Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cheney’s Double Fallacy

Vice President (for another 25 days) Dick Cheney seems suddenly interested in establishing his “legacy.” Normally media-averse, he has unexpectedly appeared on several talk shows to explain how he has been a terrific vice-president and GW Bush just as terrific.

His argument employs two rhetorical fallacies. The first is the fallacy of future history (also called the “knowing the unknowable” fallacy). This is where a person claims to know what future historians will write about the present. Of course nobody knows that. Political predictions are notoriously inaccurate, and of all speculations one might make, what future historians will write is patently unknowable.

The future history fallacy encourages the listener or reader to recontextualize current events into a larger time scale extending into the future. From that imaginary God’s-eye view, it is suggested, the current events will seem more important than they do now. Since it is merely an exercise of fantasy, this argument is invalid.

Political historians do tend to obsess over presidential administrations, so we can be fairly sure that future histories of this one will be written (of which Cheney and Bush memoirs will probably be among the first out of the chute). However my guess is thatmost non-participant observers will evaluate the Bush-Cheney administration as one of the most incompetent and disastrous of its age. And my guess has as much value as Cheney's since the future is unknowable.

The second rhetorical fallacy deployed by Cheney in his recent interviews is a politicians’ favorite, the straw man. With this pseudo-argument one objects to a statement the other side never made or to a position that the other side does not actually hold. The effect of the fallacy is to deceive the uninformed listener or reader into thinking that the other side does hold the incorrect view. Since deception violates the foundation of legitimate discourse, this argument is invalid.

Cheney’s use of the straw man fallacy is reported in the New York Times of 12/22/08 (“Cheney Defends Bush on President’s Role”). Cheney criticized Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who had remarked that Cheney had been “the most dangerous vice president we’ve had in American history.”

Cheney’s dismissive reply was, “If he wants to diminish the office of vice president, that’s obviously his call.” But did Biden attempt to diminish the office of vice president? Not at all. His remark was directed squarely at Dick Cheney, occupant of that office. Cheney’s strategy was to deflect the criticism by pretending it was a different criticism, one that Biden never made. It is a classic maneuver.

Cheney went on to offer many unsound arguments, such as asserting that “the president “doesn’t have to check with anybody” — not Congress, not the courts — before launching a nuclear attack to defend the nation “because of the nature of the world we live in” since the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001” (NYT). This assertion contradicts the United States Constitution that Cheney and Bush swore to uphold. That contradiction makes it an unsound argument.

But that is not a fallacy, which is an error in reasoning. It is just a weak, unjustified, unconvincing argument based on inadequate evidence.

It is difficult to decide if Cheney simply cannot reason correctly, or if he uses fallacious arguments deliberately to deceive his audience.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is Deflation Really So Bad?

The U.S. Economic recession is deepening and there is fear now of deflation, a situation where prices fall and so does demand. Normally, if prices fall, people rush in to buy, like the crazy stampedes of shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.

But now, nobody has enough money, so demand is down. Prices drop, to lure customers and match the lower demand. But that cuts profits so companies slim down, cutting inventory and jobs. Consequently there is less to sell and more people without money. So prices fall further, more jobs are lost, inventory shrinks more. Salaries stagnate because a thousand workers apply for every job, so there is no inflation.

This vicious downward spiral ripples backward through the supply chain to manufacturers and importers, who also slow down, slim down, and lay off workers, further depressing the economy. Deflation ripples out to the housing and credit markets where sellers are under water and buyers can’t get loans. The whole economy comes to a halt and we all die (financially, anyway). That’s the doomsday scenario.

Nouriel Roubini (aka “Doctor Doom”) wrote a column in the Financial Times entitled, “How to Avoid the Horrors of Stagflation.” (FT 12/3/08, p. 13). Stagflation is a paradoxical combination of deflation and inflation. But Roubini does not talk about that, so the headline was probably added by someone who did not get the author’s drift. What he was warning against was spiraling deflation, as described above. He fears that the government’s attempts to inject money into the economy will not be enough, and not soon enough, to avert the horrors of deflation.

But I was thinking (always dangerous). Is deflation really so bad? Okay a lot of jobs would be lost, perhaps millions of them, and that is definitely bad. But let’s put that aside and come back to it in a moment.

People need to buy essentials: Food, medicine, clothing, housing, education. When the price is right, they will buy. When the price is too high they will avoid buying as long as they can and then buy only on the low end. But they will buy. So there will be an economy, even if only at a very low level. Everything cannot stop dead.

What people do not need are jet skis and wide-screen TVs and expensive designer clothes. They do not need expensive food, either restaurant or frozen. People can live without an iPod and they don’t need a vacation in Italy. A family of three does not need a 10,000 square foot home. So people won’t buy those things in a deflationary situation.

Is that so bad? Companies that sell iPods, trips to Italy, fast food and palatial mansions will wither to a fraction of their former size, if they survive at all, to serve a greatly diminished demand.

On the other side, the back of the irrational consumer society would finally be broken. Imagine people spending their time cooking beans in a crock pot, studying for school and dancing at the community center. They do not cruise the malls, which no longer exist anyway. You haven’t had a raise in three years, but on the other hand, your taxes, utilities and rent haven’t increased either, and the price of eggs has dropped by a third. There is less to buy, but there is less you need to buy. Your 401(k) is cut in half, but so is the cost of your retirement, so you are relatively as well-off as you were before the economic collapse.

The whole economy is reset to a slower, lower, more sane level without the frenzy of obsessive consumerism. Prices are stable, wages are stable. Companies grow organically, by innovation and reaching a growing demographic, not by taking on insane amounts of debt to produce products that have to be massively marketed to create artificial demand. We are all rich again, just at a lower absolute number.

What about all those millions who lost jobs back in the grip of the initial deflation (which is now)? The government keeps them afloat until they find their feet. They get other jobs, at a fraction of what they were making before, but they also cut their spending to a fraction, and as prices and demand equilibrate, they become as comfortable as they ever were, without all the “stuff.”

What’s wrong with this vision of economic post-apocalyptic utopia? Only human nature. People want snowmobiles and expensive handbags. It doesn’t make any economic sense, but that’s how it is. If you try to prevent these aspirations, as the communists did, it only postpones the inevitable and makes everyone miserable in the meantime. Human nature is part of Mother Nature, with whom one should not fool.

So frenzied consumerism, entrepreneurial excess, and wallet-busting inflation will be back. There is no chance society will question whether that is what we really want. I look forward to it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Time to End The Bully Doctrine

The Status of forces agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Iraq passed the Iraqi cabinet recently. Passage by the full Iraqi parliament is predicted by the end of November 2008.

An important feature of the SOFA is the promise that the U.S. will no longer attack other countries from Iraq, as it has been doing. That provision goes a long way towards calming Iran, which is worried about a U.S. invasion from Iraq.

The U.S. has been attacking countries all over the world with impunity since at least 2004, when Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld authorized them. We have dropped bombs on Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, and many other countries since then (New York Times: “Secret Order Lets U.S. Raid Al Qaeda,” 9 Nov 08).

(Graphic from Mother Jones)

What is the legal or moral justification for such attacks? The same as for the invasion of Iraq in the first place: the Bush Doctrine, which essentially is, “The U.S. has the self-appointed ‘right’ to attack any country in the world, any time we feel like it, for whatever reason we decide.”

How would we feel if Iran declared the “right” to attack Detroit because it perceived a threat there to its national security? I don’t think we would find that acceptable.

What if Russia decided it needed to bomb Anchorage because it believed some oligarch fugitives were hiding out there? Would we be OK with that? I don’t think so.

The Bush Doctrine is nothing more than the bully’s credo that “might makes right.” It is immoral, illegal, foolish, counterproductive, and extremely dangerous for the whole world.

I think the Bush administration has stepped up its attacks on sovereign nations lately in a desperate hope of landing a bomb on Bin Laden, so GW can claim symbolic revenge for 9-11. Otherwise he must slink out of office a disgraced dog. I really think he would risk the lives of millions for personal aggrandizement.

Will the SOFA put an end to these attacks? I don’t even think the ones originating from Iraq will cease. They will just be smaller scale, under the international radar, maybe run by the CIA using foreign mercenaries. No more ostentatious big bird drones.

