Sep 7th 2009

The President and the Vigilantes

Probably the speeches President Obama has scheduled next week will come off as planned. On Tuesday, he is set to address schoolchildren on TV in the nation's classrooms. Some parents, dreading a subliminal message, will refuse to send their children to school. On Wednesday he will address Congress. Some lawmakers, availing themselves of the child's prerogative, will likewise stay at home.

Obama will tell the children to study hard. He seems to have decided, after many hesitations, to signal to Congress that a public option for health insurance is desirable but not imperative; that he will accept an arrangement that "triggers" such an option in the event that no affordable cooperative plan emerges from the insurers. He will say these things and then we shall see.

This was the summer when a popular president lost much of his popularity. Yet he lost it without the intervention of a catastrophe for which he is blamed. How did that happen? He acted on a resolution -- a rather arbitrary and personal resolution -- to accomplish a lot of big things at once. With the largest of his projects, he lightened the heavy hand of his own resolve by disclaiming authorship and inviting multiple co-authors to share the credit. He wanted something new and something comprehensive: that was all he would say in June. It scared people more than the idea of a clear-cut plan urged by a single leader.

The town-hall dustups were predictable. Anyone who listens to Fox Radio knew this was coming by early July. Considering what was said on the air, where many sentences by Fox Radio hosts begin "The America we grew up with is being taken away from us," and many close by saying things like "unless somebody stops this guy" -- considering the depth of the fears and provocations, it is amazing that there have not been major arrests. From early May onward, much of the right-wing chatter was sailing close to the wind of incitement-to-riot. The fears about the school speech are the latest symptom of a wildness that has been coming.

"The thing that concerned me most about it," a New York Times story quoted a Texas parent saying, "was it seemed like a direct channel from the president of the United States into the classroom, to my child." The same story quoted a wary talk-show hostess in Kansas City: "I wouldn't let my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I'm sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone." Good fences make good neighbors was the warning of a country churl in a famous American poem, but the talk-show personage went a good deal beyond that. For her, all neighbors are bad, and Obama is the worst kind of neighbor, one who lives far away so you can't keep an eye on him.

And, of course, he is a stranger. Limbaugh and the rest have been saying it for many months; they said it long before he was elected. Obama is not one of us. We don't know where he was born. His early life -- the subject of two autobiographies, a dozen biographies -- is obscure and disturbing. This line of talk was getting louder all through spring and early summer but nobody near the White House seemed to notice. What could go wrong? They were hanging close to the arbiter of the status quo, Lawrence Summers; they had invited the Republicans to join the big plan; the mainstream media were on board and meanwhile they had committed themselves to nothing in particular. What could go wrong?

Some of the callers are cross-over voters who once gave Obama the benefit of the doubt but now distrust him. Some have lost their houses, some have lost their jobs. While this administration sought to perform its prodigious work for people without any resources -- bargaining with the richest about how to assist the poorest -- it missed a step between. In the sinking middle of the country were the people most anxious about their money, because they didn't have enough of it and they seemed to be losing what they had. The poor will take what Obama can give; the rich surely trust a man who promises not to take much away from the big insurers and the pharmaceuticals. But in the middle are the old who like their Medicare, and fear the loss of benefits to cover the cost of new plans for others; and in the middle, too, are the already insured. What the already insured have to gain from a new plan, as Senator Ben Nelson rightly said when interviewed by John King on CNN, has never been well explained.

The president's advisers underestimated both the suspiciousness and the heterogeneity of the American public. Maybe their own feeling of being the best, wadded by rings of the best, along with the president's own selflessness regarding the credit for his plan deceived them into supposing health care could be delivered from Congress to the president to the people without minute supervision. It was a complex routine admittedly -- wheels-within-wheels -- but nothing (they thought) that required looking and listening outside the precincts of the powerful.

Demographically, the plan has failed to take with the old and with people of modest means who have insurance. Ideologically it is vulnerable at the point where common sense agrees with a strong defensive libertarianism. The idea of increasing the budget and enlarging the responsibilities of the federal government at just this moment doesn't mix easily with the memory of the enormous subsidy from taxes given to rescue the banks and the too-big-to-fail brokerage houses.

