Posts Tagged ‘Tinkering’

Defending Obama’s First Year in Office

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

When the press mentions the online hordes who gathered on the tubes of the internets to push Obama to victory, they are talking about people like me. I started a blog because (along with my unhealthy compulsion to write) I decided to support Obama in 2007; I raised several thousand dollars from dozens of my friends and online contacts; I sent out emails making the case for Obama to my family; I bought a sign to place in my front yard and attended rallies in Brooklyn and Manhattan; I fought against smears in emails and in the social media (on reddit, on digg, on Stumbleupon, on Facebook, and on discussion boards); and on November 4, 2008, for the first time in my life, I walked out of the polling center proud of who I had cast my vote for.

A year on, there has been much commentary about what people like me think now – the young, the wired, the inspired. Were we were just naive and now feel fooled by Obama’s promise of “Hope, change, blah, blah, blah,” as speechwriter Jon Favreau referred to the Obama’s magic formula? Do we think that Obama sold-out to the banks and health insurance industry? Has he disappointed us with his escalation in Afghanistan? Certainly, a good portion of the left has turned against Obama with the passion of scorned lovers – as demonstrated by the histrionic pronouncements of Howard Dean (who denounced the health care bill as a “bigger bailout for the insurance industry than AIG“) and the Village Voice (which labeled the president, “George W. Obama.”)

I cannot speak for all of my fellow liberal bloggers, my fellow redditors, my fellow Obama supporters – but I, for one, am not disappointed. During the campaign, I saw Obama as – and exhorted others to support him because – he was an idealistic tinkerer. He inspired with his grand rhetoric but his policy proposals and instincts were epistemologically modest. He understood that the status quo was difficult to change, and that change brought with it its own perils. His proposals sought to pragmatically improve our society a bit at a time – creating processes that would allow for organic change rather than imposing radical top-down measures. For anyone who took the time to investigate his policy proposals, this was clear – that Obama had learned deeply the lessons of Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement – that centralized government action always had unanticipated consequences; yet at the same time, Obama had not rejected the lessons of Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton – that government could also do much good, that collective action was needed to shape our society, and that times of crisis called for, “bold, persistent experimentation.”

Obama has met my high expectations; he has governed seriously and with bipartisan substance. His Congressionalist approach has led to a string of legislative accomplishments rarely seen in Washington and a stronger record of spending cuts than George W. Bush. (Though his predecessor admittedly did not set the highest standard.) He passed a massive stimulus bill supported by policy wonks on the left and right, composed of more than a third tax cuts, but including much needed funding for education, infrastructure, and technological innovation. He pulled the nation back from the brink of a financial crisis and recession without nationalizing the banks or bailing them out yet again. He moved America back from the panicked emergency measures adopted by George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11. He salvaged some deal from Copenhagen despite the Chinese attempts to undercut America’s position. He appointed a moderate, liberal pragmatist to the Supreme Court. He has made many long-term bets in domestic and foreign policy which we have yet to see play out. And of course, there is his attempt at health care reform – combining the most significant attempt at cost control in a generation with the most significant expansion of access to medical insurance. (The two goals being surprisingly compatible as Milton Friedman acknowledged.) Though this last bill still has not had its fate decided, these are serious and substantial accomplishments that form the basis of a solid legacy. Yet Obama hasn’t been able to achieve his core promise: to overcome the Freak Show that has dominated our political discourse for a generation.

This is the one profound disappointment I have with Obama’s presidency to date. His core promise (which helped him defeat Senator Clinton) was that he would be better able to move past the rabid partisanship and petty squabbles of the Baby Boomers – that he could surmount the influence of the “idiocrats” on our political conversations, as they jumped from petty scandal to scandal, from one moment of faux outrage to another. This Freak Show that dominated our political conversation forced politicians to treat their constituents as children incapable of understanding either why their leaders might be less than perfect or that they could not both lower taxes and increase spending forever. As Obama addressed the issue of Reverend Wright in his campaign, he proved he was capable – at least for a moment – of surmounting this Freak Show mentality, treating the American people as if they were adults capable to wrestling with the difficult issues of race and religion. But since this moment, Obama has seemed unable to fully rise above this Freak Show. With the Tea Party demonstrations in August 2009 rallying against “death panels,” handouts to illegal immigrants, “government mandated abortion” and other myths that were useful in rallying the Republican base (if not in describing the bill), he seemed finally to have lost the conversation. Those with legitimate and conservative concerns, as well as those with progressive ones, were overshadowed by the inchoate anger of the hysterical.