But Predators can be launched from almost anywhere, including Turkey, Israel, India – any number of places. So my bet is that attacks will continue, at least until January 20, 2009. After that, I hope Obama does a thorough review of U.S. military policy, and renounces Bush’s Bully Doctrine.

There are at least two good alternatives to the Bully doctrine. One is to revert to self defense and judicial proceedings, as was generally the policy during the Clinton administration (with exceptions), but unlike the Clinton administration, put the proper resources into self-defense and international law enforcement. We can be proactive and internationally aggressive toward anti-American terrorists without arbitrarily blowing up civilians in other countries. It requires good intelligence and police work and a hardened defense perimeter.

Another alternative would be to continue military operations in foreign countries, but with their permission! How do you get permission? You ask. Diplomacy! You might even have to work with a country over the long term, and spend some money on them to garner their cooperation. You convince them that it is in their own best interests to pursue the bad guys in their territory. Maybe you let them execute the operations under your guidance. You make it worth their while. There are many options.

What if the other country won’t agree to allow military operations on their turf? Then we don’t go in!

If they really are harboring terrorists and they don’t care, or do so willfully, then that country is no friend of ours. Cut them off. This is a whole new approach to international diplomacy and alliances that does not require us to be friends with countries that work against our interests just because it is geopolitically “convenient.” Those days should be over. Realpolitik should be Real.

Certainly we can tolerate and work with countries who do not please us in every way. No doubt they feel the same way about us. But if our highest international priorities are such things as terrorism and nonproliferation, then those principles cannot be subordinated to economics or geopolitical chess games. It’s a kind of international toughness to walk your own talk.

I thought Robert Gates would be a good Defense Secretary for Obama, but I am not so sure any more since he re-affirmed Rumsfeld’s bully authorization. Obama needs to have a DoD chief who is on the same page.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Lucky 44

The 44th president is talented and blessed with a silver tongue, but he is also very lucky. He will need that luck to stay with him.

The financial bubble could have burst any time in the last 5 years, or it could have lasted another year or two. The timing was lucky for Obama, who was perceived by voters as more trustworthy on the economy (mainly because the Republicans have been so untrustworthy). The recession is already painful, but we will come out of it in a year.

Corollary luck is for Obama to have a pot of 700 billion dollars already appropriated to work with. I doubt that all of it will be spent. It’s main purpose is already achieved, to provide a backstop of confidence for the financial system. Some will be spent to stanch the home loan foreclosure rate. There will be plenty left over. Opportunity for Lucky 44.

Obama was also lucky to be running at a time when the Republicans were so self-destructive. Right wing extremists had (and have) such a grip on the party that it could not field a strong candidate. McCain was probably the best brand, but his campaign was apparently run by those same extremists and he never had much chance to be himself. Palin is merely a continuation of that same narrow minded extremism (that’s why she was selected, after all). Obama couldn’t have beat a Reagan or a Nixon, or probably even McCain if McCain had actually run as a moderate.

Corollary luck was that McCain’s pandering to the extremists all but broke the bank on his campaign early on, so he had no choice but to accept public financing. Obama promised to do the same, but soon realized that he would not have to, as the money started pouring in. It would have been a very different race if both candidates were limited to public financing. If the money had not started flowing until a few months later, Obama might have actually signed up for public financing. Although he opened up the donation money faucet himself, the timing of its flow was lucky.

Obama was also lucky that the war in Iraq took a positive turn when it did. Had it not, he would have been facing McCain the soldier in every speech, and been on the defensive. The situation is far from stable in Iraq and fast approaching disaster in Afghanistan, but Lucky 44 found a calm in the storm at just the right moment.

Corollary luck was that there was no spectacular terrorist incident in the past two years. Some of that can be credited to the hard work of the intelligence agencies, the military, and Homeland Security. Still, we all know that cloak of protection is full of holes and Obama was lucky.

There is a lot of trouble ahead. Let’s hope Lucky 44 continues to have the magic.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Three Reasons Why I Support Obama

1. I support Obama because I believe in the centrality of the common good. Nobody succeeds until we all succeed. We are all just people; no one is better than anyone else; we all want the same things. Democrats have that point of view. I don't think it is a Republican’s highest value. Therefore I support Obama because he represents the values of the Democratic party.

Believing in the common good leads to compassion, and that makes me adamant about equal justice under the law, economic fairness and cultural diversity. It also means I expect the government to have a major role in such things as universal health care, affordable education, industry regulation, environmental stewardship, and so on. A compassionate government smoothes the spikes and troughs of wild and woolly free market capitalism.

The Republican idea that we need to radically shrink government is out of step with reality. Every American depends on the federal government, including John McCain, whose campaign uses public financing, and whose salary, health care, pension and entire career have all come from the federal government.

2. The second reason I support Obama is for character and personality. He believes in rationality and has the ability to think on his feet. He is creative and strategic in problem-solving and shrewd in assessment of others. I admire those qualities. It is possible to over-think things, and that could be an Obama weakness. Sometimes you have to go with your gut. But intellectual overdrive is a way smaller risk than the shoot-from the hip mentality of Bush and McCain.

In the debate last night, I wished Obama had used the questioners' first name more often to signal that he was making the personal connection. He didn't (nor did McCain). Bill Clinton would have. Obama would have changed more minds if he had put the ideas aside long enough to at least smile at the person. It's his weakness, but less dangerous than the undisciplined emotional reactivity of the other side. Obama’s thoughtfulness is far more likely to lead to domestic and international solutions that work for most people.

3. Finally, I support Obama because of his global, international vision. I studied his "manifesto" (and McCain's too) in Foreign Affairs magazine. (You can see my reviews at http://political-innocence.blogspot.com/2007/07/obama-in-foreign-affairs.html and http://political-innocence.blogspot.com/2007/11/mccain-on-foreign-affairs.html ).

Obama understands the value of international diplomacy while McCain is dangerously bellicose. McCain must talk tough to keep the support of his party, but the same pressures would be on him in the White House, and I think he would reach for the trigger too quickly. His military mind frightens me. I've had enough war.

Obama's Foreign Affairs article was long on strategic "vision" and short on specifics, but at least he understands that we have allies. Nobody succeeds unless we all succeed.

On the down side, the Democrats will probably control both houses of congress and if Obama is in the White House, it would be easy for Democrats to act without adequate pushback, leading to changes that might not be for the best. On the other hand, the government will be so totally broke because of the wars and the financial bailouts that there simply won't be any money to do anything significant for a very long time.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Slippery Slope to Socialism


Capital must be made to flow, rather soon, or the whole economy will seize up like an engine running without oil. Farmers need credit to buy seed, small business needs credit to buy materials, and homebuyers need credit to buy homes. If everything stops, how will we ever get it started again?

The Paulsen proposal started out by saying, Hey, we’ll just inject some billions into the financial system. Democrats cried moral hazard. The compromise was strong oversight. (As Wanda Sykes says, “Oversight? I want receipts!”). But that was not enough for some apparently and the idea of government equity (ownership) was proposed as a condition of the financial aid. But that amounts to nationalization of the company.

Republicans have scuttled the Paulsen bailout plan, at least for now, because it goes against their genetically fixed instincts for wild and woolly, free-market enterprise, and their equally inborn revulsion of government regulation and intervention. The bailout plan is nothing less than a “slippery slope to socialism,” I heard a Republican lawmaker say on television recently.

That is a rhetorical fallacy of course called, aptly, the “slippery slope fallacy,” also known as the “continuum fallacy.” You can Wikipedia it.

A Republican may say that the bailout plan is just one step along the path to full socialist government, but maybe it is just a particular course of action designed to address a particular problem.

Socialism is not a bad thing. Insurance is socialism: it transfers wealth from the healthy to the sick. We need insurance, just as we need Medicare, Social Security, and progressive taxation. The U.S. military is about as pure a model of a socialist government as you could hope to find. The government takes care of the soldier’s every need, in exchange for service, while the rest of us pay. There is nothing wrong with some socialism in a market economy. Some transfer of wealth from richer to poorer is necessary to offset unrelenting transfer of wealth from poor to rich in the free market economy. No reasonable person could be opposed to a little bit of balance like that.

