Monday, February 2, 2009


Although I sporadically find myself humming “Who’s Sorry Now?” when thinking of Obamabots going through Kool-Aid withdrawal, I have, by and large, lost interest in recriminations, richly deserved though they may be. Schadenfreud has been replaced by worry. I worry that our new president is going to fuck it up. And my worry resides in his persistent preoccupation with style -- and style of a particular type -- over substance.

As Big Tent Democrat says today – and as Paul Krugman has been arguing all along – that really needs to stop now. To cite President Obama’s own Biblical citation (which, I guess, makes this a recitation), it’s time to put away childish things.

Let me offer a few principles for what is substantive, circa February 2009:

The Republican Party isn’t just irrelevant; it’s dead – for a generation, anyway. The Southern Strategy worked. It’s now a Southern party, period. Look at all the vital signs – the ability to raise money, to field candidates (rather than host retirement parties for ex-officeholders), to frame an agenda and publicize same, to marshal an army of workers, etc. Zippo. The GOP can’t do any of those. And yet, our Post-Partisan President insists on propping up this corpse in hopes of shaking hands with it in a photo op. It’s like Weekend at Bernie's or The Trouble With Harry. Forget it. Zombies don’t exist, and there’s no need to pretend they’re real by continuing to push living humans out the door (i.e., under the bus) as unburnt offerings to them. This is not a trade-off of politics, the art of the possible, for principle. It’s dumb – really, incomprehensible – politically, too.

Tax cuts are bad now. They have flunked. Laffer Curves were always laughable curveballs. Supply side economics was always voodoo. That isn’t to say, of course, that tax hikes per se are the answer, either. It’s to say that a religious reliance on tax policy, one way or the other, is just one of the blind men feeling around the elephant. The Grover Norquist cult that took over the Republican Party (before the other cults moved in – the faith-based cult, the neocon cult, the anti-Constitutional cult – to form the Perfect Storm of Cults that was the W Administration) was always science fiction. (That is, it wasn’t even serious fiction.) And if it never made sense when we were in a boom, it makes even less sense when we’re in a bust.

Government has a vital role to play. Again, this isn’t an assertion of government as the only or dominant player in the game. We know how that works out (see, “The 20th Century: 100 Years of Mishagas” in the Encyclopedia Wackadingia). A serious understanding of the complex adaptive system that is life on Planet Earth requires that one acknowledge the many different forces and perspectives that make up that natural-cum-societal ecosystem, this product of the co-evolution of genes and memes. Its complexity and innovation are integral with its diversity. But obviously, to anyone who isn’t lost in one of the archaic cults described above (i.e., to anyone who isn’t one of the 276 remaining Republicans), it’s evident that serious government action is required now. We may not have an FDR, but we need someone who at least recognizes that basic reality.

Infrastructure investment is good now. And it should be forward-looking rather than backward-looking: fewer potholes and more broadband; more healthcare IT than re-pointing walls. In other words, it should be based on where technology and a globally integrating economy (not to mention a globally warming planet) are headed, rather than simply propping up the dying hulk of industrial capitalism (seeing as how we no longer live in industrial capitalism – sorry, Karl). And all of that argues that both providing lots and lots and lots and lots of jobs immediately and building an infrastructure capable of sustaining the planet and the global economy of the 21st century dictate doubling down on intelligent infrastructure in stimulus packages – in America and around the world.

History matters. Heading toward the future with a decent compass from the past means we sensibly understand (a) the nature and severity of the current crisis, and (b) the right lessons from the past 100 years of American and world economics, science and history. Those include: John Maynard Keynes, good; Milton Friedman, bad… FDR, good; Ronald Reagan, bad… saving capitalism from itself, good; letting power imbalances take us all down, bad. And obscure as it may seem: complexity physics and emergence, good; Newtonian physics, bad. Because a complex-systems understanding of reality is ultimately crucial to making sensible judgments in the here-and-now.

In light of all that substance – and there’s obviously plenty more… libraries full of it… but just to stick with these few principles for the nonce – and of the present emergency… it’s scary that our mandate-stuffed president is post-partisaning around while Rome burns. People keep saying, “Just wait, it’s early.” They say, “Look at those executive orders – see, he signed Lily Ledbetter. He’s gonna be great. He just has to do this political dance now. His political instincts are unmatched. Give him credit for playing chess brilliantly.” Stuff like that.

Well, we’ll see. To me, it looks – so far, yes, just so far – bad on politics and unformed on substance. And to me, the reality doesn’t seem to allow for delay, either for self-education or chess moves.

But that’s just, to paraphrase BTD, me.


David Berger said...

I know you're fond of declaring the death of the Republican Party, and it's sure easy to say that now, but I'd simply remind you that things can change in a hurry. After Goldwater's 1964 wipeout America was essentially a one-party country; four years later it elected a Republican president. In Canada, the Conservatives were essentially wiped off the map in 1993 and disappeared as a party; less than 10 years later it reconstituted and took power.

In other words, things can change far more quickly than you think. While I'd agree it's hard to see a scenario where the Republicans could become the majority party in Congress any time soon, they very easily can win the presidency again, with the right kind of national candidate. And beneath the surface, there's some very interesting rumblings... America generally thinks the "stimulus" is a giant boondoggle, but still clings to the hope that it MIGHT work; Pelosi & Co. are clearly paying off their interest groups in the party pretty transparently; the tax issues have now reached the general consciousness; i.e. late-night comedy (now Killefer,) etc.

In many ways, a conservative party operates much more naturally in opposition, and I think the Republicans are maximizing the hand that's being dealt to them.

If Obama would stand up and declare that the money should be spent on short-term stimulus AND long-term investments, he'd tower above the stage like Colossus. But right now, he shows all the signs of getting rolled by his own congressional leaders. In other words, the problem in my view isn't that he's reaching too far out to his right - it's that he's not exerting some discipline to his left. And anyone who's studied him shouldn't be surprised by that.

Falstaff said...

We've had this debate for awhile, and I guess we'll have it for awhile longer. :) What I'm posting isn't that the GOP is permanently dead, but that there's a generation-long (more or less) pendulum, and it's swung away from them.

Each of us thinks the other is missing the forest for the trees -- but we're seeing different forests.

David Berger said...

Look! Cows! :)