Steve Fraser compares Obama’s Brainiacs and Roosevelt’s Brain Trust

With increasing dismay liberals watch the weak but steady rightward drift of the Obama Administration.  Conservatives agree with many of his policies (or did so when they were Bush’s), but condemn him as a leftist radical anyway.  If these trends continue, they will exhaust Obama’s political capital before the midpoint of his term.

The domestic scorecard:

  • Weak pursuit of health care reform.
  • No action on “card check” (eliminating secret ballots for certifying unions)
  • No action on gay marriage or gays in the military.
  • Continuing Bush’s bank-friendly policies (ample free money and guarantees, no meaningful reforms)

The foreign scorecard

  •  Conintued war in Iraq (albeit with promises for future withdrawals).
  • Escalation in the Af-Pak war.
  • Other polices that, with a few exceptions, continue policies of the Bush Administration (see Stratfor’s analysis for details).

While a surprise to much of the left, many forecast these things before the inauguration.  Such as in this article by Steve Fraser, which provides a powerful historical contrast so that we can better understand the mental shackles hobbling Team Obama. 

At the end are links to other articles on the FM website about Team Obama and its polices.

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Historian Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, has been writing at TomDispatch about both the Great Depression and the possibility of a modern versionof the same for some time. Now, he returns to the dawn of the Rooseveltian era to offer a unique and telling comparison — between FDR’s expansive, experimental “brain trust” and Obama’s new “team of rivals.” In his usual fashion, he raises the truly pregnant question: What kind of new administration could actually get beyond Roosevelt’s era as well as our own staggering disaster, leaving “the bailout state” behind us?

Beyond the Bailout State:  Roosevelt’s Brain Trust vs Obama’s Brainiacs
By Steve Fraser, TomDispatch, 1 December 2008 — Reposted in full with permission.

On a December day in 1932, with the country prostrate under the weight of the Great Depression, ex-president Calvin Coolidge — who had presided over the reckless stock market boom of the Jazz Age Twenties (and famously declaimed that “the business of America is business”) — confided to a friend: “We are in a new era to which I do not belong.” He punctuated those words, a few weeks later, by dying.

A similar premonition grips the popular imagination today. A new era beckons. No person has been more responsible for arousing that expectation than President-elect Barack Obama. From beginning to end, his presidential campaign was born aloft by invocations of the “fierce urgency of now,” by “change we can believe in,” by “yes, we can!” and by the obvious significance of his race and generation. Not surprisingly then, as the gravity of the national economic calamity has become terrifyingly clearer, yearnings for salvation have attached themselves ever more firmly to the incoming administration.

This is as it should be — and as it once was. When in March 1933, a few months after Coolidge gave up the ghost, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated president, people looked forward to audacious changes, even if they had little or no idea just what, in concrete terms, that might mean. If Coolidge, an iconic representative of the old order, knew that the ancien régime was dead, millions of ordinary Americans had drawn the same conclusion years earlier. Full of fear, depressed and disillusioned, they nonetheless had an appetite for the untried. Like Obama, FDR had, during his campaign, encouraged feverish hopes with no less vaporous references to a “new deal” for Americans.

Brain Trust vs Brainiacs

Yet today, something is amiss. Even if everyone is now using the Great Depression and the New Deal as benchmarks for what we’re living through, Act I of the new script has already veered away from the original.

A suffocating political and intellectual provincialism has captured the new administration in embryo. Instead of embracing a sense of adventurousness, a readiness to break with the past so enthusiastically promoted during the campaign, Obama seems overcome with inhibitions and fears.

Practically without exception he has chosen to staff his government at its highest levels with refugees from the Clinton years. This is emphatically true in the realms of foreign and economic policy. It would, in fact, be hard to find an original idea among the new appointees being called to power in those realms — some way of looking at the American empire abroad or the structure of power and wealth at home that departs radically from views in circulation a decade or more ago. A team photo of Obama’s key cabinet and other appointments at Treasury, Health and Human Services, Commerce, the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and in the U.S. Intelligence Community, not to speak of senior advisory posts around the President himself, could practically have been teleported from perhaps the year 1995.

