Obama’s Health Care Speech or Why Progressives Irk Me

September 10, 2009

Today I am listening to, and reading about, a lot of people size up Obama’s health care speech.  Something strikes me as peculiar about this whole thing, and that is the degree to which people are conflating two very separate, and somewhat unrelated, issues: (1) the speech as a speech and as a political tool for getting health care legislation passed, and (2) actually accomplishing some form of positive health care reform.  If affecting actual change were just a function of good rhetoric and pure intention, then Obama is most certainly our man.   I firmly believe that Obama is quite capable and quite dedicated to “fixing” the health care system; however, I also believe that ability and dedication are often tangential to the overwhelming force of unintended consequence.

All that being said, health care legislation will either pass, or it will not pass.  I have nothing more enlightened to say on that topic.  I do want to say a few things about the speech as a speech.  Whenever I hear Obama speak, I am usually reminded as to why I am not a progressive.  Those reasons always have to do with a legitimate disagreement about specific policy options, but they also have to do with some not so specific disagreements in world view.  I have picked out a few quotes to illustrate what I mean:

I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.

Does Obama really believe that he can be the last President to take up the cause of health insurance?  Progressives often like to think of society as some string of static problems that can be “fixed”.  Unfortunately, the world does not really work that way.

We are the only advanced democracy on Earth – the only wealthy nation – that allows such hardships for millions of its people.

This is one of my favorites: the “why can’t we be like those enlightened Europeans?” argument.  I am sure three were people who made this same argument at the founding of our democracy as we contemplated government without a heriditary monarchy or a permanent class of aristocrats to keep the rabble in line.  There are any number of reasons why we are not like Denmark, and the conversation about whether we should or should not try to change that is a long and complex one.  It is a shame that conversation often gets boiled down to “they have it.  why can’t we?”

Well the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action.

This is perhaps the most infuriating thing about the Obama administration; the way they dismiss opposing viewpoints with a handwave and a reference to “silly stuff” or “games”. 

There are those presidents who, by virtue of their leadership in particularly trying times, earned the weight and some claim to moral authority that might make such language bearable.   George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR come to mind.  Obama does not.  I have every confidence that we can expect four-to-eight years of very competent and able governance, but that alone should not elevate Obama to the role of “Great White Father” in Washington.

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A Few Thoughts on Dissent

August 12, 2009

There are two broad categories of liberals.  There are radical liberals, who think of themselves as more radical than liberal; and there are mainstream liberals, who think of themselves as more mainstream than liberal.  They are the same in that they both overestimate the degree to which their qualifier accurately characterizes their position.  One of the things, however, which differentiate one group from the other is the degree to which they welcome dissent.  Radicals love it.  Conflict is their reason for being.  Mainstream liberals have a harder time with dissent.  This is mostly because they have a hard time understanding how anyone with a brain might disagree them.

Health care is the perfect illustration to how this split works.  The radicals are the ones out demonstrating.  They are holding the signs that say things like, “We Demand a Single Payer Plan Now.”  They are the ones facing off against their conservative counterparts, who are holding sings that say things like, “Get the Government Out of Health Care.”  The mainstream liberals,  on the other hand, do not seem to know what to make of all the protestations coming from the right; after all, ‘we can all agree that our health care system is broken.  And national health systems works so well in Denmark and Sweden.’

As a thought experiment imagine a country in which the mainstream liberal point of view came to dominate in much the same way the Communist Party dominates in China.  This is not a state characterized by brutal oppression of the opposition, but rather a polite refusal to listen to most of what the opposition has to say. Now imagine that a sate run newspaper in our imaginary country ran a story about dissent on some government initiative.  Would that story be at all different from this story about conservative health care protests?

Look at this excerpt:

But most of those who spoke Tuesday seemed unlikely to vote in the Democratic primary. Many seemed concerned about issues that are either not in the health care legislation or are peripheral to the debate in Washington — abortion, euthanasia, coverage of immigrants, privacy.

“It says plainly right there they want to limit the type of care elderly can get,” said Laurel Tobias, an office manager from Lebanon, referring to a bill in the House. “They are talking about killing people.”

Notice how this puts the onus on a private citizen to say something relevant to what happens in Washington rather than asking why what happens in Washington isn’t relevant to what concerns this woman.  It may be perfectly reasonable to dismiss someone as “peripheral to the debate” when they are accusing the government of “talking about killing people”.  It is also perfectly reasonable for someone to question whether a government plan will have unintended consequences.  And anyway, how do we know that the current health care bill doesn’t deal with any of these issues?  Has anyone actually read the entire bill?


Are We About to ‘Prime the Pump’ or ‘Flood the Engine’?

February 19, 2009

OK, my mind is running in circles trying to work through this, so I’m going to take it slow.  In order for the government to spend a trillion dollars, it’s got to get a trillion dollars.  Since it’s not coming from taxs, it’s got to be raised on the bond markets.  What does that do to the bond markets?  What does it do if every major economy in the world is suddenly trying to raise large amounts of cash and selling more bonds?  This is exactly what Matt Yglesias wants to see happen.