Still, I balk at nationalizing the financial industry, or major parts of it, and here I am in sympathy with the Republicans. Strong regulation is one thing, which I favor, but when the government starts owning the means of production, we have indeed taken radical action.

Why would the government want to be in a position of owning major stakes in financial companies? Do we seriously believe that the government, as a major shareholder, would be utterly passive, never exercising its owner’s right to meddle? That is inconceivable. Is the government even competent to direct that much money? The evidence of recent history would argue against it.

Financial institutions do not have enough operating capital, because it is all sunk into worthless mortgage-backed bonds. Instead of buying the worthless bonds at inflated prices, which is effectively a giveaway, why doesn’t the government simply loan the money to the companies? They can keep their stinking bonds and if they turn out to have some value in the future, they can count their lucky stars. If not, they can at least use the loan to right the ship, and pay it back with interest as time permits. The alternative is to cease to exist.

Republican representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, has suggested government-backed insurance for the troubled firms as an alternative. He apparently does not realize that insurance is a type of socialism. It’s a bad idea anyway. It didn’t work for Fannie and Freddie, and it doesn’t correct the fundamental lack of capital in the system.

One could argue that cash for an equity stake is really just a loan with equity collateral. The trouble is that the equity owners have a tendency to want to run the show, and that’s the flaw of any nationally owned company. Government does not have the requisite skill to run the show, but will surely try to do it anyway.

It needs to be a clean loan, collateralized by a creditor’s right to be paid by a bankruptcy court.

Alas, nobody in government listens to me as they should!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Medvedev: Why I Did It

In the Financial Times of 27 Aug 08, Russian President Medvedev explains why “he” (actually Putin, the power behind the throne, as we know), invaded Georgia, pried loose the two territories of South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, then, alone among leaders in the world, recognized them as independent states.

He says that the people of those two regions freely expressed their desire for independence from Georgia in the past, although that hardly justifies an invasion.

The Russian Federation, he explains, "is a harmonious coexistence of many dozens of nations and nationalities, not all of which have their own statehood." “After the collapse of communism, Russia reconciled itself to the loss of 14 former Soviet republics, which became states in their own right, even though some 25 million Russians were left stranded in countries no longer their own.”

But were they ever “their own” if they were republics in the Soviet Union? It is a little slippery to speak in one breath of “republics” (constitutional governments) and of “countries” (not defined), and of “nations” (not defined), and to suggest that their "federation" with the Soviets was ever voluntary.

“Georgia “stripped” the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia of their autonomy,” he says. But isn’t that just another way of saying they were no longer part of the Soviet Union? Medvedev implies that these were formerly autonomous countries under the Soviets, although the extent of their autonomy during those times is suspect. Was Hungary "autonomous" in 1956?

However, it is true that in repossessing these regions from Soviets after 1989, the Georgians have acted with a heavy hand, treating the ethnic Russians as second class citizens, outlawing their language, cultural traditions, schools, etc. (exactly as the Soviets had treated the Georgians for 70 years).

Finally, says Medvedev, the newly independent Georgia “inflicted a vicious war on its minority nations.” Russian peacekeepers tried to keep things calm, he says, but Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili “made no secret of his intention to squash the Ossetians and Abkhazians.” ("Squash"?) Finally on August 7, Saakashvili invaded south Ossetia. “Only a madman could have taken such a gamble,” says Medvedev.

“Russia had no option but to crush the attack to save lives. This was not a war of our choice,” he says. “We have no designs on Georgian territory.”

(Click to enlarge this ethnic map).

Then he claims that “The presidents of the two republics appealed to Russia to recognize their independence.” There is no evidence of that beyond his word. And how is it that these territories are once again “republics” in his mind, since he said earlier that they had been “stripped” of their autonomy by the Georgians? And anyway, what sort of political standing does the leader of a province of Georgia have to request a foreign country to recognize its independence?

If the governor of Louisiana, for example, appealed to France to “recognize” its independence from the U.S., would that have any force in international law?

But “based on [unspecified] documents of international law,” he says, Medvedev reluctantly (he would have us believe) agreed to recognize the two regions’ independence from Georgia.

In justification, he notes that just a few years ago, “ignoring Russia’s warnings, western countries rushed to recognize Kosovo’s illegal declaration of independence from Serbia.” Is it tit for tat then? Medvedev conveniently overlooks the fact that the Kosovar Albanians were being slaughtered by the Serbs.

Today, the Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com/2008/0829/p08s01-comv.html) reports that according to Medvedev, the Georgians were slaughtering ethnic Russians in an equivalent genocide. But there is simply no evidence of that.

It seems pretty obvious that the real reasons for the invasion and re-annexation of these two regions to Russia were 1. Longtime personal enmity between Putin and Shaakashvili (if you don’t think that’s a good enough reason to invade, look at the US in Iraq), 2. Russia’s desire to control the oil and gas resources in the breakaway regions, especially the pipelines to Europe, and 3. Petulant retaliation for the expansion of NATO and the installation of anti-missile sites in Poland.

What perplexes me is why Medvedev felt he must weave an elaborate story that pretends to some high moral ground, when the motivation for the Russian action was plain thuggery. Why couldn’t Medvedev just say, “We wanted those regions; we had the power to take them, so we did.” And he could add, “Neener, neener!” if he wanted to.

Who is fooled by his transparent self-justification?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Was Hillary Right?

I am surprised to see recent polls showing McCain and Obama going into their conventions virtually tied among the voting public (NY Times.com 8/20, Fox News.com 8/21). How can that be possible? When I see the candidates on the evening news, I see one man as the picture of Enlightenment clear thinking, rationality, sincerity, and compassion; the other a grotesque self-caricature sputtering empty slogans.

McCain yesterday vowed that he would bring the troops home from Iraq “with honor and victory,” while, he said, Obama prefers forfeiture. Does McCain think the war is an Olympic event? What is “victory?” Didn’t we achieve victory 24 hours after invading the country in 2003? What is forfeiture? Returning a sovereign country to its rightful owners? I cannot fathom how his mind works when he talks like that.

Voters polled said McCain was more prepared to be commander in chief. But why? Haven’t they read his Foreign Affairs article? (http://political-innocence.blogspot.com/2007/11/mccain-on-foreign-affairs.html). It is frightening. Wouldn’t we rather have a pro-peace president?

Of course voters have not read McCain’s Foreign Affairs article, or much of anything else either, and that’s the problem. Obama may be too far out in front of the crowd to be a natural leader. You can’t lead from a mountaintop; only from five paces ahead. And maybe Hillary was that leader. Maybe I was wrong about her. I have a long history of being a contrary indicator.

The Demo convention will be a tragedy if the pro-Clinton forces and the roll call vote turn into an anti-Obama self-indulgence. I think “Barry” (as Maureen Dowd calls him) could overcome such a fiasco and go on to win in November because the choice is so stark that I do not believe many voters will change sides. This is rural vs urban, educated vs uneducated, and that’s not going to change. But it could hurt turnout, which Obama must have oceans of.

It may be that Hillary was right insisting that she was the “electable” candidate. Looking back at the primaries now, where she won big, she may have been right.

I still believe Obama would be a president of a higher order, like this country has not seen in two or three generations; while another self-obsessed Clinton White House would be excruciating and dangerous for America. But the first step in the recipe for making rabbit stew is 1: Catch a rabbit.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Obama Gets Oily

According to the Los Angeles Times, (http://www.latimes.com/news/ politics/la-na-campaign5-2008aug05, 0,4069072.story), Barack Obama said today that the nation should draw down its strategic oil reserves to lower the price of gasoline, and that he has also recently agreed that some offshore drilling might be acceptable.

He will surely get the flip-flop badge of the week.

Historically, every time the strategic oil reserves have been tapped, gasoline prices have dropped soon thereafter. Voters want lower gasoline prices, so it would seem to be an easy, cheap palliative gesture, with the added virtues that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been calling for such a move, and President Bush is against it. Points are scored all around.