Between Obama's Cairo speech in early May and his town-hall meetings in August, more than a sense of initiative was lost. It seemed that the White House had confined itself to a decorous standing-in-attendance; as if the conduct of the presidency had become a matter of waiting for Congress and the people to download and revise at pleasure a very large attachment. The president's timing of his entrances and exits has been bewildering. In his first half year in office, he gave 100 personal interviews to mainstream media outlets. Yet there has never been a major speech on the economy, and, until Wednesday, no single speech on health care. Obama loses something too, besides the conveyed impression of warmth, by wanting to appear above the battle. Is he too good for fights he himself has brought on?

In his Keynote Speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Barack Obama said that we couldn't be divided into blue states and red states. We were all Americans together. Well, it is true, and it is half-true. Obama's aspiration was to teach us again to be Americans together. But a politician less wishful and less keen on the sound of sentiments would not have chosen a moment when his approval had sunk from 58% to 42% to address the nation's schoolchildren. The idea of such a speech, like the recent town-hall appearances, spills over the brim of the usual push for popularity. The town-hall performances were a reminder that Obama sometimes lacks economy of speech; the progress of the summer has been a reminder that he often lacks economy of gesture. This flaw is occasional, not predominant, and it is concealed by his personal grace and the evident fact that Obama thinks. Bill Clinton had a different balance of vices and virtues, but in the curious failure to reckon the actual scale of vast undertakings, which must be done wholeheartedly if they done at all, there is an unhappy resemblance between them.

The advice (whoever gave it) to commit this administration early to as many big projects as it could try was badly misjudged. They should have calmed fears and gone at the economy intelligibly, piece by piece. Scrub the pork from the stimulus. Create as many new jobs as possible. Identify the bad assets and let the money changers who fell hard for complex derivatives, fall down. Offer limited but adequate relief to the gullible and penniless who live in the houses backed by the mortgages. But not pay wealthy purchasers to buy up the same bad assets, out of taxpayer money, and watch as Wall Street creeps up and call that the nation's reward. Unemployment, now, is rising toward ten percent. It is bizarre that Wall Street appreciates Obama while the people kicked out of jobs call in to Limbaugh.

Any program launched by the White House should have been amenable to clear explanation. Nothing could have been more important. But the pattern has been almost the reverse. They say: we are about to do something large, and we assure you it will be something good, but we don't know what it will be.

Vigilantes, by definition, are an informal and self-deputized crowd of the people. They are always potentially violent. In the eyes of the law, they are outlaws. In their own eyes they are enforcers of a social contract that has been abandoned by the makers and enforcers of the actual laws. The angry crowd of the righteous and cheated at home, their coaches on the talk shows, and their enablers in the Republican Party, are poised on the brink of casting themselves in the role of vigilantes. The more savage manifestations at the town halls, and elsewhere, intimate the possibility of a breakdown far worse.

It was a complacent White House that allowed things to get this far. But the president and the men and women who surround him are (to an imposing degree) gentle and reasonable persons, of abstract mind and unharried imaginations. By training and conviction they are technocrats. Nothing prepared them for this. It is doubtful that David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett between them have spent three hours in the last three months listening what the president's enemies have been saying aloud in the influential substitute media over which the White House can exert no control. Even so minimal an exposure would have clarified for them the meaning, for example, of recent provocative statements by Dick Cheney, James Inhofe, and others who deny the legitimacy of the president. Cheney has recently said that the president's conduct is an active danger to the security of the country.

Inhofe has said that he does not know whether the country can survive the 16 months between now and the seating of a Republican Congress after the mid-term elections.

These politicians are giving permission to the vigilantes--reassuring them that they really are the people, the only ones who count as the people, and that their apocalyptic feelings are justified. According to Cheney and Inhofe and those lower down the ladder who channel their message, Obama is an aberration, not one of us: a man without a right to govern the United States.

Does the president yet recognize that his domestic enemies are implacable? They cannot be bargained with. They must be fought with words as well as laws. And the rest of the American people must be -- indeed deserve to be -- reasoned with; given a clear explanation of the path of policy, whether the economy or health care is in question; and not merely assured that the establishment is with the president. If a clear explanation cannot be given, that is a sign of something wrong with the policy.

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More Current Affairs

Sep 11th 2021
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Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "