State of the Union

Bill Kristol’s Tea Party Constitution

Jonathan Chait amusingly shoots at the fish in the barrel that is Bill Kristol’s recent column urging Republicans to “get off the sidelines” and prevent another rout in 2016.

Of Kristol’s evocation of the “original Constitution”—and, by implication, modern liberalism’s trashing of it—Chait writes, “The ‘original Constitution’? The one that permitted slavery? Does Kristol want to do away away with the 11th through 27th amendments to the Constitution? I’m sure he does not. But if Kristol obviously does not mean what he actually wrote, what does he mean?”

We all know the drill by now: the “original,” pre-Progressive era Constitution was not designed for the expansive power to regulate interstate commerce that Congress now enjoys; for “transfer payments” or the redistribution of wealth; or, generally speaking, for any interference between the consensual acts of individuals in the marketplace.

I return to it from time to time, because it’s such a perfect distillation of the kind of jurisprudence that infuses the tea party and liberty movements, and Kristol’s musing furnishes me another excuse: Ken Cuccinelli’s legal brief against Obamacare’s individual mandate in the Texas Review of Law & Politics.

In it, Cuccinelli answers Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous Lochner dissent that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s social statics.” (Hence Chait, lazily switching between upper- and lower-case “c”: “The Constitution is not a vague set of ideals; it’s a clear set of rules. That’s the whole point of a Constitution.”)

Cuccinelli says Holmes was arguing with a straw man. Of course it’s nonsense to claim the Constitution or the 14th Amendment embody Social Statics. But could Holmes plausibly deny that it embodies John Locke? “This would have been regarded as puzzling at best and at worst demonstrably false.” So there, fine: Forget Herbert Spencer. We can appeal to Locke (and Blackstone, and Hooker) and basically arrive at the same libertarian defense of economic rights. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas: so use your own as not to injure another’s property.

For now, let’s table this aspect of the debate. Readers know I’d rather live under Chait’s Constitution than Cuccinelli’s. My point here is this: Bill Kristol is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ambassador for the Tea Party Constitution!

A constitution whose notion of executive power is expansive enough to satisfy the likes of Bill Kristol and John Yoo should have no trouble accommodating social insurance programs or public assistance for the needy.

I’m sorry: you don’t get to have your kickass policy suite of torture, democratism, intergalactic swamp-draining, World War XXIV, and “We’re all Everybody-ians now,” and also complain about food stamps or federal insurance exchanges.

Tea Party and liberty movement conservatives have every right to argue for an originalist interpretation of individual economic rights.

Bill Kristol does not.

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A Painean Policy Proposal from a Beltway Burkean

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

Last week, just as the East Coast descended into a terrifying world of ice and snow, Norm Ornstein proposed “A Plan to Reduce Inequality: Give $1,000 to Every Newborn Baby.” As Ornstein described the details:

It is called KidSave, and it was devised in the 1990s by then-Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, with then-Senator Joe Lieberman as cosponsor. The first iteration of KidSave, in simple terms, was this: Each year, for every one of the 4 million newborns in America, the federal government would put $1,000 in a designated savings account. The payment would be financed by using 1 percent of annual payroll-tax revenues. Then, for the first five years of a child’s life, the $500 child tax credit would be added to that account, with a subsidy for poor people who pay no income. The accounts would be administered the same way as the federal employees’ Thrift Savings Plan, with three options—low-, medium-, and high-risk—using broad-based stock and bond funds. Under the initial KidSave proposal, the funds could not be withdrawn until age 65, when, through the miracle of compound interest, they would represent a hefty nest egg. At 5 percent annual growth, an individual would have almost $700,000.

By reviving a Democratic communitarian policy proposal from the 1990s, Ornstein, a resident scholar at AEI, would probably wind up pegged in the camp of what Ben Domenech branded the “Beltway Burkeans” in an essay last summer. Domenech said, “The Beltway Burkeans talk a good game about shifting the right’s coalition, but the truth is that their agenda represents a much more modest shift, in large part a reworking of the same ideas they’ve been pitching for years.” Domenech argued this Washington-centric view could hobble Republicans by disconnecting them from the populist opportunity that the Tea Party uprising afforded them. To Domenech, “A bolder approach to remaking the coalition would ditch the false promise of technocratic paternalism in favor of a bias toward individual liberty and a rediscovery of the populist agenda.” Paine is the Republican future, not Burke, then. And to the small-government populists, Ornstein’s closing sentiment, “If the cost, in the end, were even $20 billion a year, that is chump change in a $17 [tr]illion economy—and, of course, money that would all be invested in America,” is anathema.

Yet if one thumbs back through history, Tea Party favorite Thomas Paine proposes a roughly similar policy agenda. In his 1795 pamphlet Agrarian Justice, Paine makes the Rousseauean natural law case that “The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized. … Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state.” While acknowledging the property right of those who have improved the land and thus created wealth from it, Paine held that those landowners owed the community a “ground rent” for the value of the land before improvement, which belonged to the whole human race equally. So Paine sought to remedy civilization’s poverty, by providing out of that ground rent (collected as a 10 percent estate tax as the improvers of the land turn over) a sum of 15 pounds sterling to every person upon reaching their 21st birthday. Read More…

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Scott Walker Hints at Bush Sequel With Misguided Tax Cuts

Gov. Scott Walker has fashioned a reputation as a fiscal steward and political survivor. He made some tough choices during a severe economic downturn and turned a budget shortfall (how much of one is a matter of some dispute) into a surplus and, for his troubles, faced down a partisan recall effort.

He’s putting that reputation at risk in an apparent effort to pad his presidential contender resume with force-fitted tax cuts. Politico’s Rachel Bade notes the obvious:

With a nearly $1 billion projected budget surplus expected next year, Walker wants to slash property and income taxes as he heads into reelection this fall — a move many say could also grease a 2016 presidential bid should he decide to run.

The interesting, and to my mind, encouraging, thing is that the move, which will cost Wisconsin an estimated $860 million over two years, has met with skepticism from some Republicans in Wisconsin. Bade reports that “he’s facing headwinds from a handful of Senate Republicans who say the tax cuts should come after paying off a slew of unpaid bills due in just a few years. Walker’s plan would actually worsen the longer-term deficit outlook.” One state Republican senator told Politico, “The tax plan sets us up for a very bad time in the future.”

And Walker would do well to listen to him—because if he’s truly eying a run in 2016, he’s badly misreading the mood of the national electorate and even of congressional Republicans. The salience of revenue-reducing tax cuts as a plank in the national Republican platform has diminished over the years, as gains in income have been concentrated among a small cohort of already-wealthy voters. Recall: Mitt Romney, if only vaguely, promised to pay for lower tax rates by limiting deductions. Rep. Paul Ryan’s most recent budget proposal also was revenue neutral. Sen. Mike Lee’s barebones tax reform proposal is possibly revenue-negative, but it hasn’t been scored and, as written, won’t see the light of day.

The bottom line is that the GOP isn’t anxious to return to the playbook of the Aughts. In his first presidential campaign, Gov. George W. Bush warned against letting Washington get its hands on projected budget surpluses—“the people’s money”—so he promised to cut taxes instead. In office, Bush drained federal coffers of the surpluses—and then some.

Governor Walker is foolish to think Republicans, let alone the electorate in general, want to see that movie again.

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Fixing Our Model of Meritocracy

When we debate affirmative action, it’s hard to get hard data. We can check how often identical resumes with white and black names get called back for interviews, but it’s hard to check whether a quota system changes those callback rates over time, or whether affirmative action creates a stigma against the people who are hired under the policy.

It’s pretty rare that public policies are ever tested properly (see Obama’s Innovation Centers, which “test” health policy without ever running controlled trials), but, due to a quirk in India’s election law, we have real-world data about the consequences of one case of quotas and affirmative action.

India set quotas for women’s representation for chief councillor on village councils. In other words, in a randomly selected subset of villages, only women were allowed to stand as candidates. A team of researchers conducted surveys before and after villages were governed by women and was able to isolate the effect of the quota system on villagers perception of women as leaders.

In the villages that had been forced to elect women, villagers were significantly more likely to rate women as competent leaders than in the villages that hadn’t been subject to the quota. The researchers were studying their reactions to women candidates generally, not attitudes about the specific woman leader elected, so it’s possible that individuals were still resented or felt singled out in the manner that Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria and others describe. However, being exposed to a woman governing was enough to shift voters’ general attitude, even though she hadn’t won in a purely meritocratic election.