Recycled Clintonism is recycled neo-liberalism. This is change only the brainiacs from Hyde Park and Harvard Square could believe in. Only the experts could get hot under the collar about the slight differences between “behavioral economics” (the latest academic fad that fascinates some high level Obama-ites) and straight-up neo-liberal deference to the market. And here’s the sobering thing: despite the grotesque extremism of the Bush years, neo-liberalism also served as its ideological magnetic north.

Is this parochialism, this timorousness and lack of imagination, inevitable in a period like our own, when the unknown looms menacingly and one natural reaction is certainly to draw back, to find refuge in the familiar? Here, the New Deal years can be instructive.

Roosevelt was no radical; indeed, he shared many of the conservative convictions of his class and times. He believed deeply in both balanced budgets and the demoralizing effects of relief on the poor. He tried mightily to rally the business community to his side. For him, the labor movement was terra incognita and — though it may be hard to believe today — played no role in his initial policy and political calculations. Nonetheless, right from the beginning, Roosevelt cobbled together a cabinet and circle of advisers strikingly heterogeneous in its views, one that, by comparison, makes Obama’s inner sanctum, as it is developing today, look like a sectarian cult.

Heterogeneous does not mean radical. Some of FDR’s early appointments — as at the Treasury Department — were die-hard conservatives. Jesse Jones, who ran the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Hoover administration creation, retained by FDR, that had been designed to rescue tottering banks, railroads, and other enterprises too big to fail, was a practitioner of business-friendly bailout capitalism before present Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was even born.

But there was also Henry Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, a Midwestern progressive who would become the standard bearer for the most left-leaning segments of the New Deal coalition. He was joined at the Agriculture Department — far more important then than now — by men like Mordecai Ezekiel, who was prepared to challenge the power of the country’s landed oligarchs.

Then there were corporatists like Raymond Moley, Donald Richberg, and General Hugh Johnson. Moley was an original member of FDR’s legendary “brain trust” (a small group of the President’s most influential advisers who often held no official government position). Richberg and Johnson helped design and run the National Recovery Administration (the New Deal’s first and failed attempt at industrial recovery). All three men were partial to the interests of the country’s peak corporations. All three wanted them released from the strictures of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act so that they could collaborate in setting prices and wages to arrest the killing deflation that gripped the economy. But they also wanted these corporate behemoths and the codes of competition they promulgated subjected to government oversight and restraints.

Meanwhile, Felix Frankfurter (another confidant of FDR’s and a future Supreme Court justice), aided by the behind-the-scenes efforts of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, fiercely contested the influence of the corporatists within the new administration, favoring anti-trust and then-new Keynesian approaches to economic recovery. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins used her extensive ties to the social work community and the labor movement to keep an otherwise tone-deaf president apprised of portentous rumblings from that quarter. In this fashion, she eased the way for the passage of the Wagner Act that legislated the right to organize and bargain collectively, and that ended the reign of industrial autocracy in the workplace.

Roosevelt’s “brain trust” also included Rexford Tugwell. He was an avid proponent of government economic planning. Another founding member of the “brain trust” was Adolph Berle, who had published a bestselling, scathing indictment of the financial and social irresponsibility of the corporate elite just before FDR assumed office.

People like Tugwell and others, including future Federal Reserve Board chairman Marriner Eccles, were believers in Keynesian deficit spending as the road to recovery and argued fiercely for this position within the inner councils of the administration, even while Roosevelt himself remained, until later in his presidency, an orthodox budget balancer.

All of these people — the corporatists and the Keynesians, the planners and the anti-trusters — were there at the creation. They often came to blows. A genuine administration of “rivals” didn’t faze FDR. He was deft at borrowing all of, or pieces of, their ideas, then jettisoning some when they didn’t work, and playing one faction against another in a remarkable display of political agility. Roosevelt’s tolerance of real differences stands in stark contrast to the new administration’s cloning of the Clinton-era brainiacs.

It was this openness to a variety of often untested solutions — including at that point Keynesianism — that helped give the New Deal the flexibility to adjust to shifts in the country’s political chemistry in the worst of times. If the New Deal came to represent a watershed in American history, it was in part due to the capaciousness of its imagination, its experimental elasticity, and its willingness to venture beyond the orthodox. Many failures were born of this, but so, too, many enduring triumphs.

Beyond the Bailout State

Why, at least so far, is the Obama approach so different? Some of it no doubt has to do with the same native caution that caused FDR to navigate carefully in treacherous waters. But some of it may result from the fallout of history. Because the Great Depression and the New Deal happened, nothing can ever really be the same again.

We are accustomed to thinking of the Bush years — maybe even the whole era from the presidency of Ronald Reagan on — as a throwback to the 1920s or even the laissez-faire golden years of the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. In some respects, that’s probably accurate, but in at least one critical way it’s not. Back in those days, faced with a potentially terminal financial crisis, the government did nothing, simply letting the economy plunge into depression. This happened repeatedly until 1929, when it happened again.

Since the New Deal, however, inaction has ceased to be a viable option for Washington. State intervention to prevent catastrophe has become an unspoken axiom of political life in perilous times. Of course, thanks to regulatory mechanisms installed during the New Deal years, there was no need to engage in heroic rescues — not, at least, until the triumph of deregulation in our own time.

Then crises began to erupt with ever greater frequency — the stock market crash of 1987, the savings and loan collapse at the end of that decade, the massive Latin American debt defaults of the early 1990s, the collapse of the economies of the Asian “tigers” in the mid-1990s, the near bankruptcy of the then-huge hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management, later in that decade, the dot-com implosion at the turn the century, climaxing with the general global collapse of the present moment. Beginning perhaps with the bailout of the Chrysler Corporation in the late 1970s, these recurring crises have been met with increasingly strenuous efforts to stop the bleeding by what some have called “the bailout state.”

I esp recommend close attention to the next two sections!

The Bailout State

The Resolution Trust Corporation, created to rescue the savings and loan industry, first institutionalized what Kevin Phillips has since described as a new political economy of “financial mercantilism.” Under this new order the state stands ready to backstop the private sector — or at least the financial sub-sector which, for the past quarter century, has been the driving engine of economic growth — whenever it undergoes severe stress.

Today, the starting point for all mainstream policymakers, even those who otherwise preach the virtues of the free market and the evils of big government, is the active intervention of the state to prevent the failure of private-sector institutions considered “too big to fail” (as with most recently Citigroup and the insurance company AIG). So, too, the tolerance level for deficit spending, not only for military purposes but, in extremis, to help stop ordinary people from going under, is infinitely higher than in 1932. Ronald Reagan was prepared to live with such spending, if necessary, even as he removed portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Harry S. Truman from the Cabinet Room and replaced them with a canvas of Calvin Coolidge.

The question for our “new era” — not one our New Deal ancestors would have thought to ask — has become: How do we get beyond the bailout state? This is one crucial realm where genuinely new thinking and new ideas are badly needed.

At the moment, as best we can make out, the bailout state is being managed in secret and apparently in the interests, above all, of those who run the financial institutions being “rescued.” Often, we don’t actually know who is getting what from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, or on what terms, or even which institutions are being helped and which aren’t, or often what our public monies are actually being used for.

What we do know, however, is anything but encouraging. It includes tax exemptions for merging banks, prices for public-equity stakes in failing outfits that far exceed what is being paid by governments (or even private investors) abroad for similar holdings. Add to this a stark lack of accountability, aggravated by the fact that the U.S. government has neither voting rights (nor even a voice) on boards of directors whose firms would be in bankruptcy court without Washington’s aid.

Living in an Empire of Depression

Are we, then, witnessing the birth of some warped, exceedingly partial version of state capitalism — partial, that is, to the resuscitation of the old order? If so, lurking within this string of bum deals might there not be a great opportunity? Putting the economy and country back together will require massive resources directed toward common purposes. There is no more suitable means of mobilizing and steering those resources than the institutions of democratic government.

Under the present dispensation, the bailout state makes the government the handmaiden of the financial sector. Under a new one, the tables might be turned. But who will speak for that option within the limited councils of the Obama team?

A real democratic nationalization of the banks — good value for our money rather than good money to add to their value — should be part of the policy agenda up for discussion in the Obama era. As things now stand, the public supplies the loans and the investment capital, but the key decisions about how they are to be deployed remain in private hands. A democratic version of nationalizing the financial system would transfer these critical decisions to new institutions created by the Congress and designed to pursue public, not private, objectives. How to subject the flow of credit and investment capital to public control ought to be on the drawing boards if we are to look beyond the old New Deal to a new one.

Or, for instance, if we are to bail out the auto industry, which we should — millions of jobs, businesses, communities, and what’s left of once powerful and proud unions are at stake — then why not talk about its nationalization, too? Why not create a representative body of workers, consumers, environmentalists, suppliers, and other interested parties to supervise the industry’s reorganization and retooling to produce, just as the president-elect says he wants, new green means of transportation — and not just cars?

Why not apply the same model to the rehabilitation of the nation’s infrastructure; indeed, why not to the reindustrialization of the country as a whole? If, as so many commentators are now claiming, what lies ahead is the kind of massive, crippling deflation characteristic of such crises, then why not consider creating democratic mechanisms to impose an incomes policy on wages and prices that works against that deflation?

Overseas, if everything isn’t up for discussion — and it most certainly isn’t — it ought to be. What happens there bears directly on our future here at home. After all, we live in the empire of depression. America’s favorite export for more than a decade has been a toxic line-up of securitized debt. Having ingested it in lethal amounts, every economy in the world from Iceland’s and Germany’s to Russia’s and Indonesia’s is either folding up or threatening to fold up like an accordion under the pressure of economic disaster.

Conclusions

Until now, the American way of life, including its economy of mass consumption, has depended on maintaining the country’s global preeminence by any means possible: economic, political, and, in the end, military. The news of the Bush years was that, in this mix, Washington reached for its six-guns so much more quickly.

A global depression will challenge that fundamental hierarchy in every conceivable way. The United States can try to recapture its imperiled hegemony by methods familiar to the Obama-Clinton-Bush (the father) foreign policy establishment, that is by using the country’s waning but still intimidating economic and military muscle. But that’s a devil’s game played at exorbitant cost which will further imperil the domestic economy.

It might, of course, be possible, as in domestic affairs, to try something new, something that embraces the public redevelopment of America in concert with the global South. This would entail at a minimum a radical break with the “Washington Consensus” of the Clinton years in which the United States insisted that the rest of the world conform to its free market model of economic behavior. It would establish multilateral mechanisms for regulating the flow of investment capital and severe penalties and restrictions on speculation in international markets. Most of all, it would mean lifting the strangulating grip of American military might that now girdles the globe.

All of this would require a capacity for re-imagining foreign affairs as something other than a zero-sum game. So far, nothing in Obama’s line-up of foreign policy and national security mandarins suggests this kind of potential policy deviance. Again, no Rooseveltian “brain trust” is in sight, even though unorthodoxies are called for, not just because of the hopes Obama’s victory have aroused, but because of the urgency of our present circumstances.

If original thinking doesn’t find a home somewhere within this forming administration soon, it will be an omen of an even more troubled future to come, when options not even being considered today may be unavailable tomorrow. Certainly, Americans ought to expect something better than a trip down (the grimmest of) memory lanes into the failed neo-liberalism of yesteryear.

Copyright 2008 Steve Fraser

About the author

Steve Fraser is a visiting professor at New York University and the author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace. He is a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com and co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books).

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts on the FM website about change:

  1. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties, 18 May 2008 – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.
  2. “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt, 21 November 2008
  3. Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008
  4. Obama supporters mugged by reality (and learn not to believe in change!), 9 December 2008
  5. Change you should not have believed in, 10 February 2009
  6. Quote of the Day, 20 May 2009 — Connect the dots between Bush and Obama to see the nice picture.
  7. Stratfor looks at Obama’s foreign policy, sees Bush’s foreign policy, 30 August 2009

13 thoughts on “Steve Fraser compares Obama’s Brainiacs and Roosevelt’s Brain Trust

  1. If last fall was our “Black Tuesday”, then this is Sept. 1930 and by analogy, Obama is not FDR, he is Herbert Hoover. He is behaving much as Hoover did, declaring “Green Shoots”, just like Sept. 1930. Like Hoover, he is using the tools available to “save” what is salvageable from the ruined banking and financial sector. Like Hoover, he is failing to acknowledge the true nature of the current collapse. Here — “A Tale of Two Depressions“, by Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H. O’Rourke, 1 September 2009 — is a brilliant analogy tracking site juxtaposing current events to those of 1930. For more of this thinking, I recommend Steve Keen’s Debtdeflation site. Let’s include these guys in the “New Thinkers” club. One clue that they can help is: no one in power likes what they are saying. Much like FM in this regard.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: There are many possible points of similarity between Hoover and Obama. Most important to remember: Hoover had no ability to respond adequately to events. The necessary economic theory was developed in 1936 by Keynes, and it was only the events of 1929-32 that created the political support for the New Deal.</em>

    We see this today, when even the Bush-Obama programs arouse severe opposition. If Eichengreen and O’Rourke are correct, then the future will be challenging.

  2. “Practically without exception he has chosen to staff his government at its highest levels with refugees from the Clinton years.” Presidents come and go, but the permanent political class endures. That is, the agency staffers, the career government bureaucrats, lobbyists, and their private and noon-profit sector counterparts, remain in place and conduct business as usual despite cosmetic chanages in the senior political leadership. The overarching lie of the modern age is that there is any real difference between the Republicans and Democrats, many of whom belong to the same social circles, attend the same charitable fund-raisers, send their children to the same elite, posh schools, and play golf or tennis together. They are all insiders, the rest of us – Joe/Jane Taxpayer, the great unwashed, are the outsiders. No one on the inside – Democrat or Republican – wants to derail the gravy train, and risk upsetting things. The incestuous nature of American politics does provide, after a fashion, a certain stability – but it also precludes really meaningful reform. Bureaucracies prize stability, shun innovation and dislike unpredictability, all of which threaten the status quo. So, the Kabuki theater that is modern American governance continues unabated.

  3. There is something curiously willful about Obama’s conduct.

    As a partial explanation, he seems to be attempting what I – after having observed numerous lawyers – call “the implied ad hominem.” He seems to be striving to be the “most reasonable” kid on the block, thereby making anyone who might challenge him to appear QED unreasonable.

    This strategy places great value on external appearance while demanding little in terms of underlying substance. Indeed it discourages pursuing substantively worthwhile policies that are risky, heterodox, unpopular, or unsettling. If Obama were an Olympic diver, he would score points for artistic impression; but technical merit would be a different question.

    This NYT article describes how Obama’s style points have yielded little substantive foreign policy results:

    As President Obama welcomes world leaders to the United States this week, he has gone a long way toward meeting his goal of restoring the country’s international standing. Foreign counterparts flock to meet with him, and polls show that people in many countries feel much better about the United States.

    But eight months after his inauguration, all that good will so far has translated into limited tangible policy benefits for Mr. Obama. As much as they may prefer to deal with Mr. Obama instead of his predecessor, George W. Bush, foreign leaders have not gone out of their way to give him what he has sought.

    European allies still refuse to send significantly more troops to Afghanistan. The Saudis basically ignored Mr. Obama’s request for concessions to Israel, while Israel rebuffed his demand to stop settlement expansion. North Korea defied him by testing a nuclear weapon. Japan elected a party less friendly to the United States. Cuba has done little to liberalize in response to modest relaxation of sanctions. India and China are resisting a climate change deal. And Russia rejected new sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program even as Mr. Obama heads into talks with Tehran.

    For an administration whose officials regularly boast of having what they call “the best brand in the world,” there is what Stephen Sestanovich calls growing “frustration with what other countries are prepared to contribute to advancing supposedly common interests.” Personal relations are important, said Mr. Sestanovich, a former Clinton administration ambassador with ties to the current team, but national interests still dominate. “That’s what American presidents generally discover,” he said.

  4. A local bank in our community just “failed” and was taken over by the feds and given to a bank on the opposite coast, no doubt a payoff to some political supporter. “Failure” in this context means that the Freddie and Fanny loans that the Feds had strong-armed the bank into buying during the boom years had now fallen to a value such that the bank didn’t have the requisite reserves (according to whatever accounting rules were in effect that week).

    The local bank was chartered here and gave lots of money to community causes. The shareholders have been wiped out, and the employees say it feels like the Gestapo is in charge, with both the Feds and the New Bank barking out orders. No bailout for them–not remotely big enough to be too big to fail. Silly me, I thought the taking of property without just compensation was in the Bill of Rights.

    If I wanted to own a bank, I’d buy shares – Hmm, but maybe not lately, since the government seems to feel they can just take it and devalue anyone else’s ownership share to zero. Now THAT sure inspires consumer confidence!

  5. Inside the American reality distortion field…

    Until now, the American way of life, including its economy of mass consumption, has depended on maintaining the country’s global preeminence by any means possible: economic, political, and, in the end, military.

    Outside the American reality distortion field…

    Until now, American culture, including its bubble economy of mass consumption, has depended on maintaining the illusion of global preeminence by any means possible: economic, political, and, in the end, military.

  6. From Mr. Fraser’s article:

    A real democratic nationalization of the banks — good value for our money rather than good money to add to their value — should be part of the policy agenda up for discussion in the Obama era.

    This.

    I’ve been frustrated by Obama’s surrounding himself with orthodox, pro-business centrists as well. Since Obama ran as a center-liberal, I keep wanting him to go and do something, well, liberal. But so far he’s mostly continuing Bush’s policies… and the Democrats are still going along with neo-McCarthyite tactics (FOX News, “Congress Votes to Strip ACORN of Federal Funding“, Tuesday Sept. 17th). I hold out hope that Obama, or the Democrats, will eventually do something like nationalize banks instead of under-writing them, or tell insurance companies to take a flying leap. We’ll see.

  7. Our gov has just started mouthing off about how they are going to cause decent broadband connections to happen in rural areas .
    My reaction was , that I cant see this is anything to do with gov, or taxpayers money , whatsoever . Plus , thought through , better business homeworking facilities in the countryside , make it harder for local manual workers to afford the limited supply of local homes , already a problem .
    Which made me think about healthcare . In UK the National Health service was created shortly after end WW2 . Although there had been strikers and slackers ,as ever , through the war , most people felt a deep comradeship for each other . Your healthcare reform might have flown through with everyone’s blessing , very shortly after 9/11. But the moment has passed . Iraq , Afgh , the bailouts , immigration , big lies exposed – who would trust anyone from gov to even go and fetch them a pint of milk ?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You write as if the UK system is unusual and ours is typical. That’s backwards. Our health care system is unique among developed nations both in its structure, cost, and dysfunctionality. Everybody else has either a government-run or strongly government regulated system (e.g., the mixed public-private systems in Europe).

  8. Yes , but I think , ( could be wrong )when Europe/Canada /UK created their systems , the public had not just been kicked in the teeth by politicians .
    If I was Obama , I would ( resign and become a suburban vetinarian instead ) appeal to the nation for a little , easy thing from everyone ( $5 ? knit a blanket ? Grow an acorn ? walk a mile ?) for some good cause ( premature babies ? treating prostate cancer ? ), then ask for a public referendum on the biggy – single payer . Resign if I lost or couldnt get it through the House.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t believe it is accurate to say “the public had not just been kicked in the teeth by politicians.” In fact, IMO nothing unusual has ocurred. All this is SOP.

    Your intuition is correct, IMO, in a larger sense. Everybody else’s national health care systems were installed during the peak era of the State’s power and legitimacy. Now we’re in the era of the State’s decline, during which people increasingly mistrust the State — and give their loyalty to other entities (larger or smaller). In this new era expansion of the government’s power becomes difficult. But not impossible.

  9. In the end, Obama shares the delusions of Europe and the third world, he is not genuinely an American in any intellectual sense. This leaves him substanceless in a world that is losing patience with his “image is everything” retinue of yes men.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I would love to see your evidence for the first sentence. As for the second, I agree — as this is pretty much the norm for our politicos. We must prefer those kind of folks, since we elect so many.

