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Respect the Office

By Brian | September 7, 2009 | Share on Facebook

Four years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I wrote this about the way the nation was treating President George W. Bush:

This is a bad sign for our country. Much as Watergate lifted the “nod and wink” attitude of the press and the public that John F. Kennedy enjoyed, this willingness to “Blame First” threatens to poison our national dialogue for years to come. We’re stripping away yet another layer of logical debate and respect for our leaders, and we’re doing it in a world where our internal squabbles are increasing played out on the world stage.

This is a great country. It’s one of a very few in the world where one can criticize the leadership freely, publicly and without fear of retribution. There was a time where this gave us a great sense of pride and freedom in our nation. Over the past decade or so (one could argue that this attitude began with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky), this right we hold so dear has been hijacked and used to make us feel less free, less secure, and less invested in seeing our government and our nation succeed.

The President, whoever he/she may be, will always have enemies. If those enemies feel free to indiscriminately paint him/her as the cause for all evil and strife in the world, we will all suffer the consequences. We absolutely must find a way to hold the president accountable for his/her mistakes, without clouding the argument with hyperbole that serves only to heap more shit on the pile in hopes that it will increase the stink.

God Bless America. God Bless the people of New Orleans. And yes, dammit, God Bless the President of the United States.

Tomorrow at noon, President Barack Obama will address the nation’s school children on the occasion of their return to school for the 2009/2010 school year. When this was first announced, there was a vocal minority of parents who strenuously objected. Some threatened to keep their children home from school. Some school districts announced that they would not show the address to their students in response to parental objections. A friend of mine, who’s name I won’t use here, summed up the feeling thusly:

I don’t want my son to hear a speech that I don’t know the content of, without me there to explain, answer questions or mediate. I don’t need Barack Obama indoctrinating my son into Socialism without being there to counter what he says. . . . I don’t look up to him, I think he is systematically ruining this country. . . . I don’t trust him. I don’t know what he’s going to say, and I don’t know why he needs to address school children absent their parents. What does he have to say that we can’t hear?

As I feared, the way we perceive and interact with the President of the United States has continued along the trajectory that started with Nixon/Watergate, and proceeded through to Reagan to Clinton and to Bush. It is no longer a strong enough sentiment to disagree with the President’s politics. Disagreeing with a particular program, or even offering reasonable alternatives, no longer ranks as sufficient political opposition. Influencing your Congressional representatives by engaging them in debate (at a town hall meeting, for instance) or by writing them a strongly worded e-mail or letter, or even by voting against them in the next election is no longer considered a full and free expression of your duty as a citizen. We’ve reached the point now, where in order to truly be against the President, you have to question his motives. Barack Obama cannot simply be wrong about bank bailouts, stimulus packages and healthcare reform. If you are truly a member of the “other team,” you have to believe that he is intent on “indoctrinating [your children] into Socialism.”

I should be quick to point out that the friend I’ve quoted above is not one of those nutcases who believes that a gay, Jewish Congressman from Massachusetts is in favor of Nazi policies. She is a well-read, intelligent woman with whom I typically agree on political matters. We can, and have, had civil and informative conversations about politics. She has taught me some things I didn’t know and, I dare say, I have taught her some things as well. And so, while it would be easy to write my friend off as temporarily insane, instead I find myself thinking back to the words I wrote in 2005 about how we treated our President, and what the next level of escalation would be. And now we find ourselves in this place, where the President of the United States cannot speak to the children of America, without first clearing his remarks with parents who question his motives for doing so. Not the content of the speech, mind you, but his reason for giving it.

The epilogue to this story, ironically, occurred before the speech itself. In response to these concerns, President Obama released the text of his remarks ahead of the actual speech. After reading them, my friend said this:

I am really happy they released the remarks in advance. I plan to watch it with my kids so that they can be inspired by this speech, which I think will go a long way toward getting kids to appreciate their education and their VERY hardworking teachers.

And so once again, my friend and I agree. If you’d like to inspire your kids as well, the speech will be carried live on C-SPAN at 12pm EDT. The White House web site has also provided a live video feed:

Good luck to all our students in 2009/2010. May they learn, amongst other things, to respect the authority figures in their lives – their parents, their teachers, their coaches, their counselors, and yes, the President of the United States. Maybe, as President Obama says in his speech, when the President addresses American school children in twenty or fifty or one hundred years, he or she will look back on this generation as the one that turned the tide away from suspicion and distrust, and toward mutual respect, responsibility and accountability for all.

Topics: Political Rantings | 32 Comments »

32 Responses to “Respect the Office”

  1. Jeff Porten says at September 8th, 2009 at 12:20 am :
    I find it moderately amazing that you can write a post in general defense of Obama which *still* can make my teeth grind.

    Someday, it would be nice to live in a country where anyone gives a damn about factual accuracy. You have this habit of drawing parallels — “gee, a lot of people are pissed off at Obama, just like a lot of people used to be pissed off at Bush” — which gives this veneer of moral equivalence to the two sides.

    There is no such equivalence. With no specific offense intended towards your friend, people who think Obama is indoctrinating the nation’s youth into a socialist paradise are, by their own admission, ignorant. Ignorant of socialism. And ignorant of Obama’s policies. A socialist government does not bail out banks and car companies. A socialist government nationalizes them. Furthermore — a socialist government believes that nationalization is a moral good, and will argue in favor of it from first principles.

    If someone wishes to argue that Obama is too liberal, I’m glad to have that debate — I think he’s far too moderate. But when someone drops the word socialist, proving that they’ve already been drinking from the indoctrination punchbowl, generally that discussion is going to be a waste of breath.

    On the other hand, those of us who opposed the Bush administration (and continue to oppose continued policies therefrom), generally made cogent and detailed arguments against the facts known at the time — and have had those arguments displayed as prescient as more facts were revealed later. (Or, to put it another way before you point to straw men arguments — *I* made cogent and detailed arguments on limited data, and have generally been proven more correct as more data were released.) Sorry, but if you’re surprised that Tom Ridge says that the alert system was used for political purposes, you simply weren’t paying attention. But at the time, those who did were called Bush-haters — and gee, they still are, here and elsewhere.

    Facts matter. Sometimes, the partisans on one side or the other are actually correct. My side — which is to say “progressives” (and not “Democrats”) — has a track record of which I’m proud, and no one seems to give a damn.

    At one time, Americans who self-identified as educated were embarrassed when they were shown to be profoundly misinformed. And people who had a track record of being correct gained credibility in public debate.

    Me, I think it’s about time we stopped arguing with furniture. I’m not going to draw a distinction between the people too ignorant to know that Obama is not a Nazi, those too ignorant to know that Hawaii is a state, and those too ignorant to know the difference between socialism and Keynesian capitalism. I’ll instead hope that some minority of the ignorant — including myself, if I happen to show any — can still feel shame about the gaps in their education, and learn to do better.

  2. Jeff Porten says at September 8th, 2009 at 12:28 am :
    Amazing. Two minutes after writing that, my RSS feed shows me a cartoon expressing much the same idea:

    http://www.salon.com/comics/tomo/2009/09/08/tomo/index.html?source=rss

  3. Brian says at September 8th, 2009 at 12:35 am :
    Sorry, Jeff, I ain’t buying it.

    This isn’t about supporting Bush or supporting Obama. This is about showing respect to the President of the United States, even when (especially when) you disagree with him.

    I’ve long had bones to pick with those who unfairly criticized the Bush administration, and I have similar bones to pick with those who unfairly criticize the Obama administration. Beyond my quest for fair and constructive criticism, I draw no implicit paralells between the two.

    But I will draw paralells between those who called Bush a Nazi and those who call Obama a socialist. And I do believe that the same caustic attitude that lead some to accuse Bush of “rewriting the Constitution” is what causes people to accuse Obama of “systematically ruining the country.”

    There’s debate and then there’s hyperbole. And when hyperbole becomes the accepted form of communication, the debate is either drowned out or ceases to exist.

  4. Craig says at September 8th, 2009 at 5:13 am :
    I understand that the characterizations of Bush as a Nazi and Obama as a Socialist are signs of ignorance. I don’t believe it matters whether one is hopelessly ignorant or chooses to be uniformed; I agree with Jeff that 99% of the time, it’s analogous to having a rational conversation with an irrational person. It’s pointless. Your friend appears to be among the 1% willing to admit her ignorance and take the steps to overcome it. Kudos to her.

    What I don’t understand is this blanket concept of “respecting the president because he is the president.”

    If George Bush slapped Laura Bush in the face, would you respect him?

    If George Bush shot and killed a man without provocation, would you respect him?

    And here’s one to ponder…

    I never thought GW Bush was evil, however:

    If a President is not smart enough to realize that his VP and other non-elected officials are manipulating him in order to fill their pockets (at the expense of American lives, no less), would you respect him?

    Obama, Clinton, George H Bush…these are incredibly intelligent men. Whether or not you like their politics, they earned our respect.

    GWB only earned our disrespect – particularly when he ran for a second term at a position for which he was highly unqualified.

  5. Janet says at September 8th, 2009 at 7:54 am :
    As someone whose political views clearly align more with Jeff and Craig than with Brian (though more with Brian than with some others whom I’ve found to be less willing or able to engage in thoughtful, informed discussion), I still want to say something about respect – not for the person, but for the office and the system.

    While I agree with Jeff that Obama is too moderate for my preferences, my position on the left does not include a call for socialist revolution. I am invested in change from within the system, and that doesn’t work if its value is undermined from either/any side. My children heard in is much detail as they wanted or were ready for what I objected to about President Bush as a person and as a politician, and certainly as someone who represented specific policies. But I did not make references to smells of sulfur in the White House (though I explained them when used by others), and I called him President Bush (even though I also discussed with them my concerns about how he ended up in the office, both times).

    Whether I liked his personal conviction that God had chosen him to be president, or his policies on many many issues, he was still my President, and I wanted him to be responsible for and to me and those with similar convictions – if I don’t respect the office merely because I disagree with – and perhaps don’t respect – the holder of the office, then I am without a president, and that’s not a good place to be.

    If nothing else, it seems to give the holder of the office free reign to ignore my concerns and convictions, as I have separated myself from the policy.

    Even a cursory knowledge of 20th century history (and I admit that I have more than a cursory knowledge myself) demonstrates quite quickly that George H.W. Bush was not a fascist, and that Barack H. Obama is not a socialist. To apply either label to either president is to do damage to the study of history, but more importantly, also to opportunities to work for change (whatever change we each may want) within our political system.

    I agree with Craig that not all politicians deserve our personal respect (and I’d hope that any president who committed murder wouldn’t be president long).

    I very much agree with Jeff that there are too many facile comparisons out there between President Obama and President Bush that gloss over what we know to be real and substantive differences on profoundly important levels.

    But I also agree with Brian that a certain level of respect for the office and civil discourse is necessary if productive change is our goal. I’m glad Brian’s friend is happy with the speech, and I’m glad she was able to read it and then able to see that it didn’t say what she feared it would. Many who view the president similarly to her are no longer capable of doing that; they will find a devil in the details because it is all they can see any longer, no matter what is really there. When that happens, it precludes any political change, whatever your goals.

  6. Brian says at September 8th, 2009 at 8:21 am :
    Well said, Janet. Keep finding ways to agree with everyone like that and you can run for office yourself soon. ;-)

    @Craig – I think it’s important to note that when politicians truly do things to lose our respect for them personally, history has shown our propensity for throwing them out of office. Examples: Richard Nixon, Rob Blogojevich, the various congressmen over the years who have sexually assaulted or mistreated others while in office. You could even make the argument that Bill Clinton’s actions vis-a-vis the women in his life got him awfully close to being thrown out, but that gets into the witch-hunt that was Whitewater, etc., so it probably clouds the issue.

    Your assessment of George W. Bush’s intelligence, and many of the concerns Janet highlights rise, in my opinion, to a disagreement with his policies and the execution thereof. And, as Janet so eloquently said, arguing that these disagreements make him unfit to hold office or unworthy of our respect, take you out of the productive debate that can change those policies, which is never a good thing.

