The state of the Union is bad, continued

I am a self-identified progressive.  My favorite economists in the public arena are Paul Krugman and Robert Reich.  But I am also a deficit hawk.  Today, I received an email from Nouriel Roubini’s consulting business that addresses America’s likely long-term fiscal deficit.  The picture is bleak.  This is the main reason that I think America’s political system is broken.  There is an inability or unwillingness to address major problems that are known to be problems.  America simply cannot afford to continue to fund its current military spending levels, which should be reduced for both economic and political reasons.  A combination of tax increases and spending reductions should be passed.  On the spending side, neither entitlements nor defense can be sacrosanct, but in Obama’s proposed spending freeze, both are exempt.

Here are representative quotations from the Roubini group’s email (I receive only the free email and am not a subscriber to the paid service).  “…The fiscal deficit is likely to remain near US$1 trillion and exceed 5.0% of GDP over the next decade (and trend higher thereafter). Near-term spending on fiscal stimulus and defense will remain high at least until 2011, as Obama’s proposed three-year freeze on discretionary spending excludes defense and entitlements…Obama simply lacks the political support to implement aggressive fiscal reforms. The Senate recently voted against Obama’s proposals on spending freezes and the establishment of a fiscal commission, whose role would be to send fiscal reform legislation to Congress that would have to be voted on or thrown out without the possibility of amendments. Moreover, if policymakers extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts beyond 2011, when they are scheduled to expire, the impact on the fiscal deficit and U.S. fiscal credibility would be immense. Washington has not signaled strong support for wider tax reforms, such as introducing a value-added tax (VAT)… Despite the ticking fiscal bomb, mid-term and presidential elections in November 2010 and 2012 respectively will further constrain political will to undertake necessary reforms.”

As I recently posted, I believe that the senate has outworn its usefulness as an institution in its present form and that this anachronism is a deficiency of the US Constitution.   Towards the end of a recent bloggingheadstv conversation between Brook Lindsey of the Cato Institute and Mark Schmitt of “The American Prospect,” Lindsey, a libertarian/conservative,  characterizes the view that there is a structural polticial problem preventing necessary action to address the long-term federal deficit as a progressive one, and it is a view that he does not share.

If this really is primarily a progressive view, that seems odd to me.  It was only about thirty years ago that conservatives were proposing a new constitutional convention.   It is not odd that people who are deeply frustrated with political events should look to constitutional reform.  But it is odd that progressives are at least as worried about America’s long-term fiscal deficit as conservatives, if not more so.

The State of the Union is…

bad. I had intended to post this before reading today’s Paul Krugman column. I agree with Krugman that America is facing a crisis of governance. It has serious long-term budgetary problems with which Congress seems either unable or unwilling to cope. For me, the fabled US Constitution lies at the heart of the crisis, because the Senate gives far too much power to small and unrepresentative parts of the US citizenry and because the constitution has been interpreted to mean that it is impossible to limit “special interest” spending in political campaigns. So there are two institutional factors which are tending to make it very difficult to raise federal taxes. In the meantime, it is very difficult to cut federal spending, with the exception of discretionary spending that is most dear to Democrats. In particular, the defense budget is now virtually sacrosanct, which is a terrible thing for the country. But of course we also are confronted with a situation in which the same people, Republicans, who say they are for individual responsibility and against irresponsible government spending, use scare tactics about death panels to prevent the country from rationing government-financed health care for the elderly, which everyone knows to be absolutely necessary if the country is to avoid bankruptcy.

I watched Obama’s speech and close to three hours of pre- and post-speech “commentary” on CNN International. Few things have ever depressed me as much as those CNN broadcasts. The nonstop instant analysis, the disingenuousness (Mary Matalin is so unremittingly partisan, I just don’t understand that marriage, it’s revolting to me), but mostly the “feel” of the broadcast, which is akin to that of a gameshow, with garish high-tech screens on which now can be read Twitter posts, all these things combine to create a sense of last days and utter degeneracy. There is also nothing worse than listening to participants in a network-sponsored focus group be interviewed. Democracy seems utterly pointless if we have to inspect the entrails in that way. Maybe things work out in the great marketplace of ideas, maybe the American people possess some collective wisdom in the aggregate, but the individual cases tend to leave me in a state of despair.

Having stayed up virtually all night to watch the speech and some commentary, I finally went to sleep feeling very depressed. I think I perhaps need to spend less time following politics, just for the sake of my psychological well-being.

Frank Rich deserves Pulitzer, gets Ledocsian

This piece by Frank Rich in today’s NYT is one of the best political columns I have ever read. It’s about, surprise, surprise, the need to reregulate the financial industry. This is the big story that is being neglected by almost everyone.

I would never have guessed that this former NY drama critic would become a truly great political columnist.  In recognition of his contributions to the general welfare to date in his capacity as political columnist, Frank Rich is the first recipient of the coveted Ledocsian, a nonmonetary, purely verbal award conferred by me upon the recipient.   Thank you, Mr. Rich.  If you did not exist, we would have had to invent you.

David Brooks again, what a guy

David Brooks in today’s NYT:

“The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should `go our own way’ has risen sharply.”

It is not until one reads the concluding paragraph of this column that one realizes that Brooks intends for himself to be ranked among the educated class against which some large swath of the public is rebelling.

