up a similar structure in Great Britain. Many European cities with large Muslim populations have unofficial Sharia courts.

As for international law, the Supreme Court has cited this at least once in deciding a case. The problem with citing international law or, more accurately, citing laws from other countries, is that it is easy to pick and choose which countries you are going to cite from in order to justify a ruling. It also circumvents the legislature, allowing the courts too much power. For some reason, this part of the amendment has been ignored in the debate but it is important since it puts the part about Sharia into context. The amendment simply makes it clear that influences that have no business in American courts should not be considered. Some have described it as a solution in search of a problem. A lot of laws are like that. If there is no problem then it will never be an issue.

Nether of these principles is in keeping with the American spirit or Constitution. In fact, the First Amendment should make this unneeded. Should is the operative word here. Sharia has already been cited in one case in New Jersey. In 2008 a judge found a man not-guilty of raping his wife and refused to grant a restraining order. His reason? The court found that, because of his religion, he believed that the husband thought that his wife had to grant his desire for sex whenever he desired it.

Enter CAIR (the Council of American-Islamic Relations). They have made a number of outrageous claims. They got a temporary injunction against the amendment on the claim that it would outlaw an Islamic will or ban the wearing of a headscarf. As long as there is a will, the law does not care if you gave your sons a disproportionate share of your estate because of your religion or because your daughter spilled gravy on you at Thanksgiving nor does it say anything about individual choices like the headscarf.

The issue is highly polarized with the Left supporting CAIR and the Right supporting Oklahoma. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post dismisses the amendment as faith-baiting. This is a rather typical reaction and in keeping with the Left's blind spot towards Islam is general. This is not really surprising. I could write a book on the Left's blind spots to human rights abuses. Instead I will close with a variation of my original question - how would the Left have reacted if a man was found not-guilty of raping his wife because of his Christian beliefs? Would they be rallying behind the husband or the wife?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Obama Administration and Inflation

Classical economic theory says that when an economy heats up, employment is up. Demand is also up which creates shortages of raw materials and labor. This leads to price increases and feeds into a cycle that causes inflation.

When the economy is in a downturn then unemployment is up and demand is down. Retailers try to hold onto customers by keeping prices level. This reduces inflation.

At some point, some economists looked at the relationship between inflation and unemployment and decided that they directly influenced each other. For some reason, the underlying economic health was ignored. As a result, they came up with a theory that unemployment could be fought by increasing inflation. Keep in mind that prosperity might fuel inflation but inflation does not fuel prosperity.

The nation found this out in the late 1970s under the Carter administration. Inflation was a problem during the entire 1970s but by the end of the decade it was out of control. Carter's people had tried to fight a recession by causing inflation. On top of that the economy had to absorb the shock of an Arab oil embargo and a jump in gas prices. The result was such a mess that they had to invent a new word for it: stagflation - a stagnant economy with high inflation. The way out was a very painful double-dip recession, one that was comparable to the current Great Recession.

We are at a different place now. Inflation has been low for a decade. The last two years it was rated at zero. Inflation was probably too low for too long, especially interest rates. The Fed kept rates low as an economic stimulus which led to a bubble fed by loans at record low rates. The bubble burst when the fed raised rates a small amount in order to try to offset the inflationary pressures of rising prices for oil and metals caused by growth in China. Too many people with mortgages had taken out variable rate loans with the expectation of ever-lowering rates. They could not afford even a moderate increase in interest rates.

Normally the Fed could try to stimulate the economy by lowering rates. It did that but this failed for several reasons. The rate were already so low that there was little additional stimulus possible. The way that lowering rates works is that it leads to lower mortgage rates which are supposed to encourage a new round of real estate transaction. The housing market was already saturated with houses being sold at a loss so there was no stimulus effect.

The Fed's newest move is something called "quantitative easing." It will buy up some long-term treasury bonds which is supposed to lower the interest rate for long-term bonds and may encourage some expansion. It will also reduce the value of the dollar overseas in the hope that a weak dollar will make exports cheaper and more attractive while making imports more expensive.

There is a very real danger that this will start a new round of inflation and lead to a modern version of stagflation. We are no longer the manufacturing giant that we used to be. A lot of our consumer goods come from China (even American good like the IPhone and IPad). A weak dollar means that either Apple will lose some of its profit margin or they will have to raise the price. Apple has such a fat profit margin built-in that they can probably absorb it but most other companies will be at a disadvantage.

To make matters worse, a weak dollar means that the cost of raw materials will go up on good manufactured here. This will be on top of a rise caused by a resurgent China.

Prices for other things will go up because of government policies, either in the form of tax hikes or mandates (like replacing cheap incandescent light bulbs with expensive CFLs made-in in China).

Prices in general are staying even but some items have jumped - things like cotton and wheat. The perception of inflation is enough to trigger a new round. That's the last thing that the economy needs.

No one under the age of 50 really understands how pernicious inflation is. It cuts away at everyone's income. Unemployment is a hardship for those without a job but inflation males the entire nation poorer. It feeds into a cycle of wage and price hikes in which no one is ever ahead long enough to get ahead.

The Obama has been courting inflation since its first couple of months. The fact that inflation has not started up, yet, has more to do with how far the economy fell than anything else.

Between, a modest recovery, action from the Fed, and pressure from overseas, the long-expected inflation may start up fast in the near future.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Senate Earmarks

According to news reports, the Republican Senators are split about making earmarks against party rules. The argument against the rule is that earmarks only amount to $17 billion - less than one half of one percent of the total budget and that cutting earmarks will not save any "real" money.

Are you guys out of your minds? Just four years ago the Democrats took over both houses of Congress partly because of voter disgust over earmarks and spending. You guys are only back because the Democrats failed to deliver. Just two weeks ago you pledged that you had learned your lesson and that you were a new, fiscally responsible party.

There are multiple problems with earmarks. The biggest one is that you already abused them and cannot be trusted with them. You set records for earmarks. Yes, the Democrats increased spending and failed to eliminate earmarks but they at least used them less.

Earmarks are the epitome of what disgusts voters about Congress. They are synonymous with political "bacon" and pork barrel spending. They are how you guys reward contributors and lobbyists.

Your arguments in favor are misleading. Yes, they are only a small part of the total budget but most of the budget is made up of entitlements. If we only look at the part that you actually control then earmarks grow to 2% of the budget. This is still a small amount but it is enough to make a difference. Heck, the argument over the Bush tax cuts is only over 5%.

Also, the words "only" and $17 billion should never leave anyone's lips.

Right now the Republicans are on probation. You say that you reformed but now you have to follow through. The Tea Party took you at your word but it does not trust you. If you go back to big-spending then you will see a third party in 2012. Keep in mind that, even after all of the dirt thrown about the Tea Party being radical and racists, a larger portion of the voting public has a good opinion of it than either the Democrats or the Republicans. If you want to stay in power then you are going to have to live up to your promises.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Intelligence Trap

A man's got to know his limitations.
Dirty Harry - Magnum Force

I've said before that Progressives think that they are the smartest people who ever lived. This is especially true of President Obama.

For most of his life, Barrack Obama was probably the smartest person in the room. This tends to color your opinion of the rest of the world. He spent years teaching law which is a further boost to the ego. A college teacher (technically he wasn't a professor) controls the conversation. Everything means what he says it means.

While running for the Senate, Obama was invited to give the keynote speech for the Democratic National Convention. It was the high point of the convention. Obama was not phased. He always knew that he was good. He compared himself to Micheal Jordan.

As soon as he was elected to the Senate, people began to tell Obama how great he was and that he should run for president. People fainted at the sound of his voice.

By the time he was interviewing people for his staff he saw a potential problem (at least in his eyes). He knew that he was a better speech writer than anyone he could hire. The same was true for the job of political analyst.

During the campaign, Obama indicated that he would be willing to hold talks with hostile nations without precondition. He believed that he could bridge long-standing disputes with clean approach.

When told about the problems that President Clinton had trying to get health care reform passed, Obama said "but this time you have me."

Over the Summer, Mayor Bloomberg was invited to play golf with the President. He later said, "I've never met in my life such an arrogant man."

Obama has never confronted the limits of his abilities. No one can be the best at everything but Obama has yet to internalize this lesson. Typically a smart college student thinks that he knows so much more than everyone else that he should be able to change things. This is why socialism and other totalitarian systems appeal to the young. As people age, they run into their own limitations. They realize that there are factors that they never considered. They grow up.

President Obama seems to be stuck with the self-image of an all-knowing president. Over the last couple of weeks he has been asked repeatedly what mistakes he made. He insists that every decision be made was the right one, he just neglected to sell them properly. From his point of view, this must be correct. After all, he is so smart that he could not possibly have made any mistakes. The Republicans are misguided for holding opposing views.

Obama's life experiences and especially his quick rise to the presidency have convinced him that no one else can be right. This is a dangerous view for a president. By this point in his presidency, Bill Clinton had devised a new course which led to his reelection. Can Obama overcome his massive ego and do the same?