Now that Scott Brown has replaced Ted Kennedy – and with the pundits and media figures and Republicans circling – the Freak Show has declared health care reform dead. Again. For Obama to resurrect this bill, to restore the momentum in his presidency, and prove he is capable of governing and dealing with long-term issues (rather than the political posturing which have marked the past 15 years), he will need to break the hold that the idiocrats have over our political discourse and reconnect with his grassroots supporters instead of playing the inside Washington game. While Obama spent his first year focused on governing and policy, with his State of the Union last night, Obama began to focus on the political task of getting the American people behind him as he attempts to tackle the difficult, long-term issues that have been festering for so long unaddressed by our dysfunctional politics.

We should remember one thing as Tea Party supporters jubilantly support their momentum and energy with Scott Brown’s election: 14 months is a very long time in this political age. Interpreting political movements in light of the Feiler Faster thesis, it’s not surprising that it was just 14 months ago that the Obama grass roots which seemed ascendant now seem dormant; and 14 months from the August birth of the Tea Party movement happens to be November 2010.

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The Continued Failure of Right Wing Social Engineering

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

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.

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Health Care Reform and Its Unintended Consequences

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

I said I was going to make a point of noting solid criticisms of the Obama administration by mainstream conservatives and right wingers.

Mona Charen of the National Review wrote a solid piece that didn’t resort to blatant falsehoods as far as I could tell that made a solid case against health care reform. Her basic point is that she doesn’t trust the Democrats:

Every single page [of the health care bill] proclaims something that is dubious — that the Democrats know what they are doing.

Rather than talking about death panels, she points out that electronic recordkeeping has overwhelmed doctors with information they are not used to having to sort through – and thus has made hospitals less efficient. (She cites no study, but it is certainly plausible that this would be a short term effect.) Preventive care, she explains, while probably saving lives could end up costing more – as “more and more of us are tested for more and more diseases.”

Her big point is that this health care reform is “brought to you by the same people” who brought you Medicare and Medicaid – and that the costs of these programs were vastly underestimated. As she points out:

In 1965, Congress predicted that by 1990, Medicare would be costing $12 billion. The actual cost — $90 billion.

Long term forecasts of government spending – or really anything – are a fool’s game, and Charen is right to point this out. On a macroeconomic level, there are too many factors to take into account – and that’s not even counting “black swans” that change everything. In this case, the major factor causing the government health care costs to be so off was the explosion of health care inflation in the 1980s which has only gotten worse since. But it’s not clear that Medicare or Medicaid played any role in this – especially as their costs have been below that of private insurance.

Bill Clinton made a similar point to Charen’s yesterday in trying to make the case for why the health care reform should be passed:

There is no perfect bill because there are always unintended consequences…

Yet, Clinton maintained:

The worst thing to do is nothing.

As Steven Pearlstein writing for the Washington Post described the price of doing nothing (and was later echoed by Barack Obama):

Among the range of options for health-care reform, there’s one that is sure to raise your taxes, increase your out-of-pocket medical expenses, swell the federal deficit, leave more Americans without insurance and guarantee that wages will remain stagnant.

That’s the option of doing nothing…

This is the answer Democrats give to the sensible concerns of Charen and those like her: there inherent uncertainty in any attempt to change a macroeconomic trend, but given where we are headed if we do nothing, it’s worth trying.

The only other option is to give up.

This is exactly the sort of sensible criticism that – in my opinion – conservatives should be making. However, the answer should not be to do nothing, but to “tinker” instead of instituting massive top-down changes, and to adopt the measures that work after tinkering. For the most part, this is exactly the approach the current bills take – which is a testament to the fundamental insights of the conservative movement of the past few decades. To take into account this fundamental insight while promoting a liberal agenda is in fact the essence of Obama’s approach: It’s why 40% of the stimulus was tax cuts; it’s why the key health care reform is to create a market that allows individuals to make decisions based on information that is more transparent; it’s why the answer to global warming is a cap-and-trade program that decentralizes authority and whose main mechanism is a market. That this has been Obama’s approach is what has forced the right wing opposition to him to become so unhinged.

