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Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]At some point it became part of the standard Republican playbook to criticize liberals for engaging in “social engineering.” Liberals – in this telling – see humans as perfectible creatures who just need the guidance of the a centralized state with scientific-minded engineers to become better. With proper planning and direction longstanding human problems could be taken care of and humankind would exist in a socialist utopia. This view was always a caricature – indeed an appropriation of a term created to describe the early efforts at deliberate manipulation of large populations through marketing and propaganda – from the Nazis to American corporations. But Republicans co-opted this term to describe the grand government projects taken on at the apex of mid-20th century liberalism, as in our hubris we sought to “engineer” enormous changes to the benefit of all society.

This story – this narrative framework – was influential because it struck a note of truth. Mid-2oth century American liberalism saw an exceedingly confident America which believed in the nearly limitless potential of American government action. After all, America – led by its government – had defeated a seemingly unstoppable enemy, pulled the nation and world out of a Great Depression, learned how to split atoms and create enormous destructive and productive power, finally begun to deal with the legacy of slavery, begun providing generous benefits to the elderly, and even sent a man to the moon. The declarations of American liberals of this time were bold and utopian. FDR declared that America must ensure that every individual in the world must have “freedom from want,” a sort of economic right. Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty! Richard Nixon (a realist in a liberal era) declared War on Cancer, War on Crime, and War on Drugs! Today this hopefulness seems painfully naive as we learned that every massive government “war” has had massive side-effects while not, as yet, achieving its desired result.

As confidence in government declined in the 1970s, the more thoughtful critics of this liberal tendency saw its core failing as hubris. They suggested a more modest approach in which government would act more as a gardener “cultivat[ing] a growth by providing the appropriate environment” rather than as some craftsman or engineer creating society anew through government coercion and radical changes.

But the Republicans who eventually took power on the wave of disgust, disappointment, resentment, and anger at liberalism’s excesses did not adopt this epistemologically modest approach. Reagan and his ilk replaced liberals’ confidence in the good government could do with the insistence that government was just getting in the way. Their conclusion was simple: Government wasn’t the solution to these problems – it was the problem! Rather than seeing the hubris of liberals as the problem, they thought liberals simply were certain about the wrong things. Their shorthand for this moral lesson was to accuse liberals of attempting “social engineering.” The solution was to cut taxes, to prune government, and to hold out the promise of slashing it eventually (to starve the beast.)

Politics though is about creating and shaping a society that we want to live in. It is less a matter of ideology and policy positions, and more about values. Right wingers saw that the problems they had identified as resulting from liberalism’s excesses did not cease as Republicans cut taxes and regulations and pulled the government back from involvement in the economy. Blaming liberal government action for upsetting the “natural” balance, right wingers yearned to shape society themselves in order to recreate what they had lost. They branded themselves as individualists even as they promoted the tyrannical, collectivist organizations commonly called corporations. From a complex web of ideological positions taken by the Republican Party to build their political coalition came a hodge-podge of goals which (though perhaps not cohering immediately) have solidified into an agenda of right wing social engineering. The Republicans began to use government to encourage the traditional nuclear family of a man, woman and 2 and 1/2 children; to promote and encourage a christianist lifestyle and increase the role and funding of religious institutions; to encouraged a particular brand of “rugged” individualism; and to aid the rise of American corporations at home and abroad.

The logical culmination of this new big government conservatism, this right wing social engineering, was the presidency of George W. Bush, as he increased the size of government mainly by outsourcing work and responsibilities to corporations, as he began 2 wars leading to 2 massive social engineering projects in the Middle East, as he allowed and encouraged government funding of faith-based charities, and most dramatically through his Ownership Society as he sought to transform America into a nation of homeowners with 401Ks and Health Care Savings Accounts instead of Social Security and Medicare and rentals. The right wing’s social engineering agenda extended past Bush though. The main right wing health care alternative adopted in some measure by Milton Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, and John McCain seeks to transform American society to make its citizens more individualistic. This alternative begins by eliminating tax credits for employer-sponsored health insurance and the encouragement of Health Savings Accounts and the evisceration of all regulations on the insurance industry (by allowing competition across state lines where most regulations exist thus creating a “race to the bottom” as states attempt to attract the health insurance industry.) It would culminate in the elimination of Medicare and Medicaid. Many on the right have also made clear their goal remains to obstruct any liberal attempt to solve the fiscal problem they have engineered to give them the opportunity to re-write the social contract.

Looking at current Republican agenda – you see a similar hubris to what they decried as liberals’ “social engineering” – as they seek to remake the entire health care sector and the economy.