This does not bode well for the next two years. Obama needs to learn to compromise but he cannot do that as long as he in convinced that no one else

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Excuse Me While I Gloat

The election wasn't a blow-out but the Republicans and the Tea Party did very well. It would have been nice to control both Houses of Congress and it is possible that the primary victory of weak Tea Party candidates over stronger establishment Republicans cost the Republicans the Senate. On the other hand, if the Republican leaders learn that big-government Republicans are no longer welcome then it is worth the short-term loss.

Here in Ohio it was a blow-out. Four years ago, after eight years of the mediocre Taft and some major scandals, the Democrats took most of the state offices. This time the Republicans won every state-wide race plus every congressional race. Most of these were won by margins of 15%.

The biggest loser was the unions, especially SEIU. Governor Strickland was a strong supporter of the unions to the point that his appointees may have been breaking the law in pushing school districts to use union labor. Strickland was also an opponent of charter schools even though he is childless. He relied exclusively on the teacher's union for information about them.

SEIU started running ads against Kasich in August and they were nasty, sometimes saying that he only wanted to become governor so that he could send Ohio jobs overseas.

Since there is no way that the unions could be any more anti-Kasich, that gives him the option of layoffs of state workers to help balance the Ohio budget.

Assuming that Kasich does a competent job as governor and that Obama is reelected in 2012, expect Kasich to be a top choice in 2016 for the White House.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

One Last Shot at the Tea Party

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson fired off one last shot at the Tea Party before the election results are know. First he starts with this disclaimer:

First, I'll state the obvious: It's not racist to criticize President Obama, it's not racist to have conservative views, and it's not racist to join the Tea Party. But there's something about the nature and tone of the most vitriolic attacks on the president that I believe is distinctive - and difficult to explain without asking whether race is playing a role.

So what is so distinctive? He doesn't really offer anything new, just the same old complaints. His first one was Rand Paul saying that if they win then "we get to go to Washington and take back our government." Robinson then takes issue with this phrase.

Somehow he missed that the left has been using this phrase for decades with no racial connotation. The theme of President Clinton's first inauguration was "taking back America." In 2006, Democratic strategist James Carvelle wrote a book titled Take It Back: A Battle Plan for Democratic Victory. Howard Dean, past head of the Democratic National Committee wrote a book entitled You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America. Obviously the right lifted the phrase from the left. Twisting it to mean "Take America back from the dark-skinned man in the White House" makes a mockery of Robinson's earlier statement that it is ok to criticize the President.

Robinson continues:

So who stole the government? What makes some people feel more disenfranchised now than they were, say, during the presidency of George W. Bush?

After all, it was Bush who inherited a budget surplus and left behind a suffocating deficit - I'm not being tendentious, just stating the facts. It was Bush who launched two wars without making any provision in the budget to pay for them, who proposed and won an expensive new prescription-drug entitlement without paying for it, who bailed out irresponsible Wall Street firms with the $700 billion TARP program.

Bush was vilified by critics while he was in office but not with the suggestion that somehow the government had been seized or usurped - that it had fallen into hands that were not those of "the American people." Yet this is the Tea Party suggestion about Obama.

There are two point here. I've already pointed out that there were lots of suggestions that the government had been seized. So what about Bush's spending?

Robinson is playing a little fast and loose with the facts. Yes, the surplus turned into a deficit under Bush. Some of that was Bush's fault but the surplus was not going to last regardless of who was in the White House. Bush's deficits were fairly mild, at least by Obama standards. Bush's highest deficit is still lower than Obama's lowest projected deficit. His deficits didn't spike until 2008 when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

Robinson's statements fail to give any proportion to Bush's spending. Bush's prescription-drug benefit is expensive. It will cost around a trillion dollars over ten years. His wars were also expensive. Iraq cost around $600 billion over six years. Those two examples come to around $110 billion per year. Compare that with Obama's stimulus which is over $800 billion over two years.

Then there is the TARP. The Bush administration proposed it but it passed a Democrat-controlled Congress. Obama voted for it. What's more, it was divided into two parts. Bush could spend the first half with the second half held over to Obama's administration. So blame for the TARP gets spread equally. There was some outrage when it was first proposed and the Republicans voted it down the first time. There were only a few months between when the TARP passed and when the Tea Party protests began.

Robinson continues:

Underlying all the Tea Party's issues and complaints, it appears to me, is the entirely legitimate issue of the relationship between the individual and the federal government. But why would this concern about oppressive, intrusive government become so acute now? Why didn't, say, government surveillance of domestic phone calls and e-mails get the constitutional fundamentalists all worked up?

Robinson throws out the term "domestic phone calls" without qualifying that this only happened when one end of the conversation was overseas. It makes a big difference. It also makes a difference that the surveillance involves a very real threat as last weekend's attempted airplane bombings show. It also makes a difference that the Obama administration renewed the Patriot Act.

But the possibility that a government agent was listening in on an overseas call does not affect people's daily life - not the way that taking over GM and closing half of its divisions does and the Bush administration never passed legislation requiring everyone to purchase insurance. Obama's government is insinuating itself into everyday life in ways that never happened under Bush.

Robinson says:

I wonder how he can be seen as "elitist," when he grew up in modest circumstances - his mother was on food stamps for a time - and paid for his fancy-pants education with student loans.

I've written before that the current elitism is a state of mind rather than a matter of birth. During the campaign Obama mentioned being concerned about the price of arugula at Whole Foods in a state that does not have a single Whole Foods and little demand for arugula. His mother may have been on food stamps for a time but he now looks down on the electorate.

I ask myself what's so different about Obama, and the answer is pretty obvious: He's black. For whatever reason, I think this makes some people unsettled, anxious, even suspicious - witness the willingness of so many to believe absurd conspiracy theories about Obama's birthplace, his religion and even his absent father's supposed Svengali-like influence from the grave.

There is one final point that Robinson overlooks about the Tea Party - it is not all about Obama. Nancy Pelosi is a close second in their rancor. Once you admit that then Obama's skin color becomes insignificant.

So what is different about Obama? He came into office claiming to be a transformative president, one who would change the nation's course from the path it has been on since Reagan and onto the path of increasing government. Granted Obama turned out to me more of a partisan hack than an inspired leader but by the time that became obvious the Tea Party already existed. After years of being ignored by both parties, the small government advocates are not going to shut up and go home.

So, why did Robinson write this nasty column? He's probably depressed about the election and wanted to throw one more "racist" bomb at them out of frustration.


The polls are not closed yet and excuses are already being offered for the expected Democratic losses. My favorite, so far, is one from CBS News - Democrats' Problems in 2010 Started with 2008's Economic Collapse but I have to review some recent history to explain why.

Typically in a presidential election year, the Democrat leads the polls through the Summer, cresting with the Democratic convention. The Republican pulls ahead after their convention. After that the real race begins - will the Republican keep his lead or will it decline as soon as the convention ends? This does not include blow-out years where the challenger never had a chance against the incumbent but it does describe the 1980, 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2004 races.

2008 seemed to be following the same pattern. Remember, Barack Obama did not outright win the primaries. Hillary Clinton won a lot of delegates before running out of money and she continued to win delegates through the last primary. It was only after she conceded that Obama had enough delegates to guarantee the nomination.

Another factor is that the candidate who sews up the nomination first usually wins. This is because that candidate has a united party behind him. McCain won the nomination months before Obama did and there was some fear that spurned women voters would flock to the Republicans, especially with a woman on the ballot.

During the Summer Obama was ahead in the polls but not by much. His lead was often smaller than the margin of error. Many analysis suspected that McCain was actually ahead but that respondents were afraid of sounding racist by telling pollsters that they were going to vote for McCain.

After the conventions, McCain was ahead in the polls.

So what happened? How did Obama go from long-shot to inevitable?

The economy crashed.

McCain suspended his campaign for a week for an emergency trip to DC. This might have paid off if McCain had followed up and criticized Obama for not doing the same thing and putting country first. He did not.

The crash hurt the Republicans. The response - multiple bailouts and the TARP also hurt the Republicans (even though the Congressional Republicans were against the TARP, Bush was for it and his party suffered by association).

That is when Obama took the lead in the polls and maintained it through the election. And that is why blaming the Democrats' problems on the 2008 crash is so ironic. If it wasn't for the crash the Democrats might never have taken the White House. They were elected to fix the economy.

Their response after the 2008 election hurt them more. Conservatives wanted to see poorly-managed banks fail. Liberals wanted either a bank take-over or prosecution of bankers. neither happened. Instead we got more bailouts. The country wanted to see an end to earmarks. Instead the stimulus was seen as the Mother of All Pork. The country's top priority was the economy but the Democrats couldn't talk about anything except health care. Even then, people wanted real health care reform. Instead they got a wonky bill that still has experts trying to decide what it will cover. The headline for the weekend was that the health care bill may (or may not) include free birth control. I doubt that most voters are aware of the financial reform bill that the Democrats passed and that even fewer know what is in it.

The Democrats had their chance. They were elected to fix the economy. They also promised to win the war in Afghanistan, get the troops out of Iraq, close Gitmo, repeal the Patriot Act and end Don't Ask Don't Tell. They failed on all of these. If they had managed a better recovery then the country would forgive them all of their other lapses but unemployment is stuck at 9.5% and the don't have a clue what to about it.

So, it would be more accurate to describe the 2008 as a missed opportunity rather than a problem.