  7. Lisa Rafal says at September 8th, 2009 at 9:02 am :
    I had no idea my comments would be launched into a blog entry. I will have to copyright my comments from now on.
    So, that said, let me defend myself against the person who calls me ignorant and uninformed…when the government takes over the auto industry, supports the banking industry, gives people money to buy cars, and talks about nationalizing health care, what else are we talking about? Obama has set out to grow an unwieldy government to which the proletariat, I mean citizenry, of this country turns for every necessity.
    So, Jeff, with due respect, when a President sets out to create a system that is government controlled rather than allowing a free market solution to a problem, what are we to think his agenda is? The cost for all of this added government intervention will be more tax burden and less freedom of choice.
    Now, let’s talk about respecting the office. My personal feeling is the President Obama has done enough to strip the office of dignity by bowing to foreign leaders, walking the earth apologizing for our “bad behavior”, and his own verbal missteps. Now, to be clear, I don’t say the GWB was the best President we ever had. I don’t think he was very intelligent, nor do I think he was a great orator, however, his political ideaologies, for the most part, were more in step with my own than this President’s. And I don’t trust this President. I think he is dangerous for this country in so many ways, and I see all of this unconditional support for him as scary. For those of us who aren’t on the Obama-train, it looks like this country is on an electric kool-aid acid trip and just can’t see what is really happening. And so, yes, maybe it is overly reactionary to oppose the President speaking to school children, but it is because we are genuinely afraid of this man and what he seems capable of doing to this country. These are our children, our most precious resources and the future of our country, indeed the world. Having had the opportunity to see the comments in advance, I don’t have a problem with it. It was the uncertainty of what he would say to these children that had me questioning why it needed to be in a setting where children were absent their parents, their most valuable moral compass.
    I’m not a “Who Moved My Cheese?” kind of person, I can tolerate change. What I can’t tolerate is the systematic dismantling of the fundamental principles upon which the founding fathers began this nation. At least that’s how I see it. Now I am prepared for you to call me crazy, off-balance, a racist, or any of the other myriad things that left-leaning folks call us Conservatives these days. And there is no need for me to respond because as we all know, when one is sane in an insane place, the more you protest your sanity, the crazier you look. For the record, I am an Ivy League educated person, with a near genius IQ, I am not a racist, a bigot or a gun fanatic. I believe in freedom of speech, the pursuit of happiness, the legalization of both marijuana and gay marriage, and in working hard to achieve a better station in life. Just for the record.

  8. Brian says at September 8th, 2009 at 9:55 am :
    So much for “name withheld to protect the innocent,” huh?

    Lisa, I’ve been avoiding debating Jeff on the issues here, because my point was more about how we treat the President and the office. But for the record, I think it’s disingenuous for Jeff to wave off claims of socialism because President Obama didn’t nationalize the banks. There are at least three large companies under direct federal control now (CitiGroup, Chrysler and GM), and AIG was run by a government appointee for most of 2009. Some of his other policies (more czars than cabinet positions? Government approval of compensation packages? Government approval of the composition of tobacco products?) also smack of direct government control, rather than tougher regulations and/or enforcement of the law. It is these things that make the Salon comic misleading – concerns about what has happened, not about what might happen.

    That said, your conclusion that Obama intends to turn America into a socialist nation is, in my opinion, off the mark. I think he has the best interests of the country at heart, but doesn’t trust private industry or private citizens to do the right thing without him. As I’ve said before, it’s ironic that the most inspiring President we’ve had in almost 30 years chooses to seek results by mandate, rather than by inspiring others.

    More to my original point, though, my problem starts when your disagreements turn to unconditional distrust, and when you switch from “I don’t trust this President” to “WE are genuinely afraid of this man.” When you speak for yourself, you make cogent (although debatable) arguments. When you speak for the “royal we,” you sound to me like a missionary – one who wants to convert the non-believers to the “Obama is evil” camp.

    I’m suggesting that your policy disagreements should be enough to spark debate, and that this sense of communal mistrust leads only to apprehension about the most innocent of things (like a “work hard and stay in school” speech that you liked when you read the actual content).

  9. Janet says at September 8th, 2009 at 10:33 am :
    I think I did a little agreeing so that I could do a lot of disagreeing (not least with you, Brian). I was, however, trying to do it in a way that permitted rather than precluded further discussion. As for public office – NEVER.

  10. Lisa Rafal says at September 8th, 2009 at 3:57 pm :
    Brian, the “we” of whom I speak, is not a “royal we” it is a group of people with whom I share opinions and feelings about this administration and it’s direction. I can name names if you’d like, but I need “their” permission first.

  11. Jeff Porten says at September 8th, 2009 at 4:35 pm :
    @Brian #3:

    Sorry, Jeff, I ain’t buying it. This isn’t about supporting Bush or supporting Obama. This is about showing respect to the President of the United States, even when (especially when) you disagree with him.

    Sorry, Brian, I ain’t buying that. Your “polite respect for the office” sounds a lot to me like the Divine Right of Kings. If Lisa honestly believes that Obama is an existential threat to the country, then dammit, she should be out on the street waving signs, forwarding emails, and doing whatever she can to foment opposition to the man and his policies. It was precisely this lack of massive, organized opposition to GWB which allowed him to be such a festering pustule on the American track record.

    I’m not attacking Lisa’s motives or her actions; in fact, I’m completely in support of the latter. My argument was against her stated reasoning, which is factually incorrect. More on that anon.

    @Craig #4:

    What I don’t understand is this blanket concept of “respecting the president because he is the president.” If George Bush shot and killed a man without provocation, would you respect him? I never thought GW Bush was evil….

    And here’s what I don’t understand, Craig. I’ve come to the conclusion that the invasion of Iraq was as close to a war without provocation as we’ve had since at least the early 1900s. Note: unlike the socialism argument, this is still widely regarded to be a subjective conclusion, as many people seem to think that “cherry picking the evidence to support the conclusion you want to arrive at” somehow counts as justifiable provocation. Me, I hold the president to a higher standard, but I can’t prove that point conclusively.

    So my question is why you draw a moral distinction between shooting a man personally, and arranging for 250,000 people who are required to follow his orders to shoot tens of thousands, and to be murdered themselves in the thousands. In my opinion, this exercise of power must have a high bar in order to be morally justified, and in the absence of that justification, it is quite appropriate to start using words like “evil.”

    @Janet #5:

    Even a cursory knowledge of 20th century history (and I admit that I have more than a cursory knowledge myself) demonstrates quite quickly that George H.W. Bush was not a fascist, and that Barack H. Obama is not a socialist.

    Assuming you meant GWB, Janet, I think there’s a much stronger argument to be made about Bush’s fascist tendencies than you’re giving credit for. You’ve got control of government by private interests, the offloading of the public good to profit-making enterprises, an overall drive towards totalitarian information control on the part of the central government, lack of restrictions on government force, and the demonization of political opposition. That’s quite the Benito package, right there.

    Where I think that the fascism argument falls short is that Bush is so wrapped up in his Godly certitude that he is not a self-styled fascist; I believe that he truly believed that his fascist-parallel policies were somehow in the name of American freedom. This, of course, is why we educate Americans, so we can point out what clothes the emperor is wearing, no matter how fine he claims them to be.

    But I also agree with Brian that a certain level of respect for the office and civil discourse is necessary if productive change is our goal.

    Civil discourse, yes. Respect for each other, absolutely. Respect for the office? No. That has to be earned by each president. At least, that’s the Founders’ model. Our job as citizens is supposed to be a political position of skepticism and, if you will pardon the phrase, constant vigilance.

    @Brian #6:

    I think it’s important to note that when politicians truly do things to lose our respect for them personally, history has shown our propensity for throwing them out of office. Examples: Richard Nixon, Rob Blogojevich, the various congressmen over the years who have sexually assaulted or mistreated others while in office.

    Not at all. America’s worst presidents–Buchanan, Grant, Hoover among them–were not impeached. Nixon was impeached because he broke the law, and showed a high level of contempt for any law which restricted him. Blagojevich, likewise.

    If you’re elected to office, you’ve got a better than 99.9% chance of finishing out your term. This position, IMO, has been improved by the Republican strategy of using impeachment as a defense against blowjobs, which helped move discussion of another impeachment “so soon” after Clinton’s to the political fringe, despite it being so richly warranted.

    @Lisa #7:

    First — apologies if you perceived me as making an ad hominem attack. Brian is used to my overheated rhetorical style, so I usually just cut loose with it here. But my argument is meant to be against this particular position you’re taking, rather than you personally. Feel free to substitute “acting ignorantly in this regard” where I used the shorthand “ignorant”; I know Brian well enough to know that he doesn’t get along well with fools or dummies, so I already know you’re neither.

    That said….

    let me defend myself against the person who calls me ignorant and uninformed…when the government takes over the auto industry, supports the banking industry, gives people money to buy cars, and talks about nationalizing health care, what else are we talking about?

    This specifically is my point. A socialist government would not have “moved towards” taking over the auto industry, or “set the stage” for government control of banking. It would have nationalized those businesses, plain and simple. That’s what socialism is. A socialist believes in this, just as strongly as you support the free market, and does not feel the need to shamefully hide his actions. A socialist would fervently argue for these beliefs — and if Obama chose to do so, I expect he would do one hell of a good job.

    Obama has taken no socialist actions in office, and has vigorously opposed people within his own party who have argued in favor of even minimal nationalization. The sole example of this: nationalizing health care insurance through a single-payer plan. Not health care — health care insurance. I presume you can tell the difference between the two.

    Personally, I think there’s a strong argument in favor of single-payer, and perhaps an argument to be made that some banking functions should be nationalized as well — but that latter argument has yet to be proposed, and I strongly doubt it ever will be.

    Compared to the post-WWII American political spectrum, Obama is liberal; compared to the wider range of democratic governments over history, he’s center-left. There is a vast amount of political distance between Obama’s policies and what is usually termed “social democracy”, which itself is quite removed from socialism. If you fail to understand this, then in this particular regard, you are speaking ignorantly. And if you consider that “socialism” has been used as a right-wing scare tactic since the beginnings of the Cold War, by parroting the term without understanding it, you are acting as a rabble-rousing demagogue.

    There are many arguments to be made against Obama’s policies. I myself have quite a few, which I doubt you’d agree with. The socialism attack, however, is not an argument, is not rational, and succeeds only because it has an audience which remains willfully ignorant of history and politics.

    So, Jeff, with due respect, when a President sets out to create a system that is government controlled rather than allowing a free market solution to a problem, what are we to think his agenda is? The cost for all of this added government intervention will be more tax burden and less freedom of choice.

    Lisa, with all due respect, your choice of several buzzwords in this paragraph leads me to believe that answering you will be a waste of time for both of us. However….

    “Government controlled”: Obama’s actions are regulatory, not confiscatory. Corporate interests have a seat at the discussion table, and seem to be steering the political debate at the cost of leftist interests who supported Obama’s election.

    “Free market solution”: every major theorist who has written about free markets, dating back to Adam Smith, has included the understanding that free markets can fail. You seem to fail to grasp this point. In health care, the free market has failed by leaving millions without access to medicine, by overtreating the overinsured, and by setting up a profit-taking system which deliberately disconnects purchasers from the usual constraints of the marketplace. In banking and finance, many believed (and some still do) that we were on the brink of a global Great Depression.

    Personally, I believe that the role of government is to “promote the general welfare, and insure the blessings of liberty,” both of which were radically harmed in the years 1933-1945. Santayana had it right. Therefore, I prefer government action to a religious and ill-formed belief in the free market.

    My personal feeling is the President Obama has done enough to strip the office of dignity by bowing to foreign leaders, walking the earth apologizing for our “bad behavior”

    Lisa, you don’t want a president, you want a king. Presidents are commoners. They bow as they choose to do so, and it doesn’t make one whit of difference to their political power, or the stature of the nations they represent. In fact, insofar as it is a free way of doing diplomacy to the great benefit of the nation, I’d argue that this is something that only wise leaders, unburdened by ego, can accomplish.

    And for the past 3,000 years or so, unprovoked invasions, imprisonment without trial, and torture have all been considered “bad behavior” on the part of governments. We have done all three. You may not like the realization that most of human history disagrees with you on this. But if you want Americans to be able to do whatever they damn well please without censure or apology, then you want to live in a monarchy which can project enough oppressive force to deflect all opposition. Historically, all such nations have disastrously collapsed. I’d rather live in a suitably apologetic democracy, myself.