Ten Principles of Liberalism

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Barack Obama’s incipient presidency has set off a furious debate over what his administration’s principles are. George Will described Obama’s administration on this past Sunday morning as the Third Wave of government intervention and expansion (with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society being the first two. Will, for some reason, declined to mention TR’s introduction of the regulatory state, as does almost everyone.) Right-wingers from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin have described Barack Obama as a “socialist.” Meaghan McCain and Niall Ferguson deride what they characterize as a leftist agenda. On the other hand, supporters of Barack Obama’s candidacy have criticized him for betraying his progressive vision and defending the status quo. Others have defended him against charges of socialism and suggested he stands for good old-fashioned liberalism.

At this moment in history, as capitalism seems to have failed, as American international power is at an ebb, as globalization seems destined to continue, as the threat of terrorism continues to grow – evident both in our vulnerability and in the number of our enemies, as the nation-state which derives its legitimacy from providing for the needs of its citizens seems to be evolving into a market-state which is legitimated by the opportunities it offers its citizens – at this moment in history, Barack Obama has become president. The liberalism I am attempting to describe in this post is merely a sketch – but it is a sketch of what I see to be the right approach in this world – which as I have commented before, seems to have much in common with what I identified in the summer of 2007 as the Obama approach. As liberalism tends to be pragmatic rather than theoretical, many of these principles have regained prominence most specifically in response to recent problems in the world and with the Bush administration. I am focusing here on those aspects of principles which distinguish liberalism from other political philosophies – specifically, progressivism, various leftist movements, conservatives, libertarians, and extreme right-wingers. 

Here are the 10 principles of liberalism – whose three goals are to allow individuals liberty, opportunity, and community.