But releasing strategic oil is not an energy strategy, only a symbolic gesture. Gasoline prices are falling anyway. A little more relief would be welcome, but the oil-reserves effect would be a blip, and do nothing for the strategic problem. The same can be said for “drilling on the beaches.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle (http://www.sfgate.com/ cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/ 2008/07/22/MN6M11SN60.DTL) there might be 11 years worth of oil on the US continental shelf, based on federal government estimates, 12% of it off the coast of California, the rest in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. But since offshore drilling has been banned since 1982, in memory of the horrible oil spill at Santa Barbara in 1969, the estimates are not solid.

The compromise energy proposal released by the "Gang of 10" senators just before the summer recess would allow drilling off Virginia and other areas of the southeast (with states' permission), and provide substantial funding for alternative energy and conservation. Obama favors this proposal.

It is widely acknowledged by everyone, even drill nuts and oil companies, that opening the shorelines to drilling could not possibly have any effect on gasoline prices before 2030. To call for offshore drilling “to lower prices at the pump,” during an election campaign, is nothing but poll-driven pandering. So what is Obama up to?

I think he is up to poll-driven pandering. I hate to see him do it. If he really was determined that America “break its addiction to oil,” as he says on his web site, he would be content to leave the price of gasoline high and instead, emphasize a rehabilitation plan. But American voters are not strategic. They are “all me, right now.”

The good news is that Obama is getting some political experience. My greatest doubt about him is whether he actually realizes that not everyone is rational. In fact, most people are not. It is futile, actually counterproductive, possibly dangerous, to confront irrationality with reason. Most people react on the basis of emotion, habit, tradition, and superstition. Obama’s recent policy shift is a sign that if he did not know that before, he is learning it now.

I have the same doubts about him in the foreign policy arena, when he sometimes talks as if he thinks he can sit down and work out international differences over a cup of coffee. Does he really not understand that there are people who cannot be spoken to? I worry that he suffers from the delusion that most people will respect evidence and reason. That would make for a disastrous presidency.

Obama’s campaign may be stalled. He still trails the Democratic Party in the polls by double digits, which means he is not really seen as the leader of the Democratic party. And the reason, I think, is that voters keep him at emotional arm’s length. Sure, he is likeable and smart, that is obvious. But only when he responds to popular concerns with political gestures that directly acknowledge and meet those concerns, voters can believe, “he gets it.”

Obama's new policy tack is not even about oil. It has nothing to do with gasoline prices. It’s about demonstrating, showing, not just saying, “I feel your pain.”

Obama needs to do more of that. He needs to show that he is not a Promethean god who would bestow wisdom, but a normal man who sometimes acts from fear, pride, pain, anxiety, and other irrational motives, “like me.”

Look how far irrational reactivity got George W. Bush. Irrationality often leads to heartbreak, of course, but Obama needs to let just a little of it leak out in a controlled way. His recent shifts in energy policy, superficial though they are, may be just the prescription.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Is John McCain the New Bob Dole?

I remember watching the 1996 Republican primaries with intense interest. Bob Dole was the leading contender for the nomination, but then the fundamentalist preacher Pat Buchanan won unexpected early victories in New Hampshire, Louisiana, and Alaska. Even though he was an extremist, transparent demagogue, one should never underestimate the gullibility of the American voter, so I was worried. I thought he was dangerous. It seemed possible that he could withstand the charm and charisma of Bill Clinton.

I was enormously relieved when Dole locked the nomination by winning every primary after North Dakota. I knew Clinton would easily beat Dole. Why? Three impressions brought me to that conclusion. First, Dole (and his party) were fixated on the past. They wanted to rediscover the Reagan era and they talked endlessly about supply-side economics and reactionary social values. But the country was looking for a change. That was obvious.

Second was the personal factor. Dole was much older than Clinton, and pale and frail-looking. He had zero charisma and was not a compelling speaker. He was slow moving and slow talking, with stiff gestures and awkward head movements. He looked like he would never live to serve out a full term. Despite his admirable record of government service, he did not seem convincingly “presidential.”

Finally, Dole seemed to be a default choice, the one guy the power brokers could agree on. There were more interesting candidates the Republicans could have promoted, including Colin Powell, Lamar Alexander, and others, but none of them could support a consensus, so Dole was the last man standing. Like any choice made to please a committee, he did not have many particularly strong features.

I saw McCain giving a speech on TV recently and he looked tired, old, frail, jerky, and distracted. He seemed to have trouble stringing his sentences together. He was talking about the banking crisis but didn't seem to understand the words he was saying. The gist of most of his political statements is about conserving the present and avoiding anything new. How did McCain get the nomination? Basically by being the anodyne choice of a fractionated party. My immediate thought was, “McCain is the next Bob Dole.”

If true, we should expect Obama to trounce McCain in November. Clinton beat Dole by over 8 million votes, or 8.5%, the record so far in presidential elections for a margin of victory. Obama has the race issue, but that works both ways and may net out neutral. So notwithstanding that Democrats are exceptionally creative at clutching defeat from the jaws of victory, I don’t think this one is going to be close.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Is the Fed Political?

The Fed is supposed to be independent of the political process, but in reality that is probably not possible, given that its head is a political appointee. The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke, was appointed by George W. Bush in 2006. You don’t appoint someone who is not on your team.

At this week’s FOMC meeting, the fed had to decide whether inflation was getting strong enough to justify an interest rate hike, or whether such a hike would depress the domestic economy too much. They decided to talk tough but actually do nothing.

By failing to raise rates, Bernanke allows inflation to creep up, saying (in deed, not in words), “we are not worried about it.” That means he doesn’t care if the weak dollar gets even weaker, eaten away by inflation. But since oil is priced internationally in dollars, failure to make a rate hike, even a small one, raises the price of oil. And that’s exactly what happened. It is up as much as $4 a barrel today to around $138.

The justification I have read for the Fed’s decision is that “core” inflation (exclusive of energy and food) is relatively manageable. Of course that begs the question of what planet FOMC members live on where energy and food “don’t count.”

But I think there was a more sinister motive at work, related to the fact that Bernanke is on the Bush team. To raise rates, even a quarter percent, would likely have prolonged the housing crisis. It would have raised mortgage rates and reduced the number of buyers, stifling any nascent recovery in the housing market.

The housing market is a huge domestic political issue. If housing does not recover by November, the Republicans are toast for sure. Inability to sell a house is not an abstract economic issue. It could mean that you are paying two mortgages, or it could mean you have to turn down a job that involves a relocation. If your mortgage is higher than what your house is worth, you can only pray for recovery of the housing market before you are forced into foreclosure. Big corporations like the new home builders are also feeling the pain. Lennar today posted large quarterly losses.

High gas prices hurt voters too, especially the less well-off who pay a higher percentage of their income on fuel. One of my students says she pays $130 to fill up her SUV and does that three times a week. That is a serious dent in anybody's budget. (Naturally I want to yell at her: “What are you doing with a stupid SUV?” But that’s like saying to a child who is in a fix, “You should have thought of that earlier!” Not helpful.).

But who is to blame for high gas prices? Why, it’s those pesky Arabs! And slithering speculators. And don’t forget those greasy oil companies!

Obviously then, for Bernanke, if he lets the dollar decline further, oil prices go up further, but it’s not his fault! It’s not the government’s fault. It’s not the Republicans’ fault. It’s somebody else’s fault. Easy choice to make.

But if he had raised rates, even a tiny bit, there would have been an effect on the housing market, probably negligible and short term, but the housing crisis then could clearly be pinned on him. Unacceptable choice. Because that means the housing crisis is the fault of the government and that would have repercussions at the ballot box in November. So Bernanke chose the course that least harms his political party.

Paradoxically, even if his choice was politically motivated, it will have a counterproductive effect. At some point of pain, which we are fast approaching, voters will realize that Republicans have no energy policy (other than to drill for oil on beaches and in national parks). That will kill them in November.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Oil and Tax

The high price of gas has politicians in a tizzy, perhaps more so than ordinary consumers. Sure, the recent price increases are unpleasant, but I haven’t seen riots in the street because of it. Instead, we hear about the demise of the Hummer, not a bad thing. High oil prices also hurt in indirect ways, such as higher fertilizer and freight costs and pricier airline tickets, but again, it seems like the economy is absorbing the shock so far. We should consider that the price of gas is double, over $8 a gallon in Europe. That seems to be the point at which people, or at least truckers, riot in the streets.