I think the story Brooks is telling here is probably basically correct, that there is a deep anti-intellectual, anti-technocrat, anti-expert, anti-elitist movement afoot in America and that there is nothing new here.  But it seems to me that the movement has been fueled tremendously by the Obama Administration’s horrible missteps in its handling of the financial crisis and in Obama’s failure to indulge in enough anti-Wall Street populist rhetoric or to have taken enough anti-Wall Street action.  The only explanation for these failures that makes any sense to me is that Obama is to a large extent in the pocket of Wall Street, due to past campaign contributions and anticipated future ones.  I say this because a more forceful anti-Wall Street posture would seem to be such an obvious political requirement, with virtually no downside for the administration beyond the possible alienation of some big donors.  It strains credulity that the credit-rating agencies, just to take one example, may well emerge from the financial crisis unscathed, essentially unregulated, and in better financial shape than ever.  This really is scandalous and would constitute, in and of itself, a huge indictment of the American political system.

I don’t see any conceivable workable alternative in the modern world to government by technocratic elites.  But of course being well educated does not provide immunity from error – far from it.  Obama has made a tragic error, in my judgment, in not providing better legislative and rhetorical leadership in response to the financial crisis.  The error is both political and substantive, it will hurt in the coming midterm elections, and it undermines confidence in the technocratic elites, just as Brooks says.

David Brooks not a moderate in defense of liberty

Where to begin, where to end, in one’s condemnation of David Brooks’s idiotic column concerning the tragedy of the Fort Hood massacre?

Brooks seems to have received a memo that was also received by Tony Blankley, whom I heard deliver Brooks’s column on the radio show “Left, Right, and Center.”  What I do not understand is the either/or mentality underlying the “conservative” interpretation of events:  either the murderer is an Islamist ideologue or he is mentally ill.  But why can’t he be both?  Isn’t this the likeliest explanation, that he is both crazy and an Islamist ideologue?  But which came first, the mental illness or the Islamist ideology?  I’ll vote for mental illness, on a priori grounds.  This is not to say that one needs to be crazy to be a radical Islamist.  I just think that this particular guy probably is crazy, given his background.  One gets the impression that the peculiar constellation of his career path in the US military, his education, and ethnic background, along with the path of recent international events all combined to create unusual tensions that led to mental illness.

The odd thing about this column by Brooks is that he is generally not an either/or sort of fellow.  The American right has a lot invested in the narrative of war against Islamic extremism, a war that requires America to be highly invested in military spending.

It seems very likely that the American press did initially downplay the Islamist angle of the massacre, in order not to inflame passions.  This does not seem to be the most terrible of sins.  Indeed, it’s better than the alternative.  Imagine a massacre of whites by an Afro-American.  Are the media supposed to lead with the racial angle, even supposing that the killer leaves a note saying that he has been motivated by racial enmity?  Where is the great harm in letting the story come out gradually?  I agree that a permanent suppression of the truth is undesirable.

In the meantime, let’s all be sure to be constant in our vigilance regarding the threat posed by Islamism.  And remember, there is no reasoning with an Islamist.  The only language they understand is that of a gun barrel.

In Today’s New York Times

There are interesting dueling columns by Bob Herbert and David Brooks in today’s NYT.  Herbert decries the racism that is coming to the fore in anti-Obama and anti-health care reform demonstrations.  Brooks says the demonstrations are about class, not race, and traces the ferment back to Jefferson-Jackson v. Hamilton.  Working-class whites, per Brooks, are proponents of payment according to product and are thus the unacknowledged students of Milton Friedman.  Strangely, Brooks ends his column with a quote from economics blogger Arnold Kling, known to me from his appearances on bloggingheadstv, which refers to “working-class whites,” a fairly prominent acknowledgment of the importance of race, I would have thought.  But American aversion to redistribution is deeply linked to the idea that the government takes money from hard-working white people and gives it to undeserving black people.  Please do not confuse the issue with statistics about white people on welfare.

Brooks likes to champion everything that is least appealing in America, provincialism in all its manifestations — the nuclear family, suburban life, the anti-cosmopolitanism and perhaps slightly veiled racism of working-class whites.  This is what “conservatism” is all about.  And it occurs to me that it is based upon a real sleight-of-hand trick.  Brooks also frequently decries the culture of narcissism, and the narcissists are always the cosmopolitan elites, bohos and the like, people who resemble me.  Are cosmopolitan elites really any more narcissistic than the provincials he is at pains to defend?  A narcissist is just someone who likes what he sees when he looks in the mirror.

Something I have learned since I “retired”:  I don’t really trust any man who is comfortable wearing a suit.  Suits are ridiculous.  The point of a suit is to say, “I believe in the system, in corporations, in the worship of Mammon.”  Our prior president liked to wear suits; Obama doesn’t.

I just saw the movie “State of Play” on a plane.  Russell Crowe plays an investigative reporter, and he most definitely does not wear a suit.  It occurs to me that one of the subtexts of this movie, which isn’t really very good, is that one cannot trust people in suits.  Ben Affleck plays a character who might be based upon Gavin Newsom, the incumbent mayor of San Francisco, a suit-wearing narcissist.  Most French men who wear suits don’t really wear them.  For example, their tie is loose.  This is not to say that there is no government/corporate sector in France that wears suits, sometimes very expensive ones, because of course there is.  But the problem with David Brooks is that he’s “straight”  and seems to be comfortable in a suit.  You can’t trust him.

Welcome to Ledocs World

I would like to have heard Judge Sotomayor address the charge that her speech that averted to a “wise Latina woman” was an example of “relativism run amok.”  There was a form of relativism implied, but was it running amok?  I think not.  The alternative of the originalists cannot be sustained, it must crumble under its own weight, or better, under the weight of historical exigencies.