The world needs a coordinated response in which each country commits to undertake stimulus that’s appropriate to the size of its economy and to its position in the global balance of trade. Further, we need a serious international commitment toward rebalancing in the medium-term — to a weaker dollar, less U.S. consumption, more American exports, and less foreign economic dependence on the U.S. consumer market as an employment strategy.

So, Americans need to stop buying stuff they may not need from China, while China continues to plunge their savings into American debt instruments…  that would indeed be an interesting bit of “coordination”.

Also, what if all this spending doesn’t bring the promised stimulus?  It’s entirely possible that many Americans can make it six months or a year without making too many major purchases.  If that happens, then where does all this new found liquidity end up?  Does it go right back into the bond market?  Are we ‘priming the pump’ of the real economy, or are we just setting ourselves up for a whole lot of future inflation.

I really wish I were smart enough to make heads or tails out of this.


A Very Relevant Sentence

February 12, 2009

For liberals, “stimulus spending” is a classification that no longer classifies: All spending is, they are certain, necessarily stimulative.

George Will usually produces very good sentences.  Read the whole column in today’s WaPo.

It seems that Jonathan Chait agree with him:

The point of stimulus spending, by contrast, is simply to spend money–on something useful if possible, wasteful if necessary. Keynes proposed burying money in mineshafts, so that workers would be hired to dig it out. (Imagine what the GOP could do with material like that.)

These two sentences seem to get right at the heart of this stimulus debate.  The lead us to ask: Will having the government spend a lot of money very quickly boost our economy in the way that Keynsian theory predicts it will or won’t it? Liberals tend to like government spending, so it’s quite convenient for them to answer ‘yes, it will’; conservatives tend not to like increased government spending, so it’s quite easy for them to say ‘no, it won’t’.  Who do you listen to when everyone seems to have a dog in the fight?

This is a situation where it’s very instructive to find those people who are swimming against the tide:  liberals who are wary of the stimulus and fiscal conservatives who support it.  Alice Rivlin seems to fit that category, but who else?


Chider-in-Chief

January 30, 2009

President Obama yesterday scolded Wall Street bankers who received millions of dollars in bonuses last year, calling the payouts “shameful” and chiding the executives for a lack of personal responsibility at a precarious time for the nation’s economy.

“There will be time for them to make profits, and there will be time for them to get bonuses,” the clearly irritated president said. “Now’s not that time. And that’s a message that I intend to send directly to them.”

Excuse me for a moment while I digest that last sentence…  …  … OK.  That took longer than I expected.  I had to go look through my pocket constitution and see where it says that the president has the power to decide when corporations make profit and how much to pay their workers.

And of course, as with anything that politicians don’t like, there is the threat to ‘do something about it’:

“Whether it was used directly or indirectly, this infuriates the American people and rightly so,” said  Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). “So I say to anyone else who does it: If you do it, I’m going to bring you before the committee.”

Forgetting about the issue of whether it’s any of the government’s business, maybe it is now that we own a piece; are bonuses really shameful?  My understanding is that when people negotiate salaries in the financial sector, the understanding is that much of that will be in the form of a bonus; so bonuses on Wall street are much more akin to direct compensation than they are in other industries.  If that is true, then any move to restrict bonuses would just result in an increase in salary.  Is that true?


“The Stimulus Debate That Matters”

January 29, 2009

Read this statement from E.J. Dionne’s editorial in the Washington Post:

President Obama’s visit with House and Senate Republicans this week was useful for setting a new tone and offering a refreshing break from the Bush administration’s habit of consulting almost no one. But it was a sideshow to the main battle over how to improve the economy, which is taking place among Democrats.

If I am correctly following this logic, a president that visits with the opposition and then disregards them is preferable to one who just disregards them from the beginning.  Putting aside the factual merit of this claim, is it true as a mere proposition?  Would you rather be patronized or ignored?

Of course you’re not being marginalized if you’ve made yourself irrelevant (that sounds like something the Democratic Party could say to certain members of its constituency… but that is another matter):

With a few exceptions, Republicans and conservatives have largely stayed out of these arguments. They prefer to insist on more tax cuts for the well-off and for business, ignoring the reality that all but the most ideological economists dismiss such measures as having limited value in boosting the economy.

This may be true for republicans on the hill.  I don’ know.  I do know that Congress is a very narrow, not to mention biased, sample from which to draw a conclusion about “Republicans”.  Every day I read right-of-center economists, commentators, and bloggers having this exact debate.  In fact, until I read this article in the Post, every piece I’ve read on the economic stimulus in the big papers has essentially been a re-worked White House press release.

I guess we’re not post-partisan and post-ideological, but not post-hubris.


Fun with Meta-Level Wit

January 28, 2009

What’s more annoying, DC: the people freaking out about the snow or the people complaining about the people freaking out about the snow? Or maybe the people complaining about the people complaining about the snow…

OK, my head hurts.