Although it hurts my wallet, I am hopeful that the high price of fuel will continue and eventually strain the economy severely enough that the government is forced to develop a rational energy policy.

The recent Democratically sponsored bill to increase taxes on US oil companies failed to reach the senate floor when it was blocked by Republicans. The bill would have eliminated $17 billion in tax breaks for oil companies who are reporting historically high profits in the trillions of dollars. It seems reasonable on the face of it that they could afford to pay the true costs of production.

The bill also threatened further tax punishment if the oil companies did not invest in new energy sources soon. That provision seems less obvious, as we know that honey works better than vinegar, but again, given that companies are awash in money right now, it could possibly work.

However, if I were a senator, even a Democratic senator, I think I would have voted with the Republicans on this one. The bill was a simple-minded, short term, knee-jerk response to perceived voter unhappiness over gasoline costs, even though it is psychologically satisfying to vilify those fat-cat oil companies. It also wouldn’t hurt in the fall elections to say “we did something for you,” (or tried to, at least).

The proposed senate legislation did nothing to address fundamental issues, such as inadequate refining capacity, unwillingness to pressure the auto industry to raise fuel economy standards, fund alternative energy sources, develop a nationwide plan for oil conservation, and so on. How about a tax on plastic and synthetic fibers?

Closing tax loopholes for the oil companies is a good idea in principle, but it needs to be part of a comprehensive energy policy. For example, would the revenue from the oil company tax go to fund clean coal technology or public transportation? No such ideas were mooted. And on the down side, taxing oil companies right now might inhibit construction of new refining capacity and at the margins, diminish exploration and production among the smaller, hi-tech companies, leading to higher gasoline prices.

Of course oil companies are among the largest political donors in the country, especially on the Republican side, so corruption no doubt played a role in the vote’s outcome. Still, I think the Republicans were on the right side of this vote in terms of long term strategy. The senate bill seemed more of a political stunt than a well though-out solution to basic problems. The price at the gas pump is only a symptom of a much larger energy problem.

I wonder, though, if I could have voted with the Republicans on this one, if I were a Democratic senator. Would it be career-limiting? Would Harry Reid send over someone to break my legs? I wonder how it works when your own party promotes a hare-brained scheme.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Surrender?

Recently I saw on television John McCain give a campaign speech referring to the Democratic candidates’ plan to pull US troops out of Iraq as quickly as feasible.

To this, McCain vowed, “I will never surrender in Iraq!” As the crowd cheered and applauded, he yelled full-throat, “I will never surrender!”

But what does he mean? We invade and occupy someone else’s country then vow to never surrender it? Does that mean McCain intends to keep Iraq as a permanent U.S. possession?

To surrender is to give up possession of some thing or some power to someone else who asserts a claim to it; to relinquish control. McCain vows he will never do that.

Does McCain propose to occupy Iraq forever? He has already stated that he is prepared for the U.S. to stay there 100 years. Maybe he has now extended his thinking to forever.

What’s even more frightening and bizarre than McCain himself is the roaring crowd apparently agreeing with him. What could they possibly be thinking?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Arugula-Eater?

New York Times columnist Frank Rich humorously reported Senator Clinton’s characterization of Barack Obama as an “elite and condescending arugula eater.”

Relatively uneducated white voters in the lower economic classes do not see their values reflected in Obama. Somehow, they see themselves to a greater degree in Clinton. Why?

Senator Clinton is well-educated, and no voter paying attention to the primaries thinks otherwise. She is obviously not a member of the blue collar, working class. The policy differences between the two candidates is negligible. If gender were the issue, it would work against Clinton. So why is she a better mirror than Obama? Hmmm…

In West Virginia, 20 percent of respondents said that race was a factor in their decision and those voters, by overwhelming number, backed Mrs. Clinton.

“Downscale” white voters (as the pundits call those with little formal education and few financial assets) are afraid, or at least suspicious of Obama, because of what his color suggests about non-mainstream ethnic, religious, political and cultural values. His “funny” name reinforces the idea that he is “not one of us.” Some of these voters have said as much to pollsters.

Obama’s color is taken by these voters as a pointer to alien social and cultural values. The Reverend Wright episode reinforces that view for them. We can’t elect somebody we don’t even know! What if he sold the Louisiana Purchase back to France?

Consider also that 80% of black voters now support Obama. You might expect black voters to divide between the candidates much as white voters do. Even allowing that median incomes and educational levels may be lower for black voters, you would have a hard time explaining 80% favoritism on the basis of demographics.

It’s racism, just as it is for the downscale whites, but for black voters brown skin is a symbol for brotherhood and shared values. Both groups make the error of taking skin color as an index to who the person is. Blacks especially, should know better.

When downscale whites tell pollsters they are “uncomfortable” with Obama, they are expressing their true feelings based on their limited experience. I don’t think they are hate-mongers, just uninformed people with narrow life experience and limited conceptual skill. You wouldn’t blame an elephant for being an elephant and it’s hard to blame these people for their racism. (I know that sounds like I eat arugula).

Can Obama do anything to persuade these voters, who have so far preferred Clinton? I don’t think it is effective to dramatize the “plain folks” stereotype as Clinton so insincerely has. She probably believes that worked for her, but it is her white skin that worked.

The Bubba voter does not want to see Obama bowl again or watch him throw back a shot of Jim Beam. They might take notice if Obama revealed his values and the reasons for them. Voters want him to say, in plain terms, not vapid abstractions, what he really believes and why he believes it, about educational priorities, farm subsidies, military readiness, industry regulation, gun control, social security, taxation, carbon capture, the electricity infrastructure, government corruption by big money, oil dependency, the “war” on drugs, immigration, and so on. They do not want platitudes and policy statements, but the personal thought processes that brought the man to those beliefs. Actually, I would like that too.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Is Obama Like Me?

On Friday, major pundit and New York Times columnist David Brooks assessed the impact of Obama’s “bitterness” remark, on PBS’s The News Hour. Brooks said that the tin-eared remark was damaging because it made people step back from the candidate and wonder if he really is like the “plain folks” he is trying to appeal to in Pennsylvania, or if he is condescending to them. And, Brooks concludes, throwing in the Reverend Wright episode for good measure, when that assessment is made, the plain folks will conclude, “he is not like me.”

This is treacherous ground for Brooks, or any commentator to tread, for “not like me” is the heart of xenophobia, which is the core of racism. Racism today is no longer about hooded sheets and a noose. It is about the intellectual and emotional capacity, or lack of it, to get past one’s discomfort with the unfamiliar to understand that the other person is, in fact, “like me.”

People do differ in their socialization history and demographic status, and that does produce variations in point of view. I have no doubt that Obama is more educated, more self-aware, and more articulate than most of the Pennsylvania voters he courts. He is indeed, “different” from them in those ways and that makes his campaign a tricky business.

Obama’s political mistake was in the word “cling,” which implies a desperate helplessness and lack of dignity. That implication is indeed demeaning (even if true) and he should have retracted it. Instead, he blindly spun his use of “bitterness,” which is defensible and even could be construed as a compassionate attribution. Nobody in his camp seems to have gotten the social phenomenology of his remark right.

But why should a minor discourse error be elevated to the existential question, “Is he like me?” What is the logic that gets you from “I am offended by your remark,” to “You are alien to all people like me”? It is the logic of class difference, xenophobia, and the logic of racism.

Hilary Clinton is not at all like me in social class, education or even gender. I do not want to have a beer with her. In fact I am offended by her shameless, inauthentic pandering. But I would still vote for her on the basis of her social values and perceived competence to govern. That’s all Obama asks for himself, but the racial issue lurks just beneath the surface ready to trip him up. A smart guy like Brooks should be more aware of that particular tiger pit.