One reason the quota system may have produced results is that we never live in a pure meritocracy. There doesn’t need to be any malice aforethought or deliberate discrimination to derail meritocracy. After all, we’re still fumbling to find reliable measures of merit. Even rich, data-driven companies like Google have had to scrap their interview questions and GPA cutoffs when they found their measures of merit weren’t producing results. (A similar process occurs in college admissions, but given the incredible diversity of post-secondary education, and the vagueness of what a “good match” entails, I’ll stick to other domains for examples.) Read More…

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Eric Cantor Picks the Right 40 Yard Lines

Center-right wonks are increasingly optimistic that the next Republican nominee will have a real agenda to promote—one that’s attractive to all voters, not just white owners of capital.

There’s the focus on overhauling antipoverty programs from Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan. There’s the family-friendly tax plan of Sen. Mike Lee. There’s the brave gesture in the direction of prison reform from Lee and Sen. Rand Paul.

To be sure, this agenda is still bones and no flesh.

In the meantime, an equally important development is underway.

Byron York reported from the recent House Republican retreat:

At the House Republican retreat in Cambridge, Md., Thursday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called on GOP lawmakers to take a new approach to the nation’s economic anxieties. Dividing his remarks into four categories — Obamacare, jobs and economic growth, the middle-class squeeze, and opportunity — Cantor’s goal was to try to identify specific problems middle-class families are facing and spark discussion on conservative solutions that might help those families.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Cantors presentation was that it included a recognition that in the past Republicans have focused more on the nation’s employers than employees, have talked about small business owners and entrepreneurs to the exclusion of the far greater number of Americans who don’t own their own businesses.

“Ninety percent of Americans work for someone else,” Cantor said, according to a source in the room. “Most of them not only will never own their own business, for most of them that isn’t their dream. Their dream is to have a good job, with an income that will allow them to support their family.”

“We shouldn’t miss the chance to talk to these people,” Cantor continued, according to the source, “which is why we will present and pass our plans to relieve the middle class squeeze.”

This shift in tone and emphasis is key to any hope of a Republican winning the White House again. It is a not-so-subtle rebuke of the disastrous Romney campaign and its self-satisfied and divisive “Yes, I did build that!” rhetoric. It’s the human-interest frame in which to hang the Ryan-Rubio-Lee-Paul reform agenda.

After Ryan’s 2012 convention speech, I wrote:

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?

There’s an old saying that American politics is fought “between the 40 yard lines.” This is half-true. It skips over the matter of which football field we’re playing on. For the last five years, we’ve been fighting between the 40 yard lines on the football field of low inflation and deficit reduction—spending cuts vs. new tax revenue. What, if anything, to do about long-term unemployment and underemployment is another field altogether—and we barely play on it.

The field on which elite Republicans would like to fight is that of cheap labor, tight money, balanced budgets, hawkish foreign policy and low taxes on capital. On this field, amnesty and gay marriage are between the 40 yard lines.

Not to single her out, because there are all too many Republicans like her in Washington, but this is Jennifer Rubin’s field.

It’s the way to defeat again in ’16.

Cantor’s advice to his Republican colleagues is a critical first-step in ensuring that, for the next campaign, the GOP is between the 40 yard lines and on the right football field.

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Why Obama Shouldn’t Fear a GOP Senate Takeover

Conventional wisdom says the Obama administration is effectively toast if Republicans capture the Senate this fall. I’ve peddled it myself, and I’m not certain it’s wrong. But here are a few reasons why it might be:

His agenda is dead anyway. What the moral-equivalence mainstream vaguely calls “dysfunction” is really a poisonous dynamic in which compromise, the mere scent of it, politically lifts Obama and splits Republicans. Of immigration, Carl Hulse writes this morning:

Republicans knowledgeable about the issue said immigration was not yet completely off the table. Instead, they said, reaching any agreement has become appreciably harder because of a Republican reluctance to get caught up in an internal feud and stomp on their increasingly bright election prospects.

This is why new gun regulations were never going to pass. Or tax reform. Or tweaks to Obamacare. Or an extension of unemployment insurance. Looking back, it’s obvious that Congress would pass nothing of any significance after November 2010. This is a pitfall of divided government. You can blame James Madison if you like. (Garry Wills once made a provocative case that our notion of Madisonian checks and balances is so much mythology—an argument for another day.)