Meanwhile, it is the Democrats who had adopted an epistemologically modest approach – of tinkering with our current system to try to save it rather than to provoke a crisis to remake society, tearing apart the social bargain between citizen and government.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

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Posted in Criticism, Domestic issues, Health care, History, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 2 Comments »

The Value of a Safety Net

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Jean Edward Smith points out the obvious yet neglected truth about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s achievements:

The safety net provided by the New Deal allows time for government to move deliberately.

This is one of the extraordinary things about the legacy of FDR – that even as the nature of the state itself has changed significantly since he was president, the institutions he created still serve some – if not the same purpose – as they did back then.

Today, the safety net created by Roosevelt is an essential stabilizing factor in our society – on the order of regular elections, a civil society, a judiciary, a balance of powers. 

The initial intention of these social safety net programs was consisent with the nation-states of the day, as they competed to see who could provide a minimal standard of living for various at risks groups – such as the elderly and the poor. But today it is far more useful as a stabilizing factor allowing businesses and government officials and individuals adequate time to respond appropriately to financial crises.

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Posted in Barack Obama, Domestic issues, Economics, Financial Crisis, History, Politics, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

The Games Obama Plays

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Thesis: Obama is a systematic thinker – and given some of his clearly expressed views on the presidency – he may be setting up a situation where the other branches of government will be able to definitively limit the powers of the presidency. This is preferable to the president voluntarily renouncing powers – as it places the responsibility for checking the executive branch on the system rather than on the chief executive himself.

The Rest: In his inaugural address, Barack Obama seemed to clearly repudiate the Bush administration’s lawless approach to the War on Terror with this oft-quoted line:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

In this, and in many other instances, Obama made clear that he would restore the Rule of Law – and that he considered himself, as president, to be subject to the law. This may seem to be a fundamental and basic understanding for any chief executive in a liberal democracy, but for the last eight years, the Bush administration advanced arguments and pursued policies as if it were not subject to the law.

Every time the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration, Congress passed a law to restrain the executive branch in some way,some quasi-independent parts of the executive branch opposed him –  it was always uncertain what Bush would do – whether he would simply ignore the attempts to check his power; whether he would declare the checks unconstitutional and then ignore them; whether he would secretly ignore them and prosecute anyone who informed authorities that he was breaking the law; or whether he would attempt to force Congress to pass a legislative justification for his actions. In fact, Bush at one time of another did all three of these. Obama has made clear that he not only respects the Rule of Law but considers checks and balances on the presidency to be part of the democratic process set out by the Constitution. Obama is mindful of the chief executive’s role is in this system – and that, as Gregory Craig, White House Counsel explained:

[Obama] is also mindful as president of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency.

Combine this statement with Obama’s decisions regarding rendition, the state secrets privilege, and investigating abuses of the Bush administration – and many civil libertarians and critical observers of the Bush administration from Glenn Greenwald to Andrew Sullivan to Charlie Savage are preparing to be disappointed.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and postulate that Obama holds these three relatively uncontroversial and related positions that he has articulated on numerous occasions:

  1. He believes the president is subject to the law and is committed to upholding the Rule of Law.
  2. He believes that correct processes should be followed and that, “Each branch of government is balanced by powers in the other two coequal branches.”
  3. At the same time, he has little desire to use his political capital and energy prosecuting Bush administration officials.

Obama articulated these three sentiments in a response to a question by Sam Stein of the Huffington Post at his February 9, 2009 press conference:

My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen; but that generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.

Dahlia Lithwick, another chronicler and critic of the Bush administration’s legal abuses, interpreted Obama’s statements and actions this way:

…by keeping the worst of the Bush administration’s secrets hidden, the Obama Justice Department can defer awkward questions about prosecuting the wrongdoers. In his press conference Monday night, Obama repeated his mantra that “nobody is above the law and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, people should be prosecuted just like ordinary citizens. But generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.” The principle once again is that Obama is for prosecuting Bush administration lawbreaking only when proof of such lawbreaking bonks him on the head. All the more reason to keep it out of sight, then.

But to me, this sounds like an invitation to push him to do what is right – as FDR said to numerous audiences who came to ask him to pay attention to their issue (and here I paraphrase):

I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it

Supporting this, aside from Obama’s many statements on these matters, are the public opinions of many of those he appointed to key positions in the Justice Department, including the attorney general:

Our government authorized the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution…. We owe the American people a reckoning. [my emhpasis]

Here is where the speculation really starts though – and only time will determine if these guesses are correct. Obama, as president, does not believe it is his role to give up executive power. For one, by doing so, he is antagonizing certain elements of the executive branch that he needs to bring to his side – in the state secrets case, for example, the CIA.