    For those of us who aren’t on the Obama-train, it looks like this country is on an electric kool-aid acid trip and just can’t see what is really happening.

    Congratulations. You are repeating what I’ve been saying for the last eight years. The difference, so far, is that I backed up this statement with factual evidence. When you can do the same, then as I said before, I sincerely hope you will present this evidence as vociferously as you do your intangible arguments.

    What I can’t tolerate is the systematic dismantling of the fundamental principles upon which the founding fathers began this nation. At least that’s how I see it.

    And yet you argue so strenuously against them.

    Please, do me a favor. When you have a chance, read The Federalist Papers, or de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. If you want to base your arguments on first principles, it is a good idea to know them.

    Now I am prepared for you to call me crazy, off-balance, a racist, or any of the other myriad things that left-leaning folks call us Conservatives these days.

    Lisa — you have said nothing crazy or racist, and if you are off-balance in your passion about your beliefs, then so am I. Probably more so. What I said was that your argument was ignorant. Don’t pretend I am saying other things about you, so you can shield yourself with the mistaken belief that I am attacking you, and not your argument.

    I am an Ivy League educated person, with a near genius IQ, I am not a racist, a bigot or a gun fanatic. I believe in freedom of speech, the pursuit of happiness, the legalization of both marijuana and gay marriage, and in working hard to achieve a better station in life. Just for the record.

    Cool. We share some background, some genetic traits, and some beliefs. I don’t know what bearing this has on the argument, but I’m glad to stipulate to these.

    @Brian #8:

    I think it’s disingenuous for Jeff to wave off claims of socialism because President Obama didn’t nationalize the banks. There are at least three large companies under direct federal control now (CitiGroup, Chrysler and GM), and AIG was run by a government appointee for most of 2009.

    Last time I checked such actions were the normal way of doing business under corporate bankruptcy law, yes? The court appoints a receiver and controls certain aspects of corporate operation.

    If you want to argue the specifics of how the government is regulating these companies, that’s another blog post, and another 5,000 words. I’m saying that Obama’s actions are not socialist. You are agreeing with me here — there is absolutely no legal corpus which is so resolutely capitalist in scope and theory as bankruptcy law.

    Some of his other policies (more czars than cabinet positions? Government approval of compensation packages? Government approval of the composition of tobacco products?) also smack of direct government control, rather than tougher regulations and/or enforcement of the law.

    Hey, we actually agree on a few of these things. I’m skeptical of the “new layers of bureaucracy” approach, and while I think that the FDA should damn well regulate cigarettes, I think they’re taking the wrong steps to doing so. But until the FDA starts growing its own tobacco in ol’ Virginny, or forcing the buyout of all the current farms doing so, it’s not socialism.

    You’re being skeptical of liberal policies. Huge difference.

  12. Janet says at September 8th, 2009 at 6:45 pm :
    First, thanks for correcting my initials, Jeff; I was typing in too much haste and certainly meant 43 and not 41. You and I share a number of political views (as well as genetic traits, life experiences, positions on social issues, etc). You also write with great eloquence, strong command of detail, and (I think) more spare time than I have. I have no interest at all in arguing with you. However, I’m going to maintain my stand that the fascism argument isn’t terribly useful or terribly accurate – there were aspects, as you’ve identified, but that doesn’t make the most recent administration fascist any more than some of Obama’s more liberal actions make him a socialist. I am impressed by your command of early American history, but you are not doing justice to the fascism of either Italy or Germany in the last century – President Bush had eight whole years and didn’t accomplish (if that’s the right word) anything like the societal and governmental changes of Mussolini and Hitler in their first few; I do not believe that to have been his goal. I have many, extraordinarily serious, critiques of President Bush’s actions (and those of others in his name); I will not undermine them by applying a catchy and powerful but I believe inaccurate label to them.

  13. Jeff Porten says at September 8th, 2009 at 8:34 pm :
    Janet — Brian and I have a 20-year track record of finding that arguing with each other is an irresistible time sink. I’m just glad that I got away with spending only an hour on that last comment; usually, they take longer.

    No arguments at all with your points — Bush is not Hitler or Mussolini, and the parallels I drew were just that, illustrative parallels. Also agreed that the fascism attack works much better as a red meat rhetorical device when preaching to the choir; it doesn’t win converts.

    That said, I have two emotional arguments which argue against my rational agreement, as follows:

    1) As I mentioned, that socialism charge has worked to marginalize the left since the 1940s, and it still works today, 20 years after the Cold War ended. Historically, that’s a bit odd, since it was the Cold War which fueled anticommunist fervor; before that, communism was a fringe movement here, but not reviled. International Labor Day celebrates a protest held in Chicago.

    That’s one thing which the American right does really well: they attack us as traitors, and we respond with Marquess of Queensbury rules. “Heavens, no, we couldn’t possibly allow a discussion of fascism into mainstream political debate!” Pick another word if you like; our side needs to someday learn a command of rhetoric which allows us to move public opinion as easily and cheaply as their side does.

    My thinking: on the global political spectrum, Bush is far from Mussolini. However, within the much narrower American spectrum, yes, there’s an antidemocratic impulse on the right which deserves words like “fascist” and “totalitarian”. Our refusal to use them (outside of media which preaches to the choir, that is) cedes too much territory to the other side. It’s about time we took up the mantle and started wrapping ourselves in the flag from time to time — history says that we’re quite entitled to do so.

    2) Beyond that, it’s an ongoing argument I have with Brian that Bad Things Can Happen Here. I don’t think America has a magic inoculation against the infection that killed the Weimar Republic. It’s my opinion that certain people on the right — and this group I will unhesitatingly call “evil” — have a strategy in place to sweep back to power when another terrorist strike occurs. I certainly think that impulse will be strong enough to win elections, much as it did in 2002 and 2004, but I would like to see a stronger American meme against fascism and totalitarianism, to prevent America from going along with their worst impulses if they resume control.

    (Aside to Brian: no, not all Republicans. Not even most. But highly placed ones, speaking for the Republican party? Absolutely.)

  14. Brian says at September 9th, 2009 at 1:22 am :
    First of all, I can’t tell you how it warms my heart that others have the same arguments with Jeff that I do. Does a lot for a guy’s sanity, ya know…

    Jeff: you can’t just redefine words that already have meanings if the current meanings don’t fit your arguments. To wit:

    The President sending troops into battle is not murder. “Murder” has a definition, and that ain’t it. Wrong? Immoral? Ill-fated? Badly executed? All valid arguments if you want to make them, but it’s not murder, and you can’t call it murder and then use that as justification for branding him “evil.”

    “Criminal” also has a definition. And while you may think that Buchanan, Grant and Hoover were amongst our worst presidents, none of them were convicted of committing crimes. And so I stand by my statement that politicians who commit crimes are usually thrown out of office. And sorry – not meeting with your approval (or the approval of the political opposition) is not a crime.

    “Socialism” also has a definition. Dictionary.com uses this one: “a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.” Citigroup and AIG are majority-owned by the government today, and neither has gone bankrupt, so the bankruptcy laws don’t apply one whit. GM and Chrysler did go bankrupt, but they came out of them with >50% government control. And in both cases, the laws of bankruptcy court (secured creditors get paid off at 100 cents on the dollar before unsecured creditors get paid at all) were summarily ignored and/or changed. I’m not sure where you got the idea that socialism only occurs if the government shuts down private industry and turns production into a federal department. The definition allows for many more shades of grey. If my friend Ilya is still reading this (doubtful), he could likely tell you stories of how private companies were handled in the old Soviet Union.

    Oh, and this?

    The [bankruptcy] court appoints a receiver and controls certain aspects of corporate operation. . . there is absolutely no legal corpus which is so resolutely capitalist in scope and theory as bankruptcy law.

    I KNOW you’re not suggesting that there is no difference between the judicial branch and the executive branch. That would positively Cheney-esque of you…

    “Free market” also has a definition. You seem happy to pretend that it means “no government intervention whatsoever,” and then proceed to declare it a failure over and over again. Short of the bartering of ancient times, I can’t think of a single free-market system that didn’t involve some kind of “rules of the road.” The financial system almost failed but did not. The US Healthcare system, which provides healthcare for 85% of its citizens, is badly in need of fixing, but to call it “failed” is just political poppycock – regardless of how many people say it over & over again…

    As for the rest of your “our side needs to…” because “the other side has … for decades,” you just reinforce what I said to Lisa above. “Others agree with me & I can name names” does not add credence to your argument. In my opinion, it’s just justification for moving the debate out of the facts and into the hyperbole (“evil,” “fascist,” “socialist” – take your pick). As this discussion is demonstrating, both sides accuse the other of not having facts (even though both do), both sides accuse the other of cherry picking (both do), and neither side proves anything to anybody.

    At when it’s over, the President (any President) is out to destroy the country and our way of life. Amazingly, though, the country is never destroyed and our way of life continues unabated. But the constant failure of the country to collapse does not deter whichever group’s turn it is to spout this stuff…

  15. Jeff Porten says at September 9th, 2009 at 10:50 am :
    I’ll come back later to whack holes in your argument with a sledgehammer, Brian (although, in some cases, I could use a toothpick — your logic here is not up to its usual levels). But as it happens, I was listening to Olbermann’s 9/4 episode this morning, and he pointed out a factual error I made. Quoting Glenn Beck:

    “You might define their freedom as fascism, but no, no, no, at the time that was done, the progressives thought Mussolini was a good guy. They thought that was the ultimate system of government.”

    I wasn’t aware when I wrote my post that the lunatic fringe right (audience: 2.odd million) was calling us fascists. So by all means, it makes perfect sense for us to remain polite and mannerly. Wishing I could see Janet’s spit-take when she reads this quote.

  16. Brian says at September 9th, 2009 at 12:51 pm :
    Still with the “they are doing X to us” mindset.

    Take it from this Republican: Glenn Beck is an entertainer – no more, no less. His job performance is measured by the number of people who watch his show. And history has shown that the number of people who watch is correlated more highly to the amount of controversy he generates than it is to the amount of sense he makes. That’s why Olbermann (another entertainer) quotes him all the time.

    It’s one thing when the “they” in your arguments is Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. It’s quite another when it’s Beck, Limbaugh and Hannity. Those folks were elected by nobody and represent nobody. I don’t care how many people watch their tripe…

  17. Jeff Porten says at September 10th, 2009 at 11:07 am :
    Brian, I started this thread by calling someone ignorant, and I’m really having to kick myself to prevent throwing the same word at you.

    You have this knack for eliding over intellectual debates which have been going on for centuries, by declaring them obviously over in your own mind. To wit:

    1. War is not murder.

    2. Entertainment is not political.

    Trust me, if you want a PhD in either philosophy or communications, there is ample area in both fields to write a 500-page masterwork on the history of both debates, and to leave plenty of room for the people who will come after you to add to the work.

    I don’t feel like getting into a 5,000 word essay on the moral philosophy of war, so I’ll just ask you this: if war is not murder, then what do you call Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on civilians during the Iran-Iraq war? Or, if you like, the firebombing of Dresden or the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? (Civilian casualties in Halabja: ~4,000; Dresden: 30,000 – 130,000; Hiroshima: 66,000; Nagasaki: 39,000.)

    Most people have a sliding scale of moral judgment on the above, usually based on which uniforms are worn by the bombers and the dead. My sliding scale is based on whether they’re wearing uniforms or civvies. But the sliding scale I completely reject is the idea that if you kill enough people, you can’t call it murder.

    As for the entertainment theory: entertainers have affected political debate for at least 2,000 years. Ever read any Greek or Roman plays or epic poems? Anyone ever tell you why they included what they did?

    Suffice to say, if anyone at Annenberg heard you dismiss Beck as “just an entertainer” who doesn’t affect the political process, the field of scorn created would likely set your hair on fire next time you came back to campus. Beck is part of a social structure which validates, intensifies, and purifies the beliefs of his viewers. Olbermann, of course, does the same. As an outsider to both groups, your position should not be dismissive, it should rather be to ask what is being validated.

    Sigh. Haven’t even gotten to the previous comment yet….