  10. N. N. Taleb says convert the debt to equity “Time to tackle the real evil: too much debt“, Finacial Times, 13 July 2009.

    Niall Ferguson says restructure and pay down debt, nationalize the banks: “Beyond the Age of Leverage: Alternative Cures for the Global Financial Crisis“, 2 February 2009.

    Michael Hudson says change tax system to punish “rentiers”: “A Tax Program for U.S. Economic Recovery“, iTulip, February 2009.

    Do I worry when the economic adviser to Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign makes a lot of sense to me? You have no idea.

    All the above are variations on Keynes’s quip, per Krugman, “He tells us that the “euthanasia of the rentier” may be imminent, because thrift no longer serves a social function.”

    Put these guys in Obama’s “New Ideas” club as well. Some oligarchs will love that.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: As always, I give the same reply to these. Many or all of these might be inspired solutions. But the problem is not a lack of solutions. The problems are obvious, at some level, to most Americans. We lack the collective will to put the political machinery in motion, and leaders with sufficient skills to assemble the necessary coalition.

  11. Fabius, you said “The problems are obvious, at some level, to most Americans. We lack the collective will to put the political machinery in motion, and leaders with sufficient skills to assemble the necessary coalition.

    I don’t completely agree with your first statement. There are still too many clueless people out there who are brainwashed/hypnotized by the MSM, Rush, Beck, WSJ, CNN, etc. I have no “proof” for my statement other than my daily conversations with colleagues, friends, and BS-ing with strangers. I will concede that most people believe there is something very wrong with the country, they have vague notions about what it is, and they are looking for a scapegoat. Unfortunately the scapegoat of choice for most is Obama. Hardcore partisan Dems blame the Republicans. Carter blames the racists. I personally can’t muster anything other than severe disdain, disgust, and anger at the oligarchy’s two-party puppet show. It is painful to watch. Fiddling while Rome burns indeed.

    I would love nothing more than to break through this gridlock and elect officials willing to gut the system and make it function again. The odds seem very much stacked against us. How would you suggest we go about accomplishing this?

    On a side note, Noam Chomsky spelled out what the Obama Administration was going to be all about during an interview in January of 2009. It seems fairly prescient to me.

  12. One can’t explain America’s unique problems as being due to the same things that everyone else complains about too:
    1) Everyone hates their politicians and think they are incompetent self serving liars.
    2) Everyone thinks that there are (still) too many stupid people and that general education needs to be improved
    3) Everyone thinks that not enough attention is paid to politics and everyone else is politically naive.

    When you compare American politicians are not really any more worse, the education level is not too bad and political information if anything is more widely available and Americans if anything are more politically active then the average westerner. So if you think the root cause is any one of these then you are probably wrong because countries without Americas problems also have them.

    One has to ask what are the real differences:
    1) Positive attitude that borders on hubris
    2) Beggar thy neighbor attitude to American society
    3) Nationalism

    These are all characteristics of third world countries (not the developed world) so it’s useful to look at them to see parallels. And America also has one big difference they don’t have:

    4) The culture is in a bubble sealed from the outside world with strong mechanisms to convert any dissonance into acceptable ideas, and American bubble is increasingly at odds with reality.
    5) In the bubble it is known the American values are universal and everyone wants to become an American. In the real world that is completely wrong.

  13. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the only real citizens are now corporate, and the only real speech is money. We no longer have taxation with representation. It will be interesting to see how our Dumbocracy reacts this time to the tyranny of foreign powers.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: There are some indications the opposite is true. Two posts from the Volokh Conspiracy —

    (1) Sotomayor & Corporate Rights, 13 September 2009: “Should the law treat corporations as legal persons? The newest justice may think not — or at least that’s the impression some have drawn from a comment she made at the Citizens United oral argument last week.”

    (2) Government Instructing Private Corporation To Stop Expressing Certain Opinions About Health Care Reform?, 21 September 2009: “Here’s a letter from the Department of Health & Human Services Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to Humana, Inc., a leading health insurance company; the letter is apparently demanding that Humana stop sending this mailing…”

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