Secondly, by voluntarily renouncing a power, he is in some sense affirming the inherence of this power. Bush believed he had the power to say an entire subject matter was a state secret and thus have an entire lawsuit revoked; if Obama claimed he didn’t have this power, and the Courts then ruled he didn’t, the Court would not be “checking” the president so much as deferring to the new president’s view of his own powers. However, if Obama maintains he has this power – and the Court rules that he does not – it does provide a check. If Congress passes a law restraining the president’s use of this power, it will again provide a check. Each of these scenarios provides a firmer check on presidential power than does Obama’s giving up of these powers. It places the responsibility for checking executive powers not on the President, but within the system, where it should be.

Third, Obama has a number of crises to deal with right now and realizes that there are significant elements who feel strongly about these balance-of-powers issues. What he wants then – is for those groups that are passionate about these issues to prepare the public and to force him to act on them. This way, he can preserve his political capital – and by merely responding to issues forced upon him can avoid charges of looking like he is merely out for retribution.

If this is Obama’s thinking, then we can expect him to not oppose efforts to reign in his powers too strongly – and to accept those limits once they have been legitimated by the Courts or the Congress. If this isn’t Obama’s thinking, we can still attempt to force him to act but the outcome will be less certain.

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Posted in Barack Obama, Law, Politics, The Bush Legacy, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

Krugman’s Hope: Franklin Delano Obama

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Not being an economist, I find it a lot harder to argue with Paul Krugman now that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. That makes him a certified top expect – and I am a mere amateur. And while the other Nobel prizes have made some real boners (Yassir Arafat and the Nobel Peace Prize?), the economics prize doesn’t have the same reputation. (Although the award given to Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, the inventors of the “financial weapons of mass destruction” – derivatives –  in 1997, the same year the hedge fund they had helped create went spectacularly bankrupt – seems quite the bad decision today.)

Regardless of prizes though, Krugman’s piece today makes some important counter-points I had not heard regarding the lack of efficacy of FDR’s New Deal. Certainly, my reading of history made it clear that the New Deal had not lifted America out of the Great Depression – but I had never found convincing the traditional conservative explanation that the problem was FDR’s expansion of government. After all, Hoover’s refusal to expand the government had not reigned in the Depression – and it was the massive government expansion called World War II that finally broke America out of the Depression. I’m willing to concede the conservative point that some of FDR’s government interventions may have backfired – such as interference in wages and prices – but as Krugman points out in his column, many of FDR’s reforms have lasted to this day and helped mitigate the effects of the current financial crisis – from Social Security to federal deposit insurance.

Krugman posits that FDR failed to get us out of the Depression because he did too little rather than too much. He points out that overall government spending did not increase as much as is commonly understood:

The effects of federal public works spending were largely offset by other factors, notably a large tax increase, enacted by Herbert Hoover, whose full effects weren’t felt until his successor took office. Also, expansionary policy at the federal level was undercut by spending cuts and tax increases at the state and local level.

Which leads Krugman to the conclusion that:

The economic lesson is the importance of doing enough. F.D.R. thought he was being prudent by reining in his spending plans; in reality, he was taking big risks with the economy and with his legacy. My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how much help they think the economy needs, then add 50 percent. It’s much better, in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.

Krugman has me convinced of his thesis for now. It certainly makes more sense than the alternative explanations I have heard about the New Deal and the Great Depression. But the last word – and the final prescription – should come from Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself:

It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

This is my hope for an Obama presidency – one that I saw as far back as December when I posted this quote – and one that his campaign has born out.

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Posted in Barack Obama, Economics, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

FDR’s and Obama’s Prayer

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

George Packer of the New Yorker has seen a certain heaviness about Obama recently. He explains it by citing this story:

On the night of his landslide victory over Hoover, in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt had an intimate conversation with his son James:

“You know, Jimmy,” Franklin said, “all my life I have been afraid of only one thing—fire. Tonight I think I’m afraid of something else.”

“Afraid of what, Pa?”

“I’m just afraid that I may not have the strength to do this job.” He paused reflectively. “After you leave me tonight, Jimmy, I am going to pray. I am going to pray that God will help me, that he will give me the strength and the guidance to do this job and to do it right. I hope that you will pray for me, too, Jimmy.”

But for now, a moment of triumph – a step, finally in the right direction.

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Posted in Election 2008, Obama, Politics | 4 Comments »

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