  18. Brian says at September 10th, 2009 at 1:01 pm :
    Jeff – no disagreement with anything you just said, but you’ve conveniently twisted my words into something easy to argue about.

    I didn’t say “War is not murder.” I said “The President sending troops into battle is not murder.” A soldier can most certainly commit murder. A President can also commit war crimes (which is what Hussein was convicted, and ultimately executed, for).

    So, calling George W. Bush a murderer is factually inaccurate, political hyperbole. I don’t need a 5,000 word essay on the morality of war to know that.

    I also didn’t say that “Entertainment is not political,” nor did I say that it “doesn’t affect the political process.” Certainly, Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, Olbermann and the rest are political. So are Stewart, Maher, Letterman and Leno. And while we’re at it, Dylan and Springsteen. What I said was “Those folks were elected by nobody and represent nobody.”

    So, suggesting that Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh represent the Republican Party is factually inaccurate. They may coincidently represent the views of some Republicans, which is all fine & good, but the recent meme that they are now the leaders of the Republican Party is political hyperbole. Again, no PhD required.

  19. Jeff Porten says at September 10th, 2009 at 1:51 pm :
    Dude, are we debating morality or American law? Because either way, your facile dismissal of war as murder doesn’t fly. (I’m not saying it’s incorrect–I’m saying that you’re not defending your argument with your circular reasoning.) As a matter of morality, it’s damn well unclear whether you can call an order to go to an unjust war murder–and let’s skip the several years it would take for us to come to a conclusion on “just war.”

    Under American law, there are any number of reasons why you don’t need to be the triggerman to commit murder. Of course, imperial presidents don’t have to worry about prosecution–but if you want to rest your argument on what charges can be brought in court, then you’re arguing that 50% of all murders committed are not, in fact, murders as they never go to trial.

    As for “representing the Republican party”, I don’t think I claimed that, as I don’t believe it’s factually accurate to claim that anyone can represent a coop of decapitated chickens. I was arguing against your formulation of “entertainers, neither more nor less.” My thinking is that Glenn Beck is more relevant to political debate than Jessica Biel. My thinking is also that it’s fairly fucking dangerous that we’ve simultaneously created a political culture which encourages disruptive dissent (starting, IMO, with the coordinated Republican attack on 2000 vote counts), along with a culture where people bring assault rifles to public fora.

    You want me to draw a logical proof connecting Beck and Limbaugh to that change in the political dialogue? Can’t do it. You want me to point out that some things should be obvious to anyone paying attention? Glad to do so.

  20. Jeff Porten says at September 10th, 2009 at 2:45 pm :
    Oh, what the hell. So long as I’m here and haven’t finished my cigarette:

    “Criminal” also has a definition. And while you may think that Buchanan, Grant and Hoover were amongst our worst presidents, none of them were convicted of committing crimes.

    You didn’t say committed crimes. You said “lose the respect” of the electorate. So far as I know, none of these presidents committed any actual crimes, and arguably Hoover wasn’t even a bad president, just fatally unable to change with the times. As a rule, we are extremely reluctant to throw presidents out of office.

    Citigroup and AIG are majority-owned by the government today, and neither has gone bankrupt, so the bankruptcy laws don’t apply one whit. GM and Chrysler did go bankrupt, but they came out of them with >50% government control.

    Perhaps a wrong citation, then. Last time I checked, the government gained control in all of these cases by investing a metric assload of money into their stocks. In other words, they bought these companies, under the rules of the capitalist system. And as we argued at the time, they (or, I should say, “we”) then proceeded to jump through a vast number of hoops to ensure that government ownership would cut these companies a much better deal than they would have received from private investors.

    That ain’t socialism. That ain’t even social democracy. That’s a capitalist bailout. If we’re buying stock and using bankruptcy courts, we’re playing by the rules of capitalism. A social democracy–which is probably the true definition of what you’re afraid of–would have purchased these companies unapologetically, and would have not made reprivatization one of their explicit goals.

    But here’s where your formulation is really falling apart:

    “Socialism” also has a definition. Dictionary.com uses this one: “a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.”

    You’re missing the meaning of “means of production”. Didn’t you study this stuff at Wharton? Seriously, if you’re going to train capitalists without doing any comparative economics, no wonder our country goes so deep into the shitter when the dominant theories fail–if you don’t learn there are other ways of looking at the world, you tend to treat your pet theories as if they’re as fixed as gravity. Over in the humanities, we learn that nations who feel this way tend to end up on the dustbin of history.

    End of digression. Back to socialism.

    The key words you’re missing: “means of production” and “as a whole”. Some countries have pulled off a mixed socialism–China being an excellent example for the moment–but private companies exist with the permission and under the sufferance of the state. A private widget maker relies on governmental control of the widget’s raw materials. Government ownership of the companies themselves can be a factor as well, but it’s not the dominant factor.

    Therefore: a government can buy as many companies as it likes, and still not be socialist. A government which makes the statement that it is better for a government to control an industry may be tending towards social democratic status–although few would apply that term to Britain, no matter how much of their GDP is invested into the National Health Service.

    I’m not sure where you got the idea that socialism only occurs if the government shuts down private industry and turns production into a federal department. The definition allows for many more shades of grey. If my friend Ilya is still reading this (doubtful), he could likely tell you stories of how private companies were handled in the old Soviet Union.

    There’s a grey area between socialism and social democracy, no question. But the core definition of socialism is that “means of production” phrase. I have no doubt that Ilya has much better on-the-ground understanding of how this worked in the USSR and post-perestroika Russia, but what I’m telling you is based on my understanding across the board of communist, post-communist, and social democratic nations. I’m glad to hear historical evidence which pokes holes in my argument.

    I KNOW you’re not suggesting that there is no difference between the judicial branch and the executive branch. That would positively Cheney-esque of you…

    ‘Course not. Again, my choice of bankruptcy law may have not been the best, and certainly the exceptionalism which the Obama administration brought to the table for these companies makes parallels harder to draw–but the argument that we’re firmly applying a capitalist mindset is not weakened. We’re debating Keynes versus Friedman here, not Marx versus Smith. I find it a bit disheartening that you’re having trouble with the distinction.

    “Free market” also has a definition. You seem happy to pretend that it means “no government intervention whatsoever,” and then proceed to declare it a failure over and over again. Short of the bartering of ancient times, I can’t think of a single free-market system that didn’t involve some kind of “rules of the road.”

    Dude — the rules of the road were trade route bartering, which made this exception laugh-out-loud funny. But you’re still supporting your overall point.

    Anyway… we’ve had this argument before, numerous times. Summarizing: IMO, civilization, economics, and money are all human inventions, and speaking from the standpoint of cultural evolution, exist in order to improve the public good. So, yes, I consider capitalism to have “failed” when it creates a social force which degrades the condition of the people living within it. Such failures are temporary (so far), but if they are not addressed, make the mistake of promoting religious conviction to ideology over the public good which such ideologies were created to promote.

    Hence, I don’t trust free market ideologues. When the free market fails–and really, Brian, I truly hope that you studied that at Wharton; Dutch tulips, anyone?–you work outside of it in order to improve people’s lives. I find that to be a morally superior philosophy over the idea that we should consign billions to poverty rather than change our ideas.

    Some Jews eat bacon. Some Jews who eat bacon think that non-bacon-eating Jews are a bit rigid and doctrinaire in their philosophy. Likewise, some capitalists are Keynesian, and some capitalists believe that other social systems have good ideas which should be borrowed or stolen. Count me in the latter group.

    The financial system almost failed but did not. The US Healthcare system, which provides healthcare for 85% of its citizens, is badly in need of fixing, but to call it “failed” is just political poppycock

    If you define universal health care as a human right, then our system is damn well failed. If you don’t, but it makes you queasy that wealthy grandmas get hip replacements when poor grandmas (64 and under) do not, you’ve got a sliding scale of failure you can apply.

    Meanwhile, if you define failure as “the point at which the government needs to intervene with trillions of dollars”, then yes, we are dealing with the consequences of the failure of the capitalist system from 2006-2008. If you define it as “still workable until we’re eating old shoes and defending ourselves with burning sticks”, then I think you’ve set a pretty low bar.

    In my opinion, it’s just justification for moving the debate out of the facts and into the hyperbole (”evil,” “fascist,” “socialist” – take your pick).

    Yeah, again with the old arguments. You, of course, can call me hyperbolic as much as you wish. It’s a great way of ensuring that my beliefs are relegated to the political fringe, regardless of how mainstream they might be. I’m pointing out that such words are routinely used against me without justification, whereas I use them with justification.

    Getting back to what I said before: I want to live in a nation where we give a damn about facts and history, where logical arguments matter, and where a political debate is not decided by which side is louder and more vitriolic. And since I do give a damn about which side wins, I’d like to see the left and the Democrats learn how to stop being kicked like puppies. Our continued acquiescence to right-wing fanatics is cowardly and shameful.

    At when it’s over, the President (any President) is out to destroy the country and our way of life. Amazingly, though, the country is never destroyed and our way of life continues unabated.

    If you say so. Again, speaking for myself, I have clear memories of working in favor of the International Criminal Court in the 1990s, secure in the belief that Americans were too damned moral to commit war crimes. Or to invade countries without justification. Or, for that matter, to ignore tens of millions of its own people living in poverty and disease.

    Religious faith, no question. History shows that we’re no better than anyone else. But on several of those points, it was historical that we did such things.

    So, yes, I think George W. Bush did destroy certain aspects of the myth of America, and insofar as we give a damn about living up to our patriotic beliefs, it’s necessary to correct his egregious errors. If you want to say that your “way of life” continued regardless–well, that’s a remarkably impoverished view of the American way of life. I suppose I could boil down American ideals to unlimited supplies of Hot Pockets, cheap gasoline, and softcore porn on late night cable. I’d rather not.

  21. Ilya says at September 12th, 2009 at 5:33 pm :
    I fear I can contribute little to this discussion, late as I am in reading through all of the comments. Jeff, you are certainly considerably more conversant in both economics and world history than I am, plus I admire your eloquent ability to modify the meaning of any opposing argument into something that is self-evidently wrong. You ever run for office, you’ll mesmerize crowds no worse than the President.

    Ironically, I agree with quite a lot of what you say, just not when you conjure up an idea that a government has independent means to “buy” as many companies it desires, outside of making the nation collectively owning those companies. Maybe, I have a wrong idea of where the government gets its funds…

    Brian, I can’t, in fact, tell you of stories of private companies in the old USSR. They did not exist then, pure and simple (or, at least, did not exist in a legal sense of the word). And I do not consider myself any sort of expert on the workings of socialist economy. I simply reserve the right to call a “socialist” anyone whose approach to economic and/or social policies leads to a centralized government control at the expense of private enterprise and to removal of market-based incentives for innovation, competition and advancement in the name of egalitarian goals. I’m too scarred by the real thing.

    That being said, you’d be surprised, Jeff, how often I end up arguing more or less your side when in company of my old friends, who’d sign with their own blood under Lisa’s “Obama is dangerous to this country in so many ways”… Oy!

  22. Brian says at September 13th, 2009 at 12:17 am :
    Thanks, Ilya. Your assessment of Jeff’s arguments are stated more succinctly than I could possibly have mustered.

    Jeff: I think our differences here boil down to the semantic. You seem to be trying to convince me that America’s system of government is still capitalist, not socialist and that President is a member of the Democratic party, not the Socialist party. If that’s the case, then you win – I have no argument with you on either point.

    But what they did teach me at Wharton (and, I should note, just to keep the snark points even, they obviously didn’t teach you), is that labels aren’t absolute.

    Our government didn’t simply “invest a metric assload of money” into these companies and then get out of the way. Nor did they, as I would have liked to see, invest the money to get the companies through the short-term crisis, impose a new set of regulations on all companies in those industries to discourage the phenomenon that created the crisis, and then get out of the way and allow the regulations to work.

    Our government invested in these companies, and then used those investments, plus media pressure, plus public outrage over sideshow issues like executive compensation and corporate jet usage (about which they are generally correct, but which amount to a tiny fraction of the overall problem), plus the bully pulpit of the President, plus some creative and retroactive rewriting of bankruptcy laws, to direct the daily operations of these companies to varying levels of degree.