  1. Doubt v. Action. These two competing impulses are at the heart of all the rest of these principles. A Hayekian doubt about the efficacy of centralized planning coupled with a Rooseveltian (TR or FDR) need to act – to conduct “bold, persistent experimentation” while acknowledging that our “grasp on the truth is always provisional.” This balance was best articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote that while “We must exercise our power,” we must be remain aware that power corrupts even ourselves. Hayek similarly explained that “we needed to think of the world more as gardeners tending a garden and less as architects trying to build some system.” Liberalism was never utopian, but today’s liberalism has been tempered by the failures of big-state liberalism – as well as the failures of anti-regulatory “free” market fetishism. Only conservatism, properly defined historically, attempts a similar balance.
  2. The Market & the Government. Contemporary liberals reject the doctrinaire distinction between the “market” and the government that animated so much of the conflict in the 20th century. The free market should not be treated as some theoretical utopian ideal or as a perpetually lost state of innocence. And the government is not some evil force which must be reduced until it is of a size that it “could be drowned in a bathtub.” Rather the government and the free market exist together – and in a capitalist republic such as ours, each is dependent on the other. The free market does not exist in a state of nature but must be created by and maintained by the society and the state which provide the values and the rules and other conditions without which a market cannot be free. In other words, a free market is a product of a just government.
  3. Empower individuals. One of the key roles of government then – in creating a free market – is to empower individuals to participate in market freely, as individuals. A market is less than free if employees can be held hostage by large corporations and health care burdens1. To empower individuals then, the government must ensure that there is sufficient technological and transportational infrastructure; the government must ensure that basic needs can be met by individuals – for example access to health care; and the government must ensure that every individual has the opportunity to get an education. At the same time, individuals must be empowered to shape and control government more directly. Liberalism in a market-state must exhibit a preference for the individual over the corporation and government and must empower individuals against bullying and coercive measures of these large institutions.
  4. Predictability & stability. Government in a market-state must be predictable and the economy and society must be stable. Neither of these is an absolute good – both are contingent goods – as without predictability and stability, economic growth is impeded and liberty is impossible. Related concepts are sustainability and resilience.
  5. Reform. (Not revolution.) Liberalism has embraced a policy of reform – presuming that the status quo is not perfect yet acknowledging that rapid change could lead to worse. Reform is the balance liberalism strikes between stability and progress. This distinguishes them from conservatives who embrace the status quo over any change (standing athwart history yelling stop!) and leftists and right-wingers who embrace revolutions of various types to overthrow the current order as fundamentally wrong. The focus on reform is informed by the balance between doubt and action. Perhaps the best understanding of what reform means for a liberal can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s advocation of the word “tinkering.”
  6. Preventing destabilizing concentrations of power and encouraging fair processes of distribution. Liberalism acknowledges that power tends to become concentrated – sometimes in particular branches of the government (for example, in the presidency in the unitary executive theory); sometimes in corporations (as they become too big to fail); sometimes in a particular class of individuals (as they control more and more wealth.) Liberalism sees that such concentrations of power are incompatible with democracy and liberty – and that while such concentrations of power will empower certain individuals – they do so at the expense of most people. While socialists and communists and other utopians believe equality must be created – liberals merely seek to prevent extreme concentrations of power in the hands of any minority. At the same time, as Confucius said, “In a country well governed poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed wealth is something to be ashamed of.” Which is why liberals must ensure that power is distributed through a fair process. Political power has been distributed by a constitutional order that needs to be tweaked now and then – and sometimes shaken up, as with the abolition of slavery. Economic power similarly is distributed in a market that sometimes is entirely unjust – as pollution imposes costs on some that are paid by others; and of course with the issue of slavery again. Government must step in to ensure that such unfair practices are not allowed. The goal is not to prevent someone like Bill Gates from having so much wealth, as his wealth is small enough to pose little threat to stability no matter what he does (almost) – it is to prevent 75% of the power from being controlled by 5% of the population – which does pose such a threat.
  7. The Rule of Law. Liberals embrace the fact that our nation was founded “as a nation of laws, not men” and that laws, while sometimes inconvenient are the foundation of our social bargain. Our leaders swear to uphold the law and to remain subject to it. That means if say, a President authorizing wiretapping in direct contravention of federal law, then he must be prosecuted.
  8. Aid to the disadvantaged. Liberals believe in the moral principle that a society and a government cannot be judged without taking into account how it deals with the disadvantaged – especially those who are disadvantaged as a result of the inevitable flaws in the system we choose to embrace. Liberals subscribe to the idea that “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
  9. First among equals. Liberals acknowledge that America has often been and remains a force for good in the world – but they believe that it detracts from this when it considers itself unrestrained by any law or treaty and unilaterally imposes its will. This creates instability and unpredictability – as well as encouraging other nations to form collectives against us and to obtain weapons of mass destruction to prevent an invasion and provoke a standoff. Instead, liberals see that America has been most effective and done the most good when it acted as “first among equals” in the community of nations. As technologicaland macro-economic forces have been rapidly decentralizing power, America remains the single most potent force in a non-polar world – but it detracts from it’s power when it acts alone and delegitimizes the trust the world has given it to act responsibly.
  10. Diversity and federalism. Liberals – embracing their fallibility as human beings, and acknowledging that their grasp of the truth is always provisional – embrace diversity and federalism. Diverse viewpoints, diverse cultural, cultural, economic, etc. backgrounds all should be welcome and protected so long as they do not attempt to impose their specific view on those not willing. This is why liberals must embrace federalism – which has traditionally been a conservative principle. Liberals seem to be embracing the idea of federalism – at least with regards to the issues of gay marriage and medical marijuana.

(more…)

  1. As Daniel Gross explained in Slate, “An affordable national health care policy, which could allow people to quit their jobs and launch businesses without worrying about the crippling costs of premiums or medical costs, might be a better spur to risk-taking than targeted small-business loans.” []

The Detroit Investment Group

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Jon Stewart pointed out against last night how non-constructive the political debate regarding the bailout of the Big Three Automakers has been:

Clearly, politicians are applying a double standard. But I think the hypocrisy is worse than Stewart suggests – because the product financial companies are supposed to be creating is profit with the risks associated thoroughly managed and quantified. Their product has proved to be far more defective than the cars produced by the Big Three, as the financial products have not just malfunctioned, but acted as a virus spreading the failures around to everyone.

Stewart previously pointed out how the first story regarding the bailout of the Big Three focused almost exclusively on the method of transportation used by the CEOs of the auto companies to get to hearing instead of any substantive issues. The real controversy has barely been discussed:

Corporations, whose primary purpose is to amass wealth by any means available for their owners (and who always manage to simultaneously amass wealth for the managers) cannot be trusted with public money. There is no public purpose to such profit-making. The public value of a corporation comes from it’s incidental activities – the means by which it is able to amass it’s profits. By bailing out General Motors, the government would be giving it’s money away for no public purpose. But the government does serve a public purpose by keeping General Motors’ factories churning out cars – by keeping people employed, by providing stability, by keeping the economy going and producing usable items.