Arguably the only thing that President Obama and Congress have accomplished since the GOP House takeover is a sharp reduction in short-term budget deficits. Neither party has benefited politically from this accomplishment. Nor has the economy improved appreciably. Rather, it has probably been dragged down. (One day, historians will look on the period of 2011-13 and unanimously conclude it was utter madness.) Consequently, both sides have wisely given up on debt and deficits for the meantime.

There is the issue of judicial and executive branch appointments. But the heavy lift on those probably has already taken place.

Things may actually improve slightly under a unified GOP Congress. Look at it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, their next prize, obviously, will be the White House. That’s a different ballgame altogether—a bigger, browner electorate. Suddenly the imperative to obstruct the Obama agenda begins to recede. A different incentive structure will take shape: the party will have to govern, or at least appear as though it’s trying. As Hulse writes in the Times, some Republicans “believe it would be smarter to wait until after the midterms and pursue immigration in 2015 leading up to the presidential election,

when Republicans will be more motivated to increase their appeal to Hispanic voters. If the midterm goes their way, they will be strengthened in Congress.

The Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP desperately wants an immigration bill. Obama desperately wants an immigration bill. With control of both the House and Senate, the GOP could write a bill that’s more to its liking than the dead-in-the-water bill the Senate passed last summer. And Obama will have no choice but to sign it. It’s the last feather in the cap of his legislative legacy, with the White House now set to pursue the Podesta strategy on unilateral executive action.

If it takes losing the Senate to pass immigration, Obama should welcome it. Come 2017, he’ll be working on his memoirs and running a foundation.

Speaking of the next presidential campaign…

“Republican Congress” will make for a juicy target in ’16. In 1996, President Bill Clinton had great fun turning the moderate Sen. Bob Dole into the sidecar villain of Speaker Newt Gingrich. There’s little reason to think the next Democratic nominee, whoever he or, ahem, she turns out to be, won’t be able to repeat the trick.

If, however, the trick proves unrepeatable—if the attack line that Republicans are extremist refuseniks loses its punch—it will have been due to some kind of thawing in the great cold war between Obama and Republicans. It will have been due to something like, say, the passage of immigration reform (see point two above), plus one or two other major compromise measures. Which, as far as Obama is concerned, would be all to the good.

Put it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, the prospects for getting something through Congress may brighten for Obama. And if they don’t brighten, his frustration—and the country’s—will ultimately redound to the benefit of Hillary Clinton, who is faced with a uniformly depressing and horrendous array of potential GOP contenders.

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How the GOP Sold Out Middle America for Corporate America

Out of the Republican retreat on Maryland’s Eastern shore comes word that the House leadership is raising the white flag of surrender on immigration. The GOP will agree to halt the deportation of 12 million illegal aliens, and sign on to a blanket amnesty. It only asks that the 12 million not be put on a path to citizenship. Sorry, but losers do not dictate terms. Rich Trumka of the AFL-CIO says amnesty is no longer enough. Illegal aliens must be put on a path to citizenship and given green cards to work—and join unions.

Rep. Paul Ryan and the Wall Street Journal are for throwing in the towel. Legalize them all and start them on the path to citizenship. A full and final capitulation. Let’s get it over with. To understand why and how the Republican Party lost Middle America, and faces demographic death, we need to go back to Bush I.

At the Cold War’s end, the GOP reached a fork in the road. The determination of Middle Americans to preserve the country they grew up in, suddenly collided with the profit motive of Corporate America. The Fortune 500 wanted to close factories in the USA and ship production abroad—where unions did not exist, regulations were light, taxes were low, and wages were a fraction of what they were here in America. Corporate America was going global and wanted to be rid of its American work force, the best paid on earth, and replace it with cheap foreign labor. While manufacturing sought to move production abroad, hotels, motels, bars, restaurants, farms, and construction companies that could not move abroad also wanted to replace their expensive American workers.

Thanks to the Republican Party, Corporate America got it all.

U.S. factories in the scores of thousands were shut down, shedding their American workers. Foreign-made goods poured in, filling U.S. stores and killing the manufacturers who had stayed behind, loyal to their U.S. workers. The Reagan prosperity was exported to Asia and China by the Bush Republicans. And the Reagan Democrats reciprocated by deserting the Bush Republican Party and going home. But this was not the end of what this writer described in his 1998 book, The Great Betrayal. As those hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, fast-food shops, car washes, groceries, and other service industries also relished the rewards of cheap foreign labor, they got government assistance in replacing their American workers. Read More…

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Lobbyists, Private Goods, and the Public Good

Last summer I tried to tease out the complications of adopting libertarian-populist standards. The self-dealing of, say, an aluminum company lobbying for and benefiting from fuel-efficiency regulations seems, on its face, sleazy and reprehensible. But what, I asked, can be done to avoid such conflicts of interest when there is a public good being pursued?

[D]id Obamacare’s architects desire to turn insurance companies into public utilities as a policy end in itself—or was it a means of broadening access to medical insurance (a goal the public generally favors)? …

After September 11, the Bush administration and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers concluded it was in the national interest to invade two countries. A giant new security apparatus slowly spread its tentacles across American life. Defense contractors and security consultants dine out on this policy sea change to this day. One can argue until one is blue on the face about the wisdom of these policies—but at the end of the day, one is forced to mount an argument about an overarching public good (or ill).

Simply asking “who, whom?”, as libertarian populism would have it, will only you take you so far.

Timothy Carney grapples with this question in a lengthy and thoughtful piece at Reason magazine. After having run through a series of real-life examples of wheeler-dealing, he delineates a set of best practices for industry lobbyists:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with profiting off big government. If the government creates a surplus of deer, someone has to thin that surplus. If government forces factories to clean up their emissions, someone has to make the smokestack scrubbers. If government requires drivers to use ethanol, someone has to make the stuff.

Nor is it inherently wrong to lobby for policies that increase your profits. “Petitioning the government for the redress of grievances” is protected by the First Amendment, and the regulatory environment often chips away at the profits companies would otherwise make. What is wrong is to lobby for policies that enrich your business by taking away other people’s property or liberty.

In a nutshell, the Carney Standard—unassailably reasonable, I’d say—is this: Do not lobby in favor of unjust laws.

Read the whole piece, however. It’s well worth your time.

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Corporatism and Gay Marriage: Natural Bedfellows

One of the truer sayings that comes down to us is that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Coalitions form and dissolve according to changing political winds and tides, and at times temporary partnerships are forged that are at best amusing, at worst, incoherent. The home-schooling movement has brought together anarchist hippies and conservative Christians; libertarians and social conservatives have spent some time shacked up together in their common animus against the activist liberal State; today, Catholics and evangelicals often find themselves manning the barricades against the HHS mandate. The list is long and sometimes amusing if not jarring.

One of the more remarkable partnerships that is least remarked upon today is the coalition that has formed around the effort to advance gay marriage—namely, left-leaning gay activists and corporations. If any political antipathy seemed to be permanent and unchangeable, one would have believed that it would be the Left’s hatred of the Corporation. Corporations, by the Left’s telling, represent almost everything that is wrong in contemporary America—crony capitalism, structural inequality, environmental degradation, worker indignity—in short, legalized immorality. Occupy Wall Street designated the corporation as Enemy #1, and the Left generally begins foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of Citizens United as, effectively, a coup by corporate America against democracy.

Yet, generally unremarked upon has been the deep friendliness between the Left and corporations in the most burning issue of the day (according to the Grammy Awards at least)—gay marriage. It has been particularly noticeable to me as a recently transplanted Hoosier, given recent efforts to defeat the proposed amendment banning gay-marriage in Indiana by a combination of Left gay-activists and corporations. To the extent that the amendment has run into trouble, it has been arguably because of the concerted resistance not by the activist Left—who were always going to have limited traction with an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature—but corporations.

Here is what those corporations are saying: “A ban would tell talented workers to stay out of Indiana.” According to Marya Rose, chief administrative officer for Indiana-based company Cummins, “If we have a climate in our state that makes people feel unwelcome in any way, we think that’s bad for Cummins, and we think that’s bad for business.” Similar arguments have been made by Nike in Oregon and General Mills in Minnesota. In New York, the push for legal recognition of gay marriage received major financial backing from some of the oft-denounced “wolves” of Wall Street—many of them prominent in conservative circles, especially Paul E. Singer, chairman of the conservative think-tank the Manhattan Institute. In Indiana, a coalition combining gay activists and corporations has been formed under the banner, “Freedom Indiana.”

In a period when the Left takes up the banner decrying “income inequality,” it should at least give pause to see them cozy up to corporate elites in support of their most darling issue of the day. Indeed, what is most striking is the not-so-subtle threat that is made by opponents of the Indiana gay-marriage amendment: if you pass this ban, talented people will leave, and even corporations will find it difficult to remain. The same threat that is often used by corporations to compel localities into watering down collective-bargaining powers, diluting environmental restrictions, crafting significant tax breaks and “sweetheart deals” is now being used by proponents of gay marriage to threaten the legislators of Indiana. A state struggling with high unemployment and a rust-belt economy can ill-afford to upset the Masters of the Universe.

Perhaps this is merely a marriage (no pun intended) of convenience, an instance of “strange bedfellows.” However, a deeper connection is discernible. Long before the current debate over gay marriage, modern capitalism required the redefinition of the family and marriage. Gay marriage is only the logical conclusion of a long process of the redefinition of marriage into a largely private, interpersonal bond whose main purpose is the self-actualization and personal fulfillment of the contracting individuals, to be made and remade at the convenience of both or even one of the contracting parties. Read More…

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Obama’s SOTU 2014: ‘Opportunity’ Still Knocking

LARRY DOWNING / UPI / Newscom
LARRY DOWNING / UPI / Newscom

For his fifth State of the Union Address, and arguably the most politically fraught moment of his presidency, Barack Obama offered what he called “a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity.”

“Ladders of opportunity” is a go-to phrase of Obama’s. It not only predates his presidency, but also his career in politics: you can hear him (a “civil rights lawyer”) use it here, in this 1994 NPR commentary warning against Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein’s The Bell Curve.

It’s more than a go-to phrase, actually; it captures something fundamental about his assumptions about government and markets. He does not believe that the outcomes of the latter are morally authoritative. Hard work does not always pay. Discipline is not always rewarded. Consequently, it takes a thumb on the scale to break up—not necessarily equalize—patterns of wealth distribution, to ensure that there are rungs on the “ladder” and not just a pretty view of the mansion on the hill. And it requires a central government to promote a healthy ecosystem of the future, where things like the DOD-hatched proto-internet, the Air Force-administered GPS, and biomedicine can grow fruit.

In the back-and-forthing of State of the Union addresses, this debate is typically reduced to Democrats arguing for things like, well, an increase in the minimum wage, more spending on early-childhood education, job training assistance, an extension of unemployment insurance, new infrastructure spending—all of which Obama called for tonight—and Republicans responding that Democrats believe in “equality of outcome” and government’s picking economic winners and losers.

In short, Barack Obama is the keeper of a shriveling post-WWII consensus about economic development and countercyclical strategy.

And quite frankly, he picked a terrible time to be president. Trust in government, whether to manage the national economy or protect the “privacy of ordinary people” (as he put it in tonight’s address), is miserably low. Indeed, if there’s an issue on which he truly enjoys the will of the people at this back, it’s in his insistence on preventing direct U.S. government involvement (to put it cheekily) on foreign soil.

As I see it, there’s a tension within Obama’s (and mainstream Democrats’) stubborn clinging to the old consensus. The fact is, they don’t just want to create “ladders of opportunity.” They want a strong safety net that extends from early-childhood through to retirement. You could hear this in the speech’s section on financial security:

Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401(k)s.

And probably the most potent appeal of Obama’s mention of the Affordable Care Act was its link to financial security: you will not go bankrupt if you get sick.

As a strong-government conservative, I’ll cop to this: I’m sympathetic to the old consensus. But I’m equally sympathetic to the Republican critique of an agenda that doesn’t seek to just equalize opportunity, but rather a cradle-to-grave latticework of care and feeding.

To be sure, there are compelling Rawlsian social-justice arguments for the latter—but they should not be confused with the former. Dollars spent on the old are dollars not spent on the young and underprivileged. This is not a summons to throw grandma over the cliff. It’s simply an acknowledgment of a finite budget.

Say this for Obama: he seemed upbeat, despite low polling and talk of lame-duck-ery spreading like wildfire. If nothing else, he seems aware of the fact that there will be no more major legislative accomplishments of his administration. (Count me in the camp that immigration reform remains a long shot.) If he does nothing else than push the boulder of his approval rating a few points up the hill, and thereby maintain Democratic control of the Senate, he will maintain a semblance of relevance for the last three years of his presidency.

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