We should generously assume Brooks was speaking for the Pennsylvania rural voter, not for himself, when he concludes that Obama is "not like me." And in that assessment, Brooks might be correct. But he did not qualify his comments carefully, so missed an opportunity to raise the quality of political discourse in this country. Pity that.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Candidates Speak on the Housing Crisis

The three major presidential contenders gave speeches on the economy between March 25-27, 2008. Transcripts are at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/vote2008/ and on the candidates’ web sites.

Comparison of the three speeches illuminates the candidates, their similarities and differences.

Clinton’s View:

Clinton’s speech was all about helping families that face foreclosure on their homes because they can’t make the payments. She endorses Barney Frank’s and Chris Dodd’s proposed legislation that would have the federal government guarantee those loans. That would make the financial markets that deal in mortgage-backed securities liquid once again, putting an end to the housing-based credit crunch.

Clinton asserts (as does Frank) that the plan is self-financing, which means it would cost no taxpayer money. That’s probably a pipe dream. It assumes that most, or at least some of the homeowners would not default, so the government would not have to cover those mortgages. Of those that did default, the government would own those mortgages, but the thought is that over time the housing market would recover and the government could sell them at par, if not a profit (ignoring the time value of money).

It is a lovely fairy tale. It could happen. More likely though, most of the homeowners would default because the bottom line is, they simply cannot make the payments. That is the fundamental problem. Why would that change? Where are these families going to get the money to meet their balloons? So the government guarantee amounts essentially to a bail-out of the banks who made the loans and have to make good on the packages of them that they sold on to the financial markets.

Does it help families keep their homes? Sure it does. The government just bought their homes for them. What a deal. Lesson learned: home ownership is sacred in America. Buy a home even if you can’t afford it because the government will make the payments for you!

The Frank legislation is ultimately a giant bluff. If the financial markets believe the mortgage-backed securities are “good” again (because of the government guarantee), then the derivatives based on them are also good, so they can be valued at face and traded normally again and the credit markets can recover. Nobody loses money if everybody pretends there is no money lost!

I don’t think it will work like that and besides, it is probably too late. UBS Bank, for example, one of the firms most-exposed to these securities, has taken $40 billion in writedowns, so those mortgage backed securities, most of them derivatives, are now worthless. It would be impossible to re-value them at anything other than zero just because the government guarantees the original mortgages, because there is no audit trail from the derivatives back to the primary mortgage. So this plan will bail out the local mortgage originators but will probably not alleviate the system-wide credit crunch.

Clinton also proposes an “Emergency Working Group” to determine if this plan would even work or if some other, additional steps would be needed. It could be headed, she suggests, by Alan Greenspan, for example. Excuse me? The Alan Greenspan who as Fed Chairman presided over two massive financial bubbles and their catastrophic collapses? There must be something funny in Clinton’s Kool-Aid.

Clinton also suggests (but has not yet proposed) legislation to protect the mortgage-originating banks from lawsuits if they renegotiate the terms of mortgages they have already made. Who might sue them? The financial markets that hold the old (now worthless) versions of the mortgages. They want their money. But Clinton would allow the local banks to redo the mortgages to cut their losses. Let the Wall Street traders in mortgage backed securities suffer! (Anyway, nearly 2/3 of the subprime mortgages were not made by banks.)

Finally, for good measure, Clinton would just donate $30 billion of taxpayer money to cities and towns to do with whatever they like, from buying foreclosed housing, to building new roads, to hiring more police. That nonsequitur just looks like cynical election year vote-buying, to me.


Obama’s View:

Obama gave his speech in New York City to a room full of financial types, and was introduced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Contrast that to Clinton, who gave her speech to an audience at the University of Pennsylvania (the state where the next important primary elections are to be held). Clinton is politicking for votes. Obama is trying to address the fundamental issues. I think that difference in choice of venue alone tells us a lot about these two candidates.

No one takes the high ground like Obama. Whereas Clinton starts out with effusive praise for the Governor of Pennsylvania (who recently endorsed her) and then jumps right in to her theme song, “We’ve got trouble right here in River City!” Obama begins by considering the argument between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the proper nature of a free market economy. Hamilton favored government intervention from time to time, as when he nationalized the debt of the Revolutionary War.

And that is the main theme of Obama’s speech. He sees the origins of the current financial crisis in the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act which deregulated the banking industry and which allowed untrammeled greed to get us to where we are today. He comes within a hair’s breadth of accusing the government of abject corruption in repealing that act (and other similar actions, such as the deregulation of the telecommunications and energy industries that led to the Worldcom and Enron fiascos). I think he is absolutely right to focus on the root cause the those crises, and of this current credit crisis: rampant government corruption.

“…we've lost that sense of shared prosperity. … It's because of decisions made in boardrooms, on trading floors and in Washington. Under Republican and Democratic Administrations, we failed to guard against practices that all too often rewarded financial manipulation instead of productivity and sound business practices. We let the special interests put their thumbs on the economic scales. The result has been a distorted market that creates bubbles instead of steady, sustainable growth; a market that favors Wall Street over Main Street, but ends up hurting both.”

“… instead of establishing a 21st century regulatory framework, we simply dismantled the old one - aided by a legal but corrupt bargain in which campaign money all too often shaped policy and watered down oversight. In doing so, we encouraged a winner take all, anything goes environment that helped foster devastating dislocations in our economy.”

This kind of talk may not resonate with mythical Joe Sixpack, who probably would not understand a word of it, but the bottom line is that Joe Sixpack does not vote. Polls show that only 50% of Americans are paying any attention at all to the primary race. Government data show that only 50% of eligible voters even bother to vote in a presidential election. That means every educated vote counts double what it should, so it makes sense for Obama to speak to the people who are actually listening.

But what about a specific fix for the problem of Joe Sixpack losing his house? Obama, like Clinton, endorses the Dodd-Frank proposal to have the government guarantee the subprime mortgages that are the proximal stimulus for the credit crunch. As I noted above, it is not a bad idea in principle, but I am quite skeptical that it would actually solve the problem. Clinton’s ideas are more concrete, such as indemnification of mortgage originators who choose to renegotiate their loans. But I have to say, Obama understands the root causes, whereas Clinton gives no indication that she does.

Obama has some concrete, targeted proposals of his own though, and they tend to focus on causes. He looks upstream of the crisis. He is not about throwing money for the sake of throwing money.

For example, he would impose penalties on fraudulent lenders. He would allow a 10% tax credit on mortgage interest, which would proportionately reduce the mortgage burden more for those facing huge interest balloon payments. That’s minimally intrusive, yet elegantly precise. But first and foremost, he would revamp the regulatory framework dealing with financial markets. He gives five specific proposals for that revamp, all of them imminently sensible anti-corruption measures.

Obama ends by reminding listeners that he is still connected to the average person. He would “provide an income tax cut of up to $1000 for a working family, and eliminate income taxes altogether for any retiree making less than $50,000 per year. To make health care affordable for all Americans, we'll cut costs and provide coverage to all who need it. To put more Americans to work, we'll create millions of new Green Jobs and invest in rebuilding our nation's infrastructure. To extend opportunity, we'll invest in our schools and our teachers, and make college affordable for every American.”

The weak spot in this generally fabulous speech is that it is not at all clear how the President of the United States could clean up corruption in congress, which is where all this crooked legislation is made. The bully pulpit is a useful device, but I am doubtful that it is stronger than the lure of money and power. Still, we are voting for president here, not congress, so at least having a president who knows what he’s talking about would seem to be a plus.


McCain’s View:

McCain’s admirably short speech is simple, and simple-minded. There was a housing bubble, it burst. Tough luck, take your lumps.

Why was there a bubble? “A bubble occurs when prices are driven up too quickly, speculators move into markets, and these players begin to suspend the normal rules of risk and assume that prices can only move up.”

That’s not wrong, but it overlooks the original question: Why was there a bubble?In my opinion, there was a bubble because of unregulated, greedy, socially irresponsible financial practices, from the predatory mortgage originators right up through the highly leveraged traders in mortgaged backed derivatives. But McCain is blind to all that. In fact, he suggests that the root cause was greedy individuals trying to buy homes they could not really afford.

“Of those 80 million homeowners, only 55 million have a mortgage at all, and 51 million are doing what is necessary -- working a second job, skipping a vacation, and managing their budgets -- to make their payments on time. That leaves us with a puzzling situation: how could 4 million mortgages cause this much trouble for us all?... Homeowners should be able to understand easily the terms and obligations of a mortgage. In return, they have an obligation to provide truthful financial information and should be subject to penalty if they do not.”

That analysis is stunning in its naivety. Of course there is some truth to it, yet financial education is virtually non-existent in America. People do not know what they can and cannot afford, and lenders are in the financial, not the education business. Blaming the victim is not a very edifying way to understand the problem.

In any case, what would McCain do about the current financial crisis? Basically nothing! He says,

I will not play election year politics with the housing crisis. I will evaluate everything in terms of whether it might be harmful or helpful to our effort to deal with the crisis we face now. …I have always been committed to the principle that it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers. Government assistance to the banking system should be based solely on preventing systemic risk that would endanger the entire financial system and the economy.

He will “consider and evaluate” any proposals that come his way. That is hardly reassuring.

McCain offers a few concrete proposals of his own. One is to require an increase in the minimum down payment for getting a mortgage. That certainly would eliminate the “interest-only” loans that cause a lot of trouble, but it would do nothing about people currently facing foreclosure, and it would limit access to housing by those in the lower economic strata.

Anyway, I don’t think there is anything wrong with interest-only loans, as long as the costs and payment schedules are clear and the borrower is qualified to make the payments. The whole idea of housing equity as an off-the-books savings account is a concept that needs to be questioned. The problem with subprime mortgages is not the concept of interest only loans, but fraudulent lending practices. McCain has misidentified even the most obvious source of the problem.

More promisingly, McCain would increase capitalization requirements for financial institutions, but predictably, he would accomplish that not with actual regulation, but by “removing regulatory, accounting and tax impediments to raising capital.” Of course! More tax breaks for the wealthy! McCain would also eliminate “the Alternative Minimum Tax that the middle class was never intended to pay; [and] improve the ability of our companies to compete by reducing our corporate tax rate” No election year politics here!

How would McCain proceed with his suggested reform? Well first, he would do the obvious thing, call in the accountants! He would “convene a meeting of the nation's accounting professionals to discuss the current mark to market accounting systems.”

Then he would “convene a meeting of the nation's top mortgage lenders. Working together, they should pledge to provide maximum support and help to their cash-strapped, but credit worthy customers.”

Ah yes, a “pledge” from the predatory lenders to do better next time. That should do it!

McCain proposes no legislation and, heaven forbid, not even any new regulation on the financial systems.

McCain has said that the economy is not his strong suit, and this speech gives ample evidence of that.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama on Race

Illinois Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a speech on race in America, on March 18, 2008, in Philadelphia. The speech has been analyzed extensively in the media. It is widely available online, but in case you can’t find it, I have saved a copy at the URL at the end of this article.

News commentators predictably, witlessly, and cynically ask their pundits, “Has he put this issue behind him now?” As if the most divisive social issue in our nation’s history could be “put behind” anyone who lives here. The writers of the U.S. constitution could not “put it behind them” and had to finesse the issue of slavery, granting the states twenty years to come up with a solution. They didn't and the civil war broke out. Slavery was finally outlawed but not racism, which continued. The civil rights act of 1964 outlawed overt manifestations of racism, but of course, not racist attitudes, which persist to this day.

The analysts and pundits are ostensibly talking about Obama’s minister, Jeremiah Wright, who has a history of making flamboyant remarks from the pulpit, critical of American government and American white society for (in his view) deliberately and systematically oppressing the black populace, historically and even now. Many of his assertions are plainly demagogic and deliberately hyperbolic, and some are just ignorant, such as his claim that AIDS is promulgated by the government to decimate the black population.

What are the implications?
• Are we supposed to think that Obama believes the government is deliberately spreading AIDS?
• Are we to understand that Obama believes all white people are racist?
• Are we to suppose that Obama believes the 9-11 attacks were self-inflicted?
• Does Obama’s membership in the church imply that he is a racist?
• Does Obama’s friendship with the reverend prove that Obama hates America?

These are ludicrous suggestions, so ludicrous that no one would dare speak them. Instead they remain unspoken innuendo. Ridiculous though they are, they persist for two reasons:

1. The news media are racist and love racism. They highlight it as luridly as possible whenever they can. Why? Because we live in a capitalist society. The job of the news media is primarily to sell advertising and only incidentally to be informative. Since separating people from their money is best done with emotion, not rationality, and since racism incites emotion, it follows as night follows day that the media prefer to display, not analyze racism.

2. Racism is endemic in the society. Not overt KKK terrorism, but the subtle fears and doubts we all have about anyone who is different. Alas, skin color is the scarlet letter of ethnicity. You see it coming and you react before you have a chance to discover the person. Not everyone has the mental skill to analyze that reaction, to break through the egocentric bubble that insulates us from anything that is not a mirror-image.

Obama, more than most people, certainly more than Hilary Clinton, has shown himself in public. He is giving us the opportunity to look behind the outer shell. But many people only see shells. So despite one of the most eloquent speeches ever given about race in America, many people still react only, or mainly, to skin color.

Will Obama’s speech change any minds about him? Not among those who lack the capacity for self-reflection. Racism (as with any form of xenophobia) is irrational, so by definition, no rational argument exists that can change it. But I personally have talked to two people who have changed their affiliation from Clinton to Obama because of that speech. Both individuals were impressed by its honesty and thoughtfulness. “Nobody could make that stuff up,” said one. “Even if you wanted to BS about race, you couldn’t think of those things to say.”

With this speech, Obama has revealed himself more than he ever has. I admire him for it. But to be honest myself, I wonder if it was politic. Up to now he had been pretending that he had no color and that we were color blind. Of course that couldn’t last. But he has such charm, intelligence, self-confidence, and oratorical gifts, I wonder if he couldn’t have bluffed his way past the color question. Because now that it has been articulated, we confront naked racism, not the malicious “I’m gonna git you” kind, but the instinctive fear of an image that takes a moment to recognize as oneself.

Obama's speech:
http://members.bainbridge.net/~bill.adams/Race%20in%20America.htm.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Nader a Pusher, not a Spoiler This Time

Perennial third-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader has thrown his hat into the ring again. Running on the Green Party ticket, he will try to establish or re-ignite campaign organizations in all 50 states by the November elections. I think there is doubt whether he can actually make the ballot in all states. It is also doubtful that he will be admitted to any presidential debates. But he gives the punditocracy something else to talk about so he might find a national voice.

In 2004 Nader won about 3% of the popular vote, more than the margin by which Gore lost to Bush. Without his candidacy, we would probably not be in Iraq today. Many Democrats understandably resent Nader’s participation and accuse him of indulging a monumental ego at the expense of the country’s well-being.

Nader disputes that, and after watching the biographical documentary on him, “An Unreasonable Man,” I can see why. He says, first, it is his absolute right to run for president. No one can disparage his candidacy without being anti-democratic themselves. True enough.

Then he asks, why was the vote so close anyway in 2004? If the Democrats are so superior to the Republicans, why didn’t they win by a landslide? The answer he implies, is that there is not much difference between the two parties because they are both ideologically bankrupt.

Of course it is his right to run for president, but if he was not aware of his spoiler role in 2004, it demonstrates incredible political naivety. If he was aware of being a spoiler but didn’t care, then his selfishness is unbounded. It is impossible that a person as thoughtful and well-educated as Nader could not discriminate between the ideologies of Democrats and Republicans, and unbelievable, given his biography, that he would have no preference if he did.

So his rebuttals of the standard arguments against him are unconvincing. The idea that he was innocently exercising his democratic freedom in 2004, with no responsibility for the outcome, is disingenuous, if not overtly dishonest. If you take Nader's rebuttal at face value, you are forced to conclude he is either incredibly stupid or blinded by his own reflection in the mirror. And he is not stupid.

In 2004, where he inspired some young people to get involved in politics to support Green issues and to express disgust at political sleaze, the zeitgeist has changed. Young people are already engaged this time, and the stench of sleaze emanates almost exclusively from one side of the aisle. So Nader’s opportunity to be a spoiler is not manifest.