Within that distinction lies the difference between outrageous abuse of taxpayer funds and a valid public purpose. The more difficult question is how to avoid the abuse while serving the purpose. [edited slightly from my original]

Which is why I think a bailout should be postponed – to attempt to find the least worst of all the options – rather than to cause great problems with hasty solutions. If the automakers won’t survive without an instant cash infusion though, the government needs to step in one way or another.

Michael Moore described his common sensical solution to this whole mess earlier this week:

1. Transporting Americans is and should be one of the most important functions our government must address. And because we are facing a massive economic, energy and environmental crisis, the new president and Congress must do what Franklin Roosevelt did when he was faced with a crisis (and ordered the auto industry to stop building cars and instead build tanks and planes): The Big 3 are, from this point forward, to build only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil and, more importantly to build trains, buses, subways and light rail (a corresponding public works project across the country will build the rail lines and tracks). This will not only save jobs, but create millions of new ones.

2. You could buy ALL the common shares of stock in General Motors for less than $3 billion. Why should we give GM $18 billion or $25 billion or anything? Take the money and buy the company! (You’re going to demand collateral anyway if you give them the “loan,” and because we know they will default on that loan, you’re going to own the company in the end as it is. So why wait? Just buy them out now.)

3. None of us want government officials running a car company, but there are some very smart transportation geniuses who could be hired to do this. We need a Marshall Plan to switch us off oil-dependent vehicles and get us into the 21st century.

Moore’s solution seems like what was done with the railroad industry in the 1970s – when it was taken over by the government, revamped, and then privatized again. I think Moore’s almost got it right. But not quite. Moore’s solution seems very 20th century – like India’s Five Year Plans or other centralized, government-sponsored attempts to solve large problems. Instead, I think Moore could take a lesson from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the philosopher, economist, and former hedge fund manager who has been explaining the underlying weakness of our financial markets since he made a killing in the 1987 crash. Taleb understands that if you put a bunch of geniuses in charge, you might get something great. But as he points out, the truly game-changing developments happen by accident. The computer, lasers, the internet – all of these innovations have accidentally changed the world in a way that could not be anticipated. He refers to this type of game-changing development as a Black Swan.

And a Black Swan is exactly what Michael Moore, Barack Obama, and the rest of us know we need to jump start the green energy industry. The best way to catch a Black Swan in Taleb’s parlance is to tinker.

In that spirit I propose to create a government-affiliated entity, the Detroit Investment Group (DIG).1  DIG would be a modern-day government intervention in the market that would take inspiration from the Tennessee Valley Authority (especially it’s regional focus), the Manhattan Project (it’s think tank aspect), NASA’s moon shot (in the specificity of it’s goal and it’s timeline), and the Department of Defense (in how it creates incentives for inventors to create new technologies with the promise of contracts.)

Government intervention is necessary as the marketplace has failed to invest in the long-term development of green energy. This tendency of the market to focus on short-term profits over long-term projects has certainly been revealed to be a significant flaw in our current economic structure, as, for one common example, corporate managers seek instant profits which lead to huge bonuses and leave before the long-term effects of their actions hit. Not knowing how to fix this tendency to focus exclusively on the short-term, a government agency can create incentives within the market to focus on long-term issues that are essential to our nation’s security and stability. This would be the purpose of DIG – to supplement the market rather than to impose it’s own hierarchical structure.

DIG would be given goals and rules rather than a typical bureaucratic organization. It’s goals would:

  1. To spur the creation of new green technologies and a green energy industry in America; and
  2. To rejuvenate Detroit and the surrounding areas.

To accomplish both of these goals, DIG would make Detroit the place to go for green industry – the way Silicon Valley is for computer technology. DIG would not have a specific method of encouraging green industry – but would use an infusion of cash and people to tinker and innovate and generate solutions. It would need quite a number of tools to spur this growth and innovation:

It would need the authority:

  • To offer government contracts to license green technologies or buy green products;
  • To sponsor a think tank of top experts in various fields to come up with technologies;
  • To offer prizes for creating products that meet certain benchmarks or accomplish certain ancillary goals;
  • To have input into a cap-and-trade program not managed by DIG;
  • To buy companies with worthwhile technologies or resources (including General Motors for example) and continue to operate them.