    Consider some of the unprecedented events that have taken place in just the last eight months (since Obama took office):

    • The CEO of a private sector company (GM) was fired and replaced by the President of the United States
    • The CEO of a second private sector company (AIG) was fired and replaced by the President, and then made to provide regular updates to Congress on which divisions of the company he planned to sell, how quickly he’d sell them, and which contracts his company had signed (with both customers and employees) that they would abide by vs. which they’d attempt to renegotiate, despite lacking any legal recourse to do so
    • The CEO of a third private sector company (Bank of America) was pressured by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to buy a multi-billion dollar firm depsite hugely negative financial implications to his own firm
    • Another private-sector firm (Chrysler) was forced by the government to merge with a foreign automaker
    • All of the financial firms that have borrowed money from the government (mostly in the range of $20-$45 billion) must review executive compensation plans (some totally less than $10 million per year) with a government “pay czar” before the executive can be hired
    • Cigarette manufacturers now must clear the chemical contents of any new product they wish to market with the federal government before being allowed to go to market (not just abide by a set of regulations or guidelines, but approve each and every product)

    These are but a few examples. We are still a capitalist society. Like Ilya, I shudder at comments like “President Obama is destroying America” (as much as I shudderred about the comments that President Bush was doing the same). I believe the economy will rebound, and private industry and innovation will once again flourish. I also believe that those who achieve wild success will earn wild fortunes, and that they will continue to withstand the jealousy and cheap political potshots that come with that success, especially when it serves politicians’ goals to employ it.

    But to suggest that there is nothing different or unusual about how President Obama has approached this recovery, and to not see the similarities to what Ilya calls “the real thing,” is, in my opinion, the view that only comes by looking through Obama-colored glasses.

  23. Jeff Porten says at September 16th, 2009 at 2:30 pm :
    @Ilya: I admire your eloquent ability to modify the meaning of any opposing argument into something that is self-evidently wrong.

    Snarky rejoinder: well, if I’m going to be called a communist, I might as well act like a communist.

    Actual reply: I’m not modifying the meanings of my political opponents; I’m pointing out logical flaws in their arguments. If you think I’m relying a bit too heavily on rhetoric to do so, I’ll respond by saying that I think the right has my side beat on rhetoric by a country mile.

    I agree with quite a lot of what you say, just not when you conjure up an idea that a government has independent means to “buy” as many companies it desires, outside of making the nation collectively owning those companies. Maybe, I have a wrong idea of where the government gets its funds…

    Hmmm. I’m perhaps unclear on what you’re saying here, Ilya. I’m fairly certain that it’s a matter of fact that either the federal government or the Federal Reserve has the capability to amass enough money to buy outright pretty much any private company is choose to do so. I think it’s also true that, under the terms of capitalist law, the ownership of government funds is clearly the government, no matter how much idiot demagogues want to proclaim that it’s all “the people’s money”.

    (Incidentally–does it ever strike you how Soviet terms like “the people’s money” and “homeland security” have been adopted here? Bugs the hell out of me.)

    I simply reserve the right to call a “socialist” anyone whose approach to economic and/or social policies leads to a centralized government control at the expense of private enterprise

    Well, I find that a tad disappointing. I’d have thought that anyone who had experience of “the real thing” would be a good resource for pointing out the vast difference between socialism and mere government intervention. I’m in favor of single-payer health care and strong government financial regulation, but anyone with even passing understanding of my civil libertarian beliefs would know how wrong it is to call me a socialist.

    @Brian: Our government didn’t simply “invest a metric assload of money” into these companies and then get out of the way

    Blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda. Sorry, Brian, but we’ve had this debate before, and as it apparently bounced off the hard parts of both our respective crania, it’s probably not worth having it again. One-sentence summary: any private firm which invested similar sums of capital would have directly assumed control of said businesses. Firing a CEO or two would have been the hors d’oeuvre before the appetizer. What we did, by these standards, was play by the capitalist rules and then back the hell off.

    I think we’re already in agreement that “management-by-media-shitstorm” is not a good strategy for these companies, and I think I’ve said repeatedly that the Democratic Congress continues to be composed of simpering, self-serving, apparently lobotomized automatons.

    And since you’re so in favor of we cigarette smokers: a chemical was added to all American cigarettes earlier this year, which puts it out if it’s not being drawn on. This is supposed to prevent house fires by people too stupid to avoid smoking in bed. Since the chemical was added, I can anecdotally report that the number of microburns I suffer from falling ash on my hands has gone up tenfold. And my guess is that smokers consuming this chemical will smoke more rapidly, to unconsciously avoid having their cigarette go out.

    The ruling which forced this change was made in 2008, implemented in February. I haven’t yet heard how Obama intends to make addicts like me smoke new chemicals, as Bush did.

    But to suggest that there is nothing different or unusual about how President Obama has approached this recovery

    Oh, it’s highly unusual. The circumstances themselves are unusual, and comparing Obama to past presidents, you can justifiably say that his actions are unique. I probably disagree with the details more than you do.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that you can draw two broad categories for government action: “the usual” and “attempting to learn from history and past mistakes.”

    to not see the similarities to what Ilya calls “the real thing,” is, in my opinion, the view that only comes by looking through Obama-colored glasses.

    I really need to stop spending so much time here, so I can write on my own blog–apparently I need to put around 20,000 words into “why Obama sucks for progressives” to disabuse you of this notion.

    A short list: no single-payer; defense and extension of Bush surveillance; weak action on Guantanamo and similar camps; escalation in Afghanistan; focus on tax cuts in federal stimulus; bailout terms in favor of the industrialists and private markets; derogation to Congress of key legislation.

    Don’t get me wrong, I prefer him far more than I did the last guy. But he’s turning out to be as disappointing as Clinton–and Clinton was disappointing. I’ll reconsider once I see what results his “include everyone incrementalism” policies actually produce.

  24. Brian says at September 16th, 2009 at 5:50 pm :
    One-sentence summary: any private firm which invested similar sums of capital would have directly assumed control of said businesses. Firing a CEO or two would have been the hors d’oeuvre before the appetizer. What we did, by these standards, was play by the capitalist rules and then back the hell off.

    Sorry, Jeff – you just don’t know what you’re talking about here. Recent example (one of thousands): Facebook just got a $200 million investment from Digital Sky Technologies, a Russian investment group. Not only was no one fired or replaced, not only does DST have no day-to-day operational input into the company, but they didn’t even get a seat on the board of directors (which is the group that represents the shareholders). Microsoft invested $240 million in Facebook, also without so much as a board seat. All they “took” was an expansion of their existing advertising deal on the Facebook site. And while $200 million is a nice chunk of change, you may argue that Facebook is big enough already that this represents a small percentage of the company (roughly 2% each). If so, I’ll point you (back) to Google, who took more than $25 million in investment from two venture capital firms (representing almost 100% of the company at the time), neither of whom replaced (or even interefered with) Page & Brin as they ran their company.

    Investors who think a company’s CEO deserves to be fired generally don’t invest in said company, they don’t eat them for hors d’oeuvres and replace them, under the arrogant and misguided belief that they can run the company better than the people that got it where it is.

    a chemical was added to all American cigarettes earlier this year, which puts it out if it’s not being drawn on. This is supposed to prevent house fires by people too stupid to avoid smoking in bed.

    Great example. Do you see the difference here? Bush passed a law that required all cigarettes to contain a chemical, and then allowed the market to compete. If someone invents a cigarette that contains the chemical but doesn’t give you microburns, they can win your business. Obama has asked for product by product approval of each new cigarette. Nothing it the law sets limits on why or how often he can say no to a given product, innovative or not.

    Don’t get me wrong, I prefer him far more than I did the last guy.

    And don’t get me wrong either – so do I. I like the way he thinks, and I like the way he communicates. He’s much more of the hands-on, COO-type leader, while Bush was more of the “surround yourself with good people,” CEO-type leader.

    My issue with Obama is not his itentions, but his motives. I followed the campaign more closely than most, and I simply did not see the vast amount of distrust he has for the American people, particularly those in private industry. Sometimes I think he’s just capitalizing on public perception to advance his agenda (“Wall Street will not return to the excess and abuse of last year…”) – an effective strategy, even if it’s somewhat dishonest. Other times, I honestly believe he thinks he’s better at, well…EVERYTHING than anyone else possibly could be. And that’s a dangerous place to be…

  25. Jeff Porten says at September 16th, 2009 at 11:36 pm :
    Sorry, Jeff – you just don’t know what you’re talking about here. Recent example (one of thousands): Facebook….

    Please, give me some credit. You quoted either companies which are doing very well, or early startups with bright futures. GM is neither. Brin and Page were not running a financial institution days away from collapse.

    Name me a company in the same financial straits which received this kind of lenient treatment. My understanding is that these companies are purchased by the Gordon Geckos, and that they are not nearly so kind as Obama.

    under the arrogant and misguided belief that they can run the company better than the people that got it where it is.

    You’re joking, right? This is every VC ever, if you’ve been reading entrepreneurial literature over the last 20 years.

    Do you see the difference here? Bush passed a law that required all cigarettes to contain a chemical, and then allowed the market to compete. If someone invents a cigarette that contains the chemical but doesn’t give you microburns, they can win your business. Obama has asked for product by product approval of each new cigarette.

    Um… the difference is that Bush pursued a government fiat, whereas Obama is pursuing regulation.

    Perhaps you haven’t stuck enough burning things in your mouth, but an ember falls from a cigarette when it stops burning at junction between the ember and the unburned tobacco. A falling ember is working as designed with the chemical infusion in place. I’m not sure how you’d innovate around that short of sticking a steel rod up the middle.

    As for the evils of government regulation: despite what people seem to think, we nicotine addicts would prefer not to get cancer. I’d be quite happy to have a safer way to get my fix, and the free market has had 302 years over which it’s failed to provide me with one.

    I followed the campaign more closely than most, and I simply did not see the vast amount of distrust he has for the American people, particularly those in private industry.

    Which you’re seeing now? How? Seems to me he’s focusing on “correcting obvious failures”, and if he anything he’s being far more measured and moderate in his approach than I expected him to be. Too much, in my opinion.

    Other times, I honestly believe he thinks he’s better at, well…EVERYTHING than anyone else possibly could be. And that’s a dangerous place to be…

    Funny — I think he has an almost inhuman lack of ego. Egotistical narcissists do not say, “I screwed up.” The most recent analogue I can think of to him is Truman.

    I think he’s spent a lot of time being the smartest guy in the room, and the rest of his time listening to smart people and being able to keep up. That’s an attitude I can identify with on my best days — it can lead to egotism, but I’m just not seeing it in his case.

  26. Brian says at September 18th, 2009 at 9:51 am :
    Name me a company in the same financial straits which received this kind of lenient treatment. My understanding is that these companies are purchased by the Gordon Geckos, and that they are not nearly so kind as Obama.

    Well, now you’re arguing in circles, because if a company is bought when it’s in trouble, it’s typically dismantled and/or integrated into the buyer’s company (see: JPMorganChase buying Bear Stearns, Wells Fargo buying Wachovia, Bank of America buying Merrill Lynch, etc.). Your point was that Obama isn’t nationalizing these companies, right?

    Brian: under the arrogant and misguided belief that they can run the company better than the people that got it where it is.

    Jeff: You’re joking, right? This is every VC ever, if you’ve been reading entrepreneurial literature over the last 20 years.

    Well, maybe you’ve got me beat on literature, but I’ve dealt with dozens of VC’s. I’ve only known one who actually stepped in to run the company he bought, and that one crashed and burned for precisely that reason. VC’s usually ask a thousand questions up front, but if they write a check, what they want is results, not day-to-day decision making responsibility. Again, I’ll point to Facebook & Google as two (of many) examples…

    Um… the difference is that Bush pursued a government fiat, whereas Obama is pursuing regulation.

    Is that a typo? Regulation is the government setting rules and then requiring businesses to compete within those rules (what Bush did). Government fiat is “you can’t do anything unless you clear it with me first” (what Obama did).

    despite what people seem to think, we nicotine addicts would prefer not to get cancer. I’d be quite happy to have a safer way to get my fix, and the free market has had 302 years over which it’s failed to provide me with one.

    Sure it has. You just refuse to partake…

    Which you’re seeing now? How? Seems to me he’s focusing on “correcting obvious failures”, and if he anything he’s being far more measured and moderate in his approach than I expected him to be. Too much, in my opinion.

    Careful – repeating that “talking point” too often is starting to morph it away from reality. I see his distrust in his approach to “correcting obvious failures.” He’s created more than twenty “czars” to control everything from executive pay to cigarette production. As I said above, I prefer the government to establish the rules of the road and then expect everyone to abide by said rules.

    Your point, which I also tend to agree with, is that the steps he’s taken have been half-steps in many cases. I focus mainly on the banking reforms because I know the most about them: executive pay ($18 billion of a $12 trillion problem), a common clearing house for derivatives products (good) but no limit on market penetration (bad) and so on. It is possible, I think, to take a moderate stand, but do so in a “only I can make this work” kind of way…

    Funny — I think he has an almost inhuman lack of ego.

    I can see why you say that. It’s why I can both compliment him on the way he analyzes problems and criticize him on the solutions he comes up with. The (limited) number of people I know that have worked with him directly praise him for bringing everyone to the table, but complain that after he takes their input, he “declares” solutions that are not particularly helpful to the parties around that table.

  27. Jeff Porten says at September 20th, 2009 at 6:36 am :
    Well, now you’re arguing in circles, because if a company is bought when it’s in trouble, it’s typically dismantled and/or integrated into the buyer’s company

    You’re making my point for me. Again. We bought GM and AIG, and then did not dismantle them.

    Let’s be clear: nationalization does not mean “investing a trillion dollars into multiple industries”. Nationalization is government takeover. What we did, instead, was play by capitalist rules, and then impose damn little government oversight and regulation afterwards.

    I’m starting to think that it would have been preferable to let the entire system crash and burn, so sick I am of listening to the propped-up princes of the status quo bitching and moaning about the precise methods concerning how they were bailed out from economic ruin. But hey, Wall Street is getting paid handsomely again, and only industrial union employees are still getting fucked, so I guess it worked out okay in the end for everyone. Right?

    Regulation is the government setting rules and then requiring businesses to compete within those rules (what Bush did). Government fiat is “you can’t do anything unless you clear it with me first” (what Obama did).

    What Bush did is put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, which IMO led directly to where we are now. You seem utterly disturbed about the heavy hand which Obama is using — which, comparatively speaking, is about the lightest touch that has ever been used in this kind of situation. Granted, however, that if you believe that corporations should have a God-given right to do whatever they damn well please, regardless of public impact or their need for public money, then you can conflate just about any government oversight into the worst kind of interference.

    Sure it has. You just refuse to partake…

    Dude. Get yourself addicted to a narcotic or stimulant, then try to use a substitute. Then we’ll talk.

    Alternately, why haven’t you become vegan? It’s much healthier for you. I’m sure you’ll love it.

    He’s created more than twenty “czars” to control everything from executive pay to cigarette production.

    Ugh. Talk about a fact-free argument. A few talking points:

    1) First president to appoint a czar: Ronald Reagan.

    2) Number of people designated as “czars” under GWB: 40-something. I’ve heard 43 and 46.

    3) Actual title of most czars: Deputy Undersecretary.

    4) Actual power of most czars: to act as a central clearinghouse of information on a given topic, collating the actions and data collected across disparate entities.

    Insofar as all czars are executive branch, ultimately, they have no more power than the president would have acting directly, and any powers they have derive from his office. Ergo, they can be unilaterally trumped by either legislation or judicial ruling.

    but complain that after he takes their input, he “declares” solutions that are not particularly helpful to the parties around that table.

    I seem to recall that you used to be fond of “decider” presidents. Apparently, you only feel that way when they’re reliably making the same decisions you would. Funny, that.

    Equally funny: I listen frequently to arguments which state that Obama’s administration has been co-opted by neoliberal Goldman Sachs alumni, and as a result he’s being downright Republican in his economic policies. So my side thinks that he’s acting more in your interests than in the policies he ran on.

    Which implies: a) since he’s pissing off everyone, he’s probably actually finding middle ground, and b) your free market ideology is completely intolerant of compromise, since even baby steps away from policies you support give you a violent case of the willies.

  28. Brian says at September 21st, 2009 at 5:12 pm :
    What we did, instead, was play by capitalist rules, and then impose damn little government oversight and regulation afterwards.

    OK, this is like arguing with a deaf (or, in this case, blind) person. Rather than quoting myself, just go back and re-read comments 8, 14, and 22 (especially the detailed, bullet-point list of heavy-handed government oversight in #22).

    I appreciate that you’re likely having the same argument with dozens of people, and that many of them are spouting some Republican talking points at you, but when you’re talking to me, please either refute the facts I’m giving you or concede the point. Don’t just repeat what you said two weeks ago as if the discussion had never happened. For that, I can watch a cable news channel…

    so sick I am of listening to the propped-up princes of the status quo bitching and moaning about the precise methods concerning how they were bailed out from economic ruin. But hey, Wall Street is getting paid handsomely again, and only industrial union employees are still getting fucked, so I guess it worked out okay in the end for everyone. Right?

    Yeah, right. If you think I’m a “propped-up prince of the status quo,” then you haven’t read the megabytes I’ve written about the complex web of inter-dependencies that caused this financial crisis, the changes the administration has already passed and proposed for the future, and the additional regulations I’d like to see them pass.

    And, for the record, I’m not bitching and moaning about the methods that have been used. I have said many times, that I think the bailouts were mostly successful. The argument came from you trying to convince me that unless Obama shuts down the government, changes his party affiliation to “Socialist,” reconstitutes the United States as a socialist nation, and replaces the Constitution with Karl Marx’s Greatest Hits, then nothing he is doing can be mentioned in the same breath as socialism.

    Oh, and as for Wall Street getting paid handsomely and only industrial union employees bearing the brunt of this, remind me to introduce you to the thousands of former colleagues of mine who lost their jobs in the last twelve months. Just today, in fact, a former employer of mine let go 20% of its domestic senior executives. Yeah – we’re just having a freaking’ party over here…

    Ugh. Talk about a fact-free argument. A few talking points:

    1) First president to appoint a czar: Ronald Reagan.

    2) Number of people designated as “czars” under GWB: 40-something. I’ve heard 43 and 46.

    3) Actual title of most czars: Deputy Undersecretary.

    4) Actual power of most czars: to act as a central clearinghouse of information on a given topic, collating the actions and data collected across disparate entities.

    Well, at least you voluntarily called them talking points up front. Please, if you will, point me to a Reagan appointee or a George W. Bush appointee who had hiring/firing privledges in a private sector company. How about one that could dictate a private sector company’s compensation plans on an employee-by-employee basis. One that could approve or reject a private sector company’s 5-year business plan? How about one that could mandate that a private sector company merge with a foreign company in the same industry and then approve/reject the proposed merger agreement – not based on a legal construct, (e.g., anti-trust) but on his/her non-expert opinion on whether it was a “good deal” for the company in question?

    The fact that Obama calls these people “Deputy Undersecretaries” and Bush had people with that title in his adminstration makes them the same? My title at work is Principal. Should I go run an elementary school tomorrow?

    All this and my argument is fact-free…

    I seem to recall that you used to be fond of “decider” presidents. Apparently, you only feel that way when they’re reliably making the same decisions you would. Funny, that.

    No, what’s funny is how you keep lumping me in with all the Republican talking heads you see on television. We’ve argued about the relative fairness of Bush’s critics over the years, but I believe this is the first time you went so far out on the limb as to actually call me “fond” of him. And “making the same decisions [I] would?” Again, I can only assume you cut/paste this comment from an argument you were having with someone else…

    Equally funny: I listen frequently to arguments which state that Obama’s administration has been co-opted by neoliberal Goldman Sachs alumni, and as a result he’s being downright Republican in his economic policies. So my side thinks that he’s acting more in your interests than in the policies he ran on.

    Ah yes, we’re back to the Matt Taibbi school of financial education. Geithner is from Goldman Sachs. So was Paulson. Each hired some of their former colleagues into their Treasury department. Ergo, Goldman Sachs is secretly running the country.

    And you’re still with the “my side thinks X about your side” and “some Republican somewhere said Y, so this must be your position.” I know you spent a lot of time in DC, but I gotta tell you – you’re the only person I know who still thinks and acts this way…

  29. Jeff Porten says at September 23rd, 2009 at 12:56 pm :
    OK, this is like arguing with a deaf (or, in this case, blind) person. Rather than quoting myself, just go back and re-read comments 8, 14, and 22 (especially the detailed, bullet-point list of heavy-handed government oversight in #22).

    Yes, the merry-go-round continues onward. As I keep saying, what you call heavy-handed government intrusion are actions which you wouldn’t even blink at if any other entity had fronted the capital involved. Your argument would have merit (perhaps) if this government regulation were absent the billions of dollars invested–or trillions of dollars fronted to float the financial system.

    Your stirring defense of the free market system is ignoring the core tenet of capitalism: those with capital are those with a voice, which is scaled to the amount of capital they invest. You can argue against government investment entirely, or you can take the capital and the power it engenders.

    I appreciate that you’re likely having the same argument with dozens of people

    You’re joking, right? Like I have the time after I’m done here.

    but when you’re talking to me, please either refute the facts I’m giving you or concede the point.

    You’re not giving me facts. You’re enumerating the government’s actions and asserting that it makes you queasy. I’m pointing out that this is how capitalism works. Under socialism, you’d have to take the oversight without the money; since the industries in question took the money, they might not like meddling by their new bosses, but thems the breaks.

    Incidentally, you did score one point which I couldn’t refute: the government investment capital which was forced back in late 2008. That was regulation by fiat, since the contract wasn’t entered into by choice. I’ve come to the shaky conclusion that it made sense at the time, but it’s a flaw in this argument. However, in comparison to the rest of the $12.8 trillion, I’m not of the inclination that it’s a large flaw.

    Don’t just repeat what you said two weeks ago as if the discussion had never happened.

    When you don’t listen to what I’m saying, I’m forced to rephrase myself in the hope that eventually you’ll understand than I’m not here as a typing exercise.

    If you think I’m a “propped-up prince of the status quo,”

    Not you–the princes are the actual bankers and “financial innovators”. You are a full-throated defender of the princes, but in French Revolutionary terms I consider you a monarchist, not a candidate for the guillotine.

    you haven’t read the megabytes I’ve written about the complex web of inter-dependencies that caused this financial crisis, the changes the administration has already passed and proposed for the future, and the additional regulations I’d like to see them pass.

    Read them all, responded to most. The complex web of interdependencies is precisely why I believe the system is designed to obfuscate risk for the benefit of the ruling class, and why I think that the culture of perceived omniscience concerning systemic risk is societally dangerous. The additional regulations you favor, in my view, address only those problems which are visible within your exceedingly strong enculturation, and fail to address real deficiencies in the system.

    Which is not to say that I disagree with your regulatory beliefs; insofar as I understand them, I agree with you. But on their own, I expect that they’ll keep us within a boom-bust cycle similar to what we had after the Industrial Revolution. The systemic change which breaks this cycle is exactly what you oppose most strongly.

    unless Obama shuts down the government, changes his party affiliation to “Socialist,” reconstitutes the United States as a socialist nation, and replaces the Constitution with Karl Marx’s Greatest Hits, then nothing he is doing can be mentioned in the same breath as socialism.

    Again, hopefully for the last time: if your power stems from capital, you are a capitalist. Capitalism is the diametric opposite of socialism. Quod erat demonstratum.

    remind me to introduce you to the thousands of former colleagues of mine who lost their jobs in the last twelve months. Just today, in fact, a former employer of mine let go 20% of its domestic senior executives.

    Gotta tell you–out here where we don’t have Bloomberg terminals, we hear about bonuses averaging $700,000, and not about massive layoffs among the priestly class. You want to convince me that the pain is being equally shared by all concerned–which would go a long way towards my believing that the financial industry is a reliable partner going forward–then write this stuff and stop assuming I know it. It is, in fact, my perception that the industry is doing everything they can to continue the freaking party, without regard to whether it beneficial to anyone but themselves.

    Please, if you will, point me to a Reagan appointee or a George W. Bush appointee who had hiring/firing privledges in a private sector company.

    Point me to a Reagan or Bush action which bought the damn company, or provided an unlimited line of credit.

    Here’s a question which I honestly don’t know offhand: Reagan did bail out Chrysler. What control did the feds have afterwards? I’ll be amused as hell is Reagan turns out to be more the socialist than Obama.

    How about one that could dictate a private sector company’s compensation plans on an employee-by-employee basis.

    Which, in fact, has not yet been exercised according to a report I heard earlier this week. Possible exception, the new CEO of AIG. Know of any others?

    How about one that could mandate that a private sector company merge with a foreign company in the same industry and then approve/reject the proposed merger agreement

    You got me there–but as I recall, that was because it was perceived by all parties as preferable to the probable liquidation which would occur otherwise. That said, I’m fairly sure that the basis for antitrust allows the federal government to approve the merger (and any administration can choose its own basis for doing so), but arranging it is, indeed, extraordinary.

    What would you have preferred?

    The fact that Obama calls these people “Deputy Undersecretaries” and Bush had people with that title in his adminstration makes them the same?

    Mea culpa. Turns out I was wrong. A) czars have random titles, and B) czars don’t exist–the titles are made up by and bestowed by the media. This truly could be the most idiotic debate we’ve ever had.

    We’ve argued about the relative fairness of Bush’s critics over the years, but I believe this is the first time you went so far out on the limb as to actually call me “fond” of him.

    Whenever I criticize him, regardless of my supporting data, you call me a Bush-hating psychopath. Yes, I consider the automatic dismissal of opposing arguments to indicate a certain fondness, just as I consider your baseline distrust of Obama to indicate a certain absence thereof.

    But the choice of the word “fond” was deliberate: I see this as your ideological inclination, not a knee-jerk disposition.

    And “making the same decisions [I] would?” Again, I can only assume you cut/paste this comment from an argument you were having with someone else…

    No, these are all custom-crafted for you, bubbelah.

    When I wrote that, I was thinking of your support of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the PATRIOT Act, and your belief that only the guilty have something to hide. You were a straight-ticket Republican neoconservative on those issues, back in the day, and as recently as last year you were going out of your way to look for reasons to call Iraq a victory. If you’re no longer standing with The Great Decider on those issues, by all means, share.

    Ah yes, we’re back to the Matt Taibbi school of financial education. Geithner is from Goldman Sachs. So was Paulson. Each hired some of their former colleagues into their Treasury department. Ergo, Goldman Sachs is secretly running the country.

    Cf. earlier comments about continuing the party. I don’t believe that Goldman Sachs is uniquely evil; I believe the entire structure is led by the self-serving and unconsciously corrupted. Matt Taibbi is an amusing data point, nothing more; in case you haven’t noticed, I tend to have my own personal theories, and rarely need to copy them from others wholesale.

    And you’re still with the “my side thinks X about your side” and “some Republican somewhere said Y, so this must be your position.” I know you spent a lot of time in DC, but I gotta tell you – you’re the only person I know who still thinks and acts this way…

    Brian, if you were truly as independent as you wish you were, you wouldn’t be so damned predictable. I know I am, but then I don’t pretend to moderate centrism.

    But I will say that it’s been far easier to lump the Republican party into a single brainless mass of lemmings, since they themselves began acting like the Objectivist Politburo in 2001. No votes for Obama policy, no matter how long negotiated? Graham has to stop himself from applauding on the Senate floor? Really, it’s not me who is turning them into a monocellular organism.

    Feel free to call me on it if I put words in your mouth, but I’m going to call you on it when you parrot the party line; I suspect you’re sometimes unaware of how much of their language and assumptions you adopt as political givens.

  30. Brian says at September 24th, 2009 at 12:10 am :
    Your stirring defense of the free market system is ignoring the core tenet of capitalism: those with capital are those with a voice, which is scaled to the amount of capital they invest. You can argue against government investment entirely, or you can take the capital and the power it engenders.

    A false choice. As we’ve discussed ad nauseum on these pages, government investment has been pervasive throughout American industry. But never before has it provided these kinds of “powers” to the government.

    You’re not giving me facts. You’re enumerating the government’s actions and asserting that it makes you queasy. I’m pointing out that this is how capitalism works. Under socialism, you’d have to take the oversight without the money; since the industries in question took the money, they might not like meddling by their new bosses, but thems the breaks.

    “Enumerating the government’s actions” is an awful lot like giving you facts, no? And I’ve said many, many times now that I’m not accusing anyone of being a socialist. You’re right that a socialist would seize the same kind of control without making an investment, but if the type of control is the same, then I think we might actually agree here – this is a lot like socialism with some key differences. Certainly more like socialism than anything we’ve ever seen in the past.

    Which is not to say that I disagree with your regulatory beliefs; insofar as I understand them, I agree with you. But on their own, I expect that they’ll keep us within a boom-bust cycle similar to what we had after the Industrial Revolution. The systemic change which breaks this cycle is exactly what you oppose most strongly.

    Ah, but you haven’t suggested any systemic change to “break the cycle.” All you’ve told me is that the current system sucks.

    if your power stems from capital, you are a capitalist. Capitalism is the diametric opposite of socialism. Quod erat demonstratum.

    Yes, but you can be a capitalist that wields power like a socialist. <Insert random latin phrase here>

    Gotta tell you–out here where we don’t have Bloomberg terminals, we hear about bonuses averaging $700,000, and not about massive layoffs among the priestly class. You want to convince me that the pain is being equally shared by all concerned–which would go a long way towards my believing that the financial industry is a reliable partner going forward–then write this stuff and stop assuming I know it. It is, in fact, my perception that the industry is doing everything they can to continue the freaking party, without regard to whether it beneficial to anyone but themselves.

    Why didn’t you say so? Back in April, 2008 (before the shit hit the fan) some folks were predicting 36,000 lost jobs on Wall Street, which comes to a 20% reduction. In October (just after the fan got dirty), New York Governor Paterson put the estimate at 45,000. In January, Bloomberg put it at around 38,000. I should note that national unemployment went from roughly 4.5% to roughly 10% in the past two years. That reflects a reduction of about 6% of the workforce [(95.5% - 90%) / 95.5%]. So, conservatively, Wall Street workers lost their jobs at a rate of roughly three times the national average. Which, of course, makes sense, given that it was the financial sector that melted down.

    But here’s the irony: while all of this was going on, all you’ve been hearing about are massive bonuses and billion dollar profits. And yet you’ll continue to read the same sources and argue with me about what’s going on.

    Point me to a Reagan or Bush action which bought the damn company, or provided an unlimited line of credit.

    The one that comes immediately to mind is the S&L bailout in 1989. The Federal Government formed the Resolution Trust Corporation, which partnered with smaller, more profitable thrifts to buy up the bad loans from the failed S&L’s and then sold them on the open market when the economy recovered. The government never took control of a single S&L.

    Here’s a question which I honestly don’t know offhand: Reagan did bail out Chrysler. What control did the feds have afterwards? I’ll be amused as hell is Reagan turns out to be more the socialist than Obama.

    It was Carter, not Reagan. The government provided $1.5B in loan guarantees (no cash), and left it to Chrysler to work out deals with its employees, dealers, suppliers, etc.. Chrysler paid off the guaranteed loans in 1983, leaving the government with a profit of roughly $350 million.

    At no point did Carter (or Reagan) approve a business plan, negotiate with Chrysler’s internal or external stakeholders, opine on which cars to build, or replace the management team. Lee Iacocca remained president and CEO of the company, which went on to release the minivan, and lead the automobile industry for 25 years. He retired in 1992. His thoughts on Obama’s recent actions make my point more eloquently than I have:

    This is a sad day for me. It pains me to see my old company, which has meant so much to America, on the ropes. But Chrysler has been in trouble before, and we got through it, and I believe they can do it again. If they’re smart, they’ll bring together a consortium of workers, plant managers and dealers to come up with real solutions. These are the folks on the front lines, and they’re the key to survival. Let’s face it, if your car breaks down, you’re not going to take it to the White House to get fixed. But, if your company breaks down, you’ve got to go to the experts on the ground, not the bureaucrats. Every day I talk to dealers and managers, who are passionate and full of ideas. No one wants Chrysler to survive more than they do. So I’d say to the Obama administration, don’t leave them out. Put their passion and ideas to work.

    Brian: How about one that could dictate a private sector company’s compensation plans on an employee-by-employee basis.

    Jeff: Which, in fact, has not yet been exercised according to a report I heard earlier this week. Possible exception, the new CEO of AIG. Know of any others?

    According to Bloomberg:

    While Feinberg has 60 days to decide pay packages for the 25 top-earning employees, he has determined that the proposals are complete and will likely conclude his review sooner…

    New York-based Citigroup Inc., New York-based American International Group Inc., Auburn Hills, Michigan-based Chrysler Group LLC, Southfield, Michigan-based Chrysler Financial Corp., Bank of America, GMAC Inc. and Detroit-based General Motors Corp. have submitted proposals to Feinberg. They detail compensation plans for their 25 top-earning employees.

    In a second-phase, Feinberg will review the compensation for the next 75 highest-paid.

    And so again I ask, what sources are you using for your financial news these days?

    Yes, I consider the automatic dismissal of opposing arguments to indicate a certain fondness, just as I consider your baseline distrust of Obama to indicate a certain absence thereof.

    That’s because you consider any rebuttal to criticism an “automatic dismissal.”

    Which is why my claim that Obama is taking unprecedented control of private industry has morphed into my “baseline distrust of Obama,” even though the topic of this post (30 comments ago) was about how people need to respect him more than they have been.

    Which is why when I said that local and state governments screwed up the Katrina response as much as, if not more than, the federal government, you said I was defending George W. Bush.

    You take the square peg that is my opinion and fit it into the round hole of “the Republican position,” because anyone who disagrees with YOU must therefore agree wholeheartedly with THEM. Which leads to ridiculous statements like this:

    Brian, if you were truly as independent as you wish you were, you wouldn’t be so damned predictable.

    As independent as I wish I was? I believe my wishes are precisely what determines the extent of my independence, thank you very much. And that independence gives me more than the two choices of you and the Hannity/Limbaugh crowd.

  31. Jeff Porten says at September 25th, 2009 at 12:25 am :
    As we’ve discussed ad nauseum…

    Emphasis on nauseum, so let’s shelve this point. Agreed that government action is giving you the willies, and that although I object to your use of the term socialist, you think you’re justified.

    But never before has it provided these kinds of “powers” to the government.

    There are plenty of examples of the government arrogating greater power to itself than this; check out the history of Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion of his authority over trustbusting sometime.

    I can think of at least three presidents — TR, FDR, and LBJ — who directly dictated terms to CEOs, mostly on their own personal authority. If you disagree with Obama’s actions in absolute terms, this won’t make you feel any better, but as regards slippery slope issues, he’s nowhere near some other presidents we’ve had.

    if the type of control is the same, then I think we might actually agree here – this is a lot like socialism with some key differences. Certainly more like socialism than anything we’ve ever seen in the past.

    This is like saying that you’re going to take the family to church on Sunday, because Catholicism is a lot like Judaism, but with some key differences. If the differences are the defining characteristics between the two ideas, then your statement is semantically null.

    As for “more like socialism”, how would you feel if I characterized Guantanamo as “more like Nazism than anything we’ve ever seen in the past”? Because that’s the leap that I see you making.

    Ah, but you haven’t suggested any systemic change to “break the cycle.” All you’ve told me is that the current system sucks.

    I’m on record as questioning why certain areas of the commercial and retail banking sector aren’t run directly out of the Fed and government programs, in that I see parallels between running the bailout through private companies, and the inefficiencies of routing universal health care through for-profit entities. Such a direct program would be legitimately “more like socialism.”

    Yes, but you can be a capitalist that wields power like a socialist.

    You could also be a soccer player wielding a baseball bat, but then you would be making a silly argument. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    Why didn’t you say so?

    Because there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns? As we’ve previously discussed, I try to calibrate my media radar so I don’t miss big ticket news, and I trust it. But as you’ve built a straw man image of me as a self-styled omniscient and immune to new information, I can see why you’d neglect to volunteer this information.

    So, conservatively, Wall Street workers lost their jobs at a rate of roughly three times the national average. Which, of course, makes sense, given that it was the financial sector that melted down.

    Which does make sense, and in the absence of this information, you can perhaps understand why it seemed like one industry was reaping rewards and offloading risks.

    I’ll freely admit, this information doesn’t fit into my existing model. As I don’t know offhand what aspects of that model are most affected, I’ll let this steep for a while.

    Here’s a question: any correlation between the job cuts and the people who made the financial decisions leading to the problem? If the benefits accrue to the monarchs and the risks are borne by the monarchists, then it’s a similar problem on a different scale.

    But here’s the irony: while all of this was going on, all you’ve been hearing about are massive bonuses and billion dollar profits.

    Which are factually accurate, yes? And implies a system whereby the damage is measured in months for a small elite, and years or decades elsewhere.

    Again, the question here is whether our economic system is self-stabilizing, or if it features reinforcing sympathetic vibrations as metaphorically demonstrated by Tacoma Narrows. Which goes back to earlier debates we’ve had — if the brahmins’ exposure is solely that they go from being fantastically wealthy to extremely wealthy, I question the value of that psychological barrier.

    On the other hand, if they’re exposed such that they lose their jobs and find that their next career path features $50K incomes, then yes, I’d say that’s suitably self-stabilizing.

    The one that comes immediately to mind is the S&L bailout in 1989…. The government never took control of a single S&L.

    Someday I need to sit down with a few books on this topic; recent discussion of the S&L bailout has called it either a profitable intervention by the government, or a golden parachute for those involved. I personally don’t claim to have a strong enough handle on this history to use it in argument.

    One question, though: my recollection is that the FDIC and RTC did take control of S&Ls, if only to liquidate the failed trusts. Said liquidation went on for years in some cases. You’re making an exception in such instances, I gather? Or is there some way in which the government takeover of the complete assets and staff of an entity, but not the entity itself, avoids your definition?

    It was Carter, not Reagan.

    Oops. That’s what I get for consulting a faulty mental index, and then comparing to a lookup table to get a presidential name. Major faux pas on my part.

    At no point did Carter (or Reagan) approve a business plan, negotiate with Chrysler’s internal or external stakeholders, opine on which cars to build, or replace the management team.

    Noted. So I gather that your philosophy, then, is that the government should stand ready to provide unlimited lines of credit to corporations (but not individuals–that’s socialism), provided that they stand back and let the free market inevitably correct its mistakes and turn a profit?

    It’s your notions of the papal infallibility of corporate executives which I have the most trouble with. Sometimes, the people in charge at the time that “mistakes were (passively) made” are genuinely screwups. And while I acknowledge that we approach government management with differing levels of skepticism, I do trust that the differing stakeholders for private business and government provides a wider range of information and viewpoints. One side answers to stockholders, the other to voters; between the two, it’s easier to approach the public good.

    Iacocca: But, if your company breaks down, you’ve got to go to the experts on the ground, not the bureaucrats.

    Exactly — at some point you have to consider past failures and readdress the question of whether your putative experts are actually experts. It’s possible that they’re merely the anointed, and following the wrong set of principles.

    “Bureaucrat” is a popular term to use when you want to automatically disparage any decision they might make, but it’s equally applicable in many cases to the middle managers whom Iacocca terms as experts. Smart evaluation, it seems to me, wouldn’t be taken in by terminology like this.

    Every day I talk to dealers and managers, who are passionate and full of ideas. No one wants Chrysler to survive more than they do.

    If wishes were Chryslers, beggars would ride….

    And so again I ask, what sources are you using for your financial news these days?

    If I had had a source for my comment, I would have used it. Downside of podcasts, they somehow manage to enter my brain through my ears without leaving behind a footnote. I’ll note, however, that my source said “has not been applied to date”, and your reference starts with “may rule in 60 days”, so I’m not sure why you think my sources are inadequate. You appear to agree that the statement is factually correct.

    Of course, there’s a semantic issue involved: you appear to believe that the act of submitting terms to the government is in itself overreaching; I’d be more inclined to believe that unless these terms are rejected or modified, the businesses are still acting on their own authority.

    That’s because you consider any rebuttal to criticism an “automatic dismissal.”

    Dude, if that were true, I wouldn’t bother to be here.

    Which is why my claim that Obama is taking unprecedented control of private industry has morphed into my “baseline distrust of Obama,” even though the topic of this post (30 comments ago) was about how people need to respect him more than they have been.

    Oy. Look, if I’m coming up with a general impression from the tone of your comments, that’s a subjective impression. You can’t disprove the impression, no matter how much you disagree with it. You can, however, change that impression if your writing changes over time. I’ve had over twenty years to generate my impression of your political beliefs — actually, I suspect that our “anniversary” was probably in the past week or two — so chances are that both of us are fairly set in our ways of how we expect the other will react.

    Which is why when I said that local and state governments screwed up the Katrina response as much as, if not more than, the federal government, you said I was defending George W. Bush.

    Sure did, and still do. Deflecting blame is always a great way of mounting a defense. And if I say anything else, I’ll risk reopening that debate, which really would not be a good use of our time.

    You take the square peg that is my opinion and fit it into the round hole of “the Republican position,” because anyone who disagrees with YOU must therefore agree wholeheartedly with THEM.

    Ugh. Brian, believe me when I say that my opinion of you is much higher than my opinion of the Republican aggregate and leadership. Especially now. I do not believe that your opinions are knee-jerk Republican, but when I hear you repeating talking points and underlying assumptions which are being generated by the right wing noise machine, I point out that you are taking as given what may be considered in contention.

    As independent as I wish I was? I believe my wishes are precisely what determines the extent of my independence, thank you very much. And that independence gives me more than the two choices of you and the Hannity/Limbaugh crowd.

    Feh. Any regular reader of your site is going to peg you as consistently leaning conservative, just as anyone reading my site will peg me as consistently leaning lunatic. We all want to believe that we’re entirely rational creatures who come to independently rational conclusions about all data presented to us; the natural tendency of humans to reject data which doesn’t fit their preexisting memes is the undoing of this theory.

    And I should damn well hope that you don’t consider my statements to be the sole alternative to the foaming-at-the-mouth crowd; my positions are almost uniformly far to the left of the Democratic party, so there’s a wide range of liberalism for you to choose from, whenever you choose to exercise your independence by taking a position over on this end of the spectrum.

  32. Brian says at September 25th, 2009 at 5:12 pm :
    As for “more like socialism”, how would you feel if I characterized Guantanamo as “more like Nazism than anything we’ve ever seen in the past”? Because that’s the leap that I see you making.

    I’m actually fine with that statement. Guantanamo (and the interrment camps in WWII) were more like Nazism than anything else we’ve ever done. That doesn’t make Bush a Nazi any more than recent economic policy makes Obama a socialist (I’m quoting myself again…). Also, and this is where I think you were going with this – I think Obama’s policies are much closer to socialism than Guantanamo was to Nazism. For example, the government really is running private sector companies, whereas we haven’t put any of the Guantanamo prisoners in gas chambers as far as we know…

    You could also be a soccer player wielding a baseball bat, but then you would be making a silly argument. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    Yes, it would. You don’t need a baseball bat to play soccer. But you can use capital rather than government fiat to take control of a company, and then run it like a socialist government would run it after you do so. That’s what we have here.

    I try to calibrate my media radar so I don’t miss big ticket news, and I trust it. But as you’ve built a straw man image of me as a self-styled omniscient and immune to new information, I can see why you’d neglect to volunteer this information.

    We both have access to Google, which makes us equally omniscient. If you’re going to write 5,000 words on how Wall Street is setup to bring wealth and power to the ruling class, I don’t understand why you don’t read Bloomberg.com or wsjonline.com to learn about it (or at least whitehouse.gov). At the very least, I don’t understand why you continue to trust those sources, even when I show you several examples of where they’ve led you astray.

    Here’s a question: any correlation between the job cuts and the people who made the financial decisions leading to the problem? If the benefits accrue to the monarchs and the risks are borne by the monarchists, then it’s a similar problem on a different scale.

    Well, you’ve got the people who actually made the decisions and the people responsible for the people who actually made the decisions. The former (the traders and the heads of the trading desks) got decimated, particularly when the credit markets froze, as companies made the decision to exit entire prodcut lines (read: fire just about everyone on that trading desk). This is less of a traumatic thing, because trading is among the least secure occupations on Wall Street. Every time there’s a boom/bust cycle, folks get rich and then get fired. The high risk (and here I’m talking about their personal risk, not the financial risk they underwrite) is why they demand such high rewards. The people responsible for the traders (read: the much-maligned CEO’s and such) haven’t been shown the door at a 20% clip, but there have been at least a few high-level exits in each of the big Wall Street firms (my employer has replaced the head of its Global Markets group four times in the last three years). Of those that have stayed, many have taken $1 salaries and zero bonus for at least a year, and have been subject to excruciating public scrutiny from both the press, the Congress, and the White House. Alas, they have a lot of money, so they don’t deserve our sympathies…

    And implies a system whereby the damage is measured in months for a small elite, and years or decades elsewhere. . . . if they’re exposed such that they lose their jobs and find that their next career path features $50K incomes, then yes, I’d say that’s suitably self-stabilizing.

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here, exactly. Finding a new job has more to do with the size and breadth of your network than it has to do with what industry you’re in (within somewhat comparable populations, of course). Of the Wall Street crowd I know that are unemployed, their chances of finding new jobs in the past 6-9 months have been basically zero, but are starting to improve now. Six months from now, I’d say they’ll all find something similar to what they had before, perhaps for slightly less money (given their poor bargaining position).

    I’m not sure I agree with you that “self-stabilizing” is a good thing – sounds a little too Marxist to me. It is OK that well-educated people who possess highly sought-after talent make more than the average salary, right?

    One question, though: my recollection is that the FDIC and RTC did take control of S&Ls, if only to liquidate the failed trusts. Said liquidation went on for years in some cases. You’re making an exception in such instances, I gather? Or is there some way in which the government takeover of the complete assets and staff of an entity, but not the entity itself, avoids your definition?

    I, too, am no expert on the RTC. If you want the basics, the Wiki page gives a pretty good summary.

    My understanding is that the RTC did not take control of any of the S&L’s. They bought assets from them, partnering with smaller firms to help price them appropriately, and then sold them back to the market for a profit. This was a way of funneling money into the system without loaning them tax dollars or getting the government into the Savings & Loan business (these were logical “givens” in 1989 – not so today).

    the government should stand ready to provide unlimited lines of credit to corporations (but not individuals–that’s socialism), provided that they stand back and let the free market inevitably correct its mistakes and turn a profit?

    I think the government should set the rules (read: appropriate levels of laws and regulations) and then stay out of the way, allowing for competition, innovation and yes, profit. If a company goes out of business, the government should remain uninvolved. In the rare case (and despite recent events, it is rare) that the government decides that the a particular bankruptcy affects the interests of the United States, then your statement above strikes me as the correct course of action – give them what they need to solve their problems and let them solve them.

    I’m quick to note, though, that this gets you past the crisis. The immediate next step has to be modifying the laws and regulations that allowed such an event to occur – something that President Obama has been moving frustratingly slowly on in this instance.

    Sometimes, the people in charge at the time that “mistakes were (passively) made” are genuinely screwups.

    Very true. But it’s extremely rare that they’re American heroes for a decade or more and then suddenly (and simultaneously) become genuine screwups in the space of a single year. Ken Lewis was the 2008 “Banker of the Year” (whatever that means) and now there are those who think he should go to jail.

    I’ll note, however, that my source said “has not been applied to date”, and your reference starts with “may rule in 60 days”, so I’m not sure why you think my sources are inadequate. You appear to agree that the statement is factually correct.

    Of course, there’s a semantic issue involved: you appear to believe that the act of submitting terms to the government is in itself overreaching; I’d be more inclined to believe that unless these terms are rejected or modified, the businesses are still acting on their own authority.

    I’d argue it’s more than semantic. Without Feinberg in place, these companies would have already signed pay packages with these executives. Now that he’s reviewing them, they have to wait. I know for a fact that more than a few executives have moved on to non-US banks to avoid precisely this restriction. To suggest that Feinberg doesn’t affect the industry until he makes an actual ruling is a bit disingenuous, I think…

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