Still, Democrats might welcome his participation for two reasons. First, his candidacy might provoke Michael Bloomberg to enter the race as an indie, as Huckabee’s survival proves that McCain is not a unanimous choice. And if Bloomberg gets in, that surely would split the Republicans and guarantee a Democratic victory. I think Bloomberg is too smart to do it, but if McCain stumbles, Huckabee will not be able to hold the party together and Bloomberg might jump. So Nader might act as a stimulus to a Republican party implosion.

More likely, Nader’s presence might push the Democratic candidate, whether Obama or Clinton, to actually say something substantive, about taxation, energy policy, farm subsidies, trade tariffs, social security, military readiness, insurance laws, tort reform, deficit spending, nuclear proliferation, carbon containment, and so many other issues that need to be discussed. If he can be an intellectual pusher, provoking the Democratic candidate to address some substantive issues, we’d all be better off. Nader would not be much of a spoiler, and Democrats would win on a stronger platform.

I know perfectly well that candidates don’t talk about the issues because the issues put the voters to sleep. Slogans and sentiment, the big “Double-S” is what wins elections. It’s too bad, but that’s the price of maintaining the mythos of government by the people. I don’t think Nader understands that. He seems to believe in a rational world, failing to realize that his own reputation is founded as much as anyone’s on the big Double-S. He is not likely to get over himself so maybe Democrats can show some courage by engaging him rather than just dismissing him as a nut case.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Do Conservatives Have a Conscience?


New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman apparently intended to write a counterpoint to Barry Goldwater’s influential 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative. Krugman's retort, The Conscience of a Liberal, was loaned to me, with endorsement, by a colleague. I generally find such political essays not worth the time, and this one is no exception.

Krugman only mentions Goldwater tangentially, and while he does address some of the same topics Goldwater did, such as taxation, labor unions, and international trade, he does not go head to head with the fundamental principles of conservatism espoused by the Arizona Senator and does not deal at all with non-economic issues such as nuclear testing. So this is not, as the title implies, an answer to Goldwater-inspired conservative principles. Pity that.

What is this book about then? Krugman states that his intention is to demonstrate that conservative ideology inherently makes for bad economics. But he does not make that case, nor even seriously address it. Instead, he is concerned to set forth some values of political and economic liberalism, hoping perhaps that these will stand in contrast to implied but unstated complementary conservative principles. Even if he had done that well, the book would provide useful service. But there is nothing so systematic presented here.

Instead, we are treated to a superficial survey of the last 100 years of political and economic history, the Krugman’s-eye-view, which gives him opportunity to opinionate on selected features of that terrain.

Many of his descriptions seem accurate and germane, such as the great Southern shift from Democratic to Republican persuasion in the 1960’s. That shift has been an important fact of political life ever since. Why did it happen? Racism, says Krugman. When Kennedy sent the national guard to integrate the schools and Johnson championed the Civil Rights Act, the south was aggressively humiliated by the north for the second time in a hundred years. The Democrats made their point, but it sealed their political fate in the south. Only recently, with the relative success of Barack Obama’s campaign in southern states, is the petulant southern rejection of the Democratic party of a half-century ago showing signs of softening.

Krugman tells a good story. It might even be true. One suspects other factors, such as superior economic growth in the north might have played an equally important role in the Southern shift.

Krugman writes at length about taxation, as you would expect of an economist. His main thesis is that the anti-tax obsession of the conservatives is actually nothing but greed dressed up as compassion. He documents pretty well that it has always been the rich who have pushed for lower taxes, not the working and middle classes. He shows that conservatives favor regressive taxation, such as flat taxes and sales taxes and special tax reductions that benefit only the rich, such as for the estate tax and capital gains tax. Liberals, on the other hand, favor progressive taxation, like the income tax, which redistributes wealth from the high end to the low. This is an important difference in ideology, and Krugman documents it adequately.

However, he is less clear in explaining why this difference in attitude has persisted from the time of the great railroad and steel barons, right up to today. He does note that taxation rates during and after the New Deal were 75% to 95% in the highest brackets, and that these punitive rates essentially wiped out the fortunes of many old wealthy families and transferred much of that wealth to the working and middle classes, erasing the extremes of economic inequality that had developed in the Gilded Age. But he passes no value judgment on that move. Was that a good thing to do? Liberals (speaking for myself) see wealth redistribution as a moral principle, and this book has “conscience” in its title. But Krugman seems loathe to make a moral point here. In fact he seems to uncritically admire the Roosevelt administration’s policies (as many Democrats do), not commenting on the real human meaning of a 95% tax bracket.

Today, he avers, conservatives are still trying to roll back the New Deal, not realizing apparently that the battle has been won. Today’s top tax rates are among the lowest in the world. But any tax is too much tax for the rich, explaining conservatives’ obsession with lowering taxes and their neverending attempts to undo other aspects the New Deal, such as social security, medicare, and labor unionization. Why do rich conservatives hate these policies so much? Greed, pure and simple, says Krugman. Worse, they have been relatively successful in their efforts, so today we have dimensions of economic inequality not been seen since before the New Deal.

How have the conservatives managed to pull this off? By duping the ignorant electorate, he says. You can’t just come out and say, “We rich people want even more of your money, less taxation, and we don’t care about the rest of you.” That would never sell. Instead, they trick voters with clever language, making it seem like conservatives stand for some high-minded principles, not selfish greed. They use “dog-whistle” messages, he says, which are like sounds that only dogs can hear. Conservatives use special code phrases that only other conservatives understand, bypassing most of the electorate.

It’s a cute idea but he doesn’t give concrete examples. I can think of some. “The American people know better how to spend their own paycheck than the federal government does!” That is a common conservative reason for cutting taxes. It sounds good to the uninformed, but of course doesn’t address the consequences of cutting taxes, such as overcrowded schools, disintegrating roads and bridges, reduced police funding, closed libraries, restricted hospitals, poor veterans’ services. It’s an example of a dog-whistle communication that goes right past the ordinary voter but is heard by other conservatives.

So it turns out that conservatives are basically selfish, greedy, racists. That explains a lot! Who knew?

But wait, there’s more. Conservatives are also unenlightened about morals. They resent the sexual revolution brought on by the invention of the oral contraceptive in the 1960’s. That gave women control over their own reproductive destiny, a fact deeply resented by misogynist male conservatives. The conservative “family values” emphasis is designed to stop social erosion of male hegemony and turn back the clock to the absolutist middle ages. Just as I always thought!

All this is fun for a liberal reader, but who is it going to convince? I am only slightly exaggerating Krugman’s arguments here, putting a few words in his mouth. He himself is skilled and circumspect in his writing and this book is not a sophomoric flame. Nevertheless, his subterranean messages are clear and they are primitive and not very convincing. I think he is not wrong, but since he does not make his case with evidence and reason, I do not accept his arguments.

Personally, I think the rise in conservative politics in recent years has been a good thing for the country, painful though it has been for me and many others to endure. It represents the genuine democratization of politics, the enfranchisement of those people whose voices were squelched in the New Deal and during the Democratic Reign after World War II. If it is going to be a two-party system, we need to have two parties. Even the most naïve, uneducated, misinformed citizen has a right to vote their small-minded, mean-spirited, greedy, repressed, misogynous, racist biases into political and economic policy. That is the beauty of our system. One person, one vote.

If the educated elites suppress the voices of the ignorant, that makes life easier for a while, but eventually the mobs will come for you in the night with pitchforks and torches. It is infinitely better to let them speak, win when they can, and just absorb the pain. In the long run, assuming you believe in basic human rationality, good sense will prevail. I think that’s what’s happening in the current political cycle. As the Hegelian geist moves forward, circumstances change, people realize what is really in their own best interests, and they abandon conservatism.

Unfortunately, new, tabula-rasa babies are born at a far greater rate than the educational system can handle, so there is never going to be a shortage of conservatives. We must try to stay ahead of the educational curve, and there, I think communication technology is on our side, although this particular book helps only slightly.

References:
Goldwater, B. (1960/2007). The Conscience of a Conservative. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Krugman, P. (2007). The Conscience of a Liberal. New York: W.W. Norton.