The point is – DIG would try everything. It’s task would not be to follow certain procedures, but to achieve it’s goals. It would be structured in such a way as to create market incentives and to centralize planning – on two alternate tracks – and let each influence the other. If this problem is fixable, then DIG would unleash the money and human resources to find the fix – and it would be agnostic about the ideology of it’s solution.

It is, in short,  a very Obama-esque approach to the problem.

  1. Dig.gov is not being used by any government agency at the moment. []

A Skeptic’s Case For Barack Obama

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

When Barack Obama first announced he was going to run for president I was very skeptical – both about whether he was seasoned enough or whether this was his moment. It took me six months of reading, researching, and reflecting to finally come to decide that Obama was my choice.

I doubt anyone reading this blog over the past year would consider me to be a skeptic of Obama. But I did start out as one – and despite my strong support for Obama, I still remain one. Electing anyone as president is a risk – and those of us who are skeptical, who are less than completely taken with a candidate, who can sees the flaws along with the great opportunity – can be tempted to throw up our hands in despair and suggest – as many do – that each election is merely a choice between the lesser of two evils. But by giving up our place in politics, we cede power to those whose secular or religious convictions are certain – allowing them to drag us from one extreme to another.

There are serious issues we need to deal with as a nation in the next four years, issues which have been festering for far too long untended – global warming, terrorism, islamist extremism, the challenges of globalization, the fiscal instability, our deteriorating infrastructure, growing executive power. We need a president who can focus the country on these tasks and finally set us on the right path again.

Here are the reasons why I believe Barack Obama is the leader we need to set us on that path:

  1. Ideological Agnosticism.
    Despite the recent claims of Obama’s secret Marxist tendencies, his secret socialist tendencies, his secret terrorist sympathies, and the other extreme ideologies he is imputed to secretly profess, he is in fact a pragmatist – describing himself at one point as ideologically agnostic:

    I’m a Democrat. I’m considered a progressive Democrat. But if a Republican or a Conservative or a libertarian or a free-marketer has a better idea, I am happy to steal ideas from anybody and in that sense I’m agnostic.

    You can see this in Obama’s clear appreciation for Ronald Reagan and his belief in the power of markets (as you can see in his health care proposal [PDF] and his cap-and-trade proposal to combat global warming [PDF].) You can also see it in how he was able to find common cause and team up with one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Tom Coburn, on a bill to promote transparency in earmark spending.

  2. Post-partisanship.
    It’s a buzz word that most people have a sense of but not a clear understanding of. For Obama, post-partisanship is a campaign and governing strategy that focuses on long-term challenges, especially those with technocratic answers – such as global warming, health care, the financial crisis, and infrastructure development – while striving to minimize and find common ground on divisive social issues – such as abortion, gun rights, and gay marriage. Notice that in Obama’s convention speech he does not use the standard rhetoric about abortion or guns – but instead strives to move past these issues:

    The challenges we face require tough choices. And Democrats, as well as Republicans, will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past, for part of what has been lost these past eight years can’t just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that’s what we have to restore.

    We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.

    The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.

    At the same time, Obama’s post-partisanship can be seen in his many attempts to encourage dialogue with and respect for ideological conservatives – and his reluctance to criticize the Republican party as a whole.

  3. Process Revolution.
    Lawrence Lessig, a Constitutional law professor, suggests that throughout American history there have been a number of unusual “revolutions whose purpose was not to tear down the existing social and governmental structures, but to amend them in discrete ways.” He cites the Second Constitional Convention and the post-Watergate reforms as clear examples – and he suggests as a result of Bush’s legacy, we may be on the verge of another “process revolution.” Many of Obama’s proposals focus on reforming processes rather than achieving certain ends. For example, he proposes to increase transparency for all aspects of government and to allow citizens a more active role in responding to and shaping government policy. Neither of these changes in process necessarily further liberal goals – but they both help reform government in general.
  4. His Campaign.
    As Peter Beinart wrote earlier this year:

    It is this remarkable hybrid campaign, far more than Obama’s thin legislative resume, that should reassure voters that he can run the government.

    The almost flawless manner in which Obama has run his campaign has helped assuage any doubts I had about Obama’s executive leadership capability. Add to that the fact that his opponent also has no relevant executive experience, and for me, the choice became more clear. Obama proved that he could win, that he was willing to fight hard, and if necessary dirty, but that he preferred the high road – and managed to – in Peggy Noonan’s phrase – take “down a political machine without raising his voice.”

  5. Obamanomics.”
    The term sounds hokey – but it refers to the Democratic consensus about the economic steps that need to be taken to get America on the right track economically – especially to reduce the middle class squeeze and to deal with the root causes of the financial crisis. The steps Obama proposes are not radical – they are moderate. You might almost call them “tinkering.”
  6. The Right Temperament.
    Conservative columnist and curmudgeon George F. Will clearly sees that one of the candidates has the wrong temperament – as he described McCain’s reaction to the current financial crisis:

    Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama…[The more one sees of McCain’s] impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events the less confidence one has [in him] …It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?

    Another conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer admitted, while endorsing McCain, that Obama has “both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament.” It is noteworthy that even these conservative stalwarts cannot avoid noticing that Obama’s steady, patient, consistent, even temperament.

  7. A Commander-in-Chief.
    The War on Terrorism, against international islamist extremism, is one of the core issues this election is about. It is impossible to project who will be able to handle the pressure of the commander-in-chief role well – except perhaps for those with relevant experience, such as high-level generals. But even that is no guarantee (see Grant, Ulysses.) Temperament is very important when choosing a commander-in-chief – but so is judgment. Obama has consistently shown good judgment regarding the War on Terrorism – most especially by opposing the War on Terrorism as a “dumb war” and by focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan. And unlike either John McCain or George Bush, Obama has made it clear that he will not be outsourcing his responsibilities to a Secretary of Defense or to generals. As he told General Petreaus in Iraq: “My job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security.” As a reader on Andrew Sullivan’s blog wrote:

    We can’t let it be assumed that McCain is stronger on national defense (including counter terrorism) just because he talks with more bluster than Obama. Seven years ago the world was shocked but united by 9/11. It was an environment in which the US could have led the world not just in acting militarily against terrorists, but actually eliminated terrorism by making it too politically costly. But then Bush muddied up the waters. We need a president who understands that mistake.

    A victory by John McCain will make Al Qaeda’s job easier. A victory by Obama will make it harder.

  8. Restoration.
    After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration began a systematic attempt – perhaps initially begun in good faith – to consolidate power in the executive branch, to ignore the rule of law and the Constitution, to torture American-held prisoners, and even to commit war crimes – while in the meantime undermining the entire international system created mainly by America and playing into Al Qaeda’s plans to draw us into conflicts in the Middle East. John McCain was one of the heroes who stood up to the Bush administration and against some of it’s worst excesses. He eloquently stated:

    The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.

    And he’s exactly right. We must fight the War on Terror in a way consistent with our values – as Israel learned during the intifada and England learned during The Troubles, it is easy to let fear become the rationale behind policy (which is precisely what the “One Percent Doctrine” entails) – but in the end, you end up losing both your values and making the situation worse. McCain, despite some fine rhetoric, is not the candidate to restore American values – as he balked at preventing the CIA from torturing and called the Supreme Court decision supporting the ancient and basic right of habeas corpus the worst decision in the Court’s history. Obama does not have a perfect record on these issues – but he has made it a major theme of his campaign to restore our American values and the rule of law. Andrew Sullivan explained how he had watched America turn away from it’s values and that:

    until this unlikely fellow with the funny ears and strange name and exotic biography emerged on the scene, I had begun to wonder if it was possible at all. I had almost given up hope, and he helped restore it.

  9. Tinkering.
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an author, former Wall Street trader, economist, and philosopher who predicted the current financial crisis believes the best approach to action is something he calls “tinkering”:

    Taleb believes in tinkering – it was to be the title of his next book. Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.

    “We have the ability to identify our mistakes eventually better than average; that’s what saves us.” We choose the iPod over the Walkman. Medicine improved exponentially when the tinkering barber surgeons took over from the high theorists. They just went with what worked, irrespective of why it worked. Our sense of the good tinker is not infallible, but it might be just enough to turn away from the apocalypse that now threatens Extremistan.

    Tinkering is the best we can do in a world we only imperfectly understand. Anyone looking at Obama’s policy proposals can see that he is a tinkerer rather than a revolutionary. For example, he seeks to build upon our current health care system rather than demolish it as McCain does in one manner and socialists do in another.

As I wrote before: Obama is a liberal pragmatist, with a conservative temperament, who seeks to understand the world as it is, to identify our long-term challenges, and to push (to nudge it) in a positive direction by tinkering with processes and institutions and creating tools to get people more involved in the government.

These are my reasons, as an initial skeptic, that I support Obama.

These are not reasons to be complacent if he does, in fact, win. But they are reasons to be satisfied – if only for one night – that our country is moving in the right direction again.

Jesse Ventura vs. The Black Swan

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

[Jesse Ventura, former professional wrestler and governor of Minnesota, speaking at Ron Paul’s Liberty Rally in Minneapolis last week. For the rest of this Jesse Ventura’s speech, check out Fora.tv.]

You certainly didn’t see this in the mainstream media.

I don’t agree with Ventura’s points completely – but he makes a very compelling case for libertarianism. He does it by avoiding subtlety and going for the jugular – which is what you’d expect of gladiators in either politics or professional wrestling.

He speaks to the tremendous anger at our current political and economic system – the anger tapped by Ron Paul in his presidential run.

Barack Obama stands for the hope that our current political and economic system does not need to be overthrown in a revolution, but instead can be ameliorated through gradual and focused change. For example, if the middle class is being squeezed – then give them tax cuts, and ensure that they can get health insurance, and attempt to create new green collar jobs in America.

Ron Paul (and Jesse Ventura) both stand for the anger and revolutionary impulse to overthrow the existing order. Revolution is a word both Ron Paul and Jesse Ventura use in their respective books prescribing what we need to do. Ron Paul for example preaches the reinstitution of the gold standard, the abolishment of the Federal Reserve, and other revolutionary measures. These men have little time for such tinkering as Barack Obama proposes within our current system. As such, they see him and John McCain as equally part of the problem.

That’s where I have to part ways with these two men. I admire them and their passion. But I mistrust any ideology to give me all the answers. As for tinkering – I think, in many ways, that is the best we can do.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a scholar who predicted the latest financial crisis, speaks of “tinkering” as the ideal form of change because we shouldn’t “disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time [as w]e don’t understand their logic.” As Brian Appleyard described Taleb’s views in the Sunday Times:

Taleb believes in tinkering – it was to be the title of his next book. Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.

“We have the ability to identify our mistakes eventually better than average; that’s what saves us.” We choose the iPod over the Walkman. Medicine improved exponentially when the tinkering barber surgeons took over from the high theorists. They just went with what worked, irrespective of why it worked. Our sense of the good tinker is not infallible, but it might be just enough to turn away from the apocalypse that now threatens Extremistan.

By this logic – revolution is dangerous because it fully commits us to a change, a change which can result in enormous negative consequences. The American Revolution was a kind of beneficial black swan – that ended up producing a unique, stable, and free form of government. The French Revolution on the other hand unleashed a Reign of Terror and totalitarianism – all justified with the same values as the American Revolution. Tinkering allows us to experiment and see what works best and to adopt those measures that work best. It is precisely this determination to tinker that imbues Obama’s plans – from health care to energy policy to education. It’s why Obama’s health care plan works with the current system, creating incentives to fill gaps, rather than mandating an overhaul as the Clintons attempted in 1992 or attempting to push everyone out of the current system as McCain proposes now.

I admire Jesse Ventura for his inspiring rhetoric – and we always need scourges who point out how our society fails to live up to it’s ideals. But if there is anything redeemable in America, if there is any hope that through some determined tinkering we might make things better, then revolution is not yet the answer. Barack Obama and John McCain are not equally part of the problem. Obama seeks to tinker with our economy and government to protect the middle class and to soften the jarring forces of globalization; John McCain seeks to double down on Bush’s policies based on an ideological faith that markets will, on their own, produce goodness and light.  Although Jesse Ventura doesn’t know it, he’s fighting the Black Swan – that knowledge that we do not understand the world as well as we think we do, and revolutions fail far more often than they succeed. That’s why we need a tinkerer in the White House come January 2009 – and not yet another ideologue.

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