Archive for October, 2009

The New Blacklisting

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Nearly two hundred years ago, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in a political anthropological expedition (though he would not have used such a description) to understand and document how this new form of government — a geographically large and diverse republic — was able to function. Europe had experience with hierarchical governments but the American experiment, based on assent-by-the-governed, was still very new. What kind of people could manage to rule themselves? What did the act of self-rule do to the character of a people? How could a free people avoid the religious, political, and ethnic conflicts that plagued other countries?

One of de Tocqueville’s observations was that in daily activities Americans tended to make economic self-calculations that trumped other considerations. He wrote. “In no other country in the world is the love of property keener or more alert than in the United States, and nowhere else does the majority display less inclination toward doctrines which in any way threaten the way property is owned” In other words, what difference does it make what particular religious doctrines or political views a person adheres to so long as those views do not interfere that person providing fair value in a transaction. In this way, Americans of different religions could manage to live relatively peacefully, a condition that Europeans of the time had difficulty achieving.

The natural tendency for the needs of commerce to overwhelm other concerns is part of the reason that the Jim Crow laws in the South of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were enacted. Given natural commercial tendencies, many people would be tempted to provide accommodations and other services for Americans of all races. If they would not be so tempted, there would have been no need for the Jim Crow laws. People would have segregated themselves without the need for specific legislation. It took government to ensure that races were separated.

A more recent example of racial feelings yielding to commercial ones is Marge Schott. She was the former president and CEO of baseball’s Cincinnati Reds. Schott was infamous for her racially insensitive statements. Many were convinced that she harbored racists feelings. Nonetheless, she was willing to pay black baseball players millions of dollars because they provided important value to her baseball team. Commerce trumped other, baser feelings.

It is only when governments or monopolistic industries get involved that the natural disposition to overlook personal characteristics in favor of commerce can be overwhelmed. In the 1940s and 1950s, Americans the entertainment industry who were or suspected of being sympathetic to the American Communist Party where blacklisted in Hollywood. Governmental and public pressure made it difficult for these people to work. If only the quality of their work was at issue, blacklisting would never have been effective.

In the 1950’s, the chief public sin, real or imagined, was being a Communist. Today, the gravest mortal sin, real or imagined, is being a racist. The recent charge of racism on the part of Rush Limbaugh, at least partially based on what is now acknowledged as falsified quotes, caused him withdrawal his name from a group of investors attempting to purchase the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams. His presence as a potential owner would have undermined  the group’s chances.

Limbaugh was effectively blacklisted from the NFL. Many of those involved in opposition to Limbaugh whom would be aghast if their actions were characterized this way, but it is accurate. Unlike most other businesses, the competitors of the Rams, the other football teams must approve potential owners of the Rams. Opposing Limbaugh was an easy way to win popular acclaim without the cost of a missed commercial opportunity. The peculiar nature of the NFL contributes to the ability to blacklist.

The NFL and entertainment industry are private entities that can do business with whomever they wish. But it should be remembered that both Hollywood (pressured by government) and football (largely pressured by other owners) blacklist people with great impunity because of the monopolistic or public character of their enterprise. Free enterprise smooths over differences in society. By contrast, governments and other large institutions can sometimes aggravate them.

Obama Transfer of Money to the Wealthy

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

There have been devastating effects of the current recession on many millions of Americans. Unemployment hoovers around 10% and 300,000 homes a month are being foreclosed upon. The amount of real suffering should not be underestimated. However, one small economic metric has modulated. Inflation has been near zero and indeed for some months prices have decreased. As a consequence, social security payments, which are indexed to inflation, are not scheduled to increase this year. The Obama Administration has decided to give seniors a $250 check in addition to the $250 sent out to seniors in February at a cost of $13 billion dollars.

The irony is that these payments represent a transfer of money from the least wealthy to the wealthiest portion of society. The median wealth of those in the 60-69 age range is the highest in society. There are certainly seniors who are not wealthy, but the $250 payment is given to all social security recipients regardless of wealth or income. The transfer payment is regressive. Perhaps, wealth seniors ought to be encouraged to send their $250 check to their grandchildren who will be ultimately responsible for the repayment of the increase debt necessitated by the payment.

Why would the Obama Administration who talks about reducing economic inequality countenance a transfer of wealth to the flush elderly? Is it because the elderly have turned against Obama’s health care proposals and this payment might increase the popularity of Obama among seniors? As Obama asked, “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?”

Bush as Nobel Point Guard

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

“So soon? Too early. He [Obama] has no contribution so far.”  — Lech Walesa, dissent who opposed Soviet occupation of the Poland and 1983 Peace Prize winner.

In basketball, the sport that Barack Obama and many others enjoy, a key statistic is the “assist.” Many times an easy basket is scored because a player, typically a point guard, makes an quick astute pass to an open player.  Former President George Bush can now be safely said to be the most accomplished Nobel point guard, assisting many in scoring a Nobel. The latest beneficiary of this is President Barack Obama who was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Even the most ardent Obama supporters recognize that, at best, any such award is premature. Indeed, he was formally nominated just after reaching office. The Nobel Committee selected Obama because: “Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.” This is a clear slap at Bush, whose foreign policy was caricatured as being unilateral. The London Times observed as much: “Rarely has an award had such an obvious political and partisan intent. It was clearly seen by the Norwegian Nobel committee as a way of expressing European gratitude for an end to the Bush Administration.” Assist Bush.

This assist was not Bush’s latest, not his first. In 2001, one month after the attack of September 11, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded Kofi Annan and the United Nations the Peace Prize. The US was formulating its reaction to these attacks, and there was concern that the US might act without specific UN authorization, the Nobel Committee used the award to boost the moral authority, such as it is, of the UN. Of course, we would later come to realize that the UN was implicated in a corrupt Food for Oil program that undermined sanctions against  Iraq and enriched intermediaries associated with the UN. Assist Bush.

In 2002, in the lead up to the liberation of Iraq, former President Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Carter’s record is at best mixed: Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets during his watch and Americans were held hostage by the Iranians after the Shah, a US ally was overthrown. However, Carter was instrumental in providing a forum for Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin to workout a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1978. The Nobel Committee overlooked this for two and half decades until is was convenient to use Carter as a bludgeon against Bush. Indeed, the Nobel Prize Committee Chairman, Gunnar Berge, openly explained the Prize “should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the [Bush] administration has taken…  It’s a kick in the leg to all that follow the same…” Assist Bush.

The former Vice-President Al Gore case is roughly similar to the Carter case. There could be an argument made that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) should be recognized by the Nobel Committee. Al Gore had been burning fuel  proselytizing the necessity of eschewing carbon use to avert global climate change. But giving the same PowerPoint presentation in many venues, does not quite seem to rise to the level of a Nobel Peace Prize. Of course, Al Gore was involved in a close a election with George Bush, which many used to routinely dispute Bush’s legitimacy — even after a clear Bush re-election in 2004. By this time, Gore had turned angry, shouting that Bush: “… played on our fears. He took America on an ill-conceived foreign adventure dangerous to our troops, an adventure preordained and planned before 9/11 ever took place.” That was good enough for the Nobel Committee in 2007. Assist Bush.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee is not the only  one to play political games. There is a plausible argument that Dr. Paul Krugman of Princeton University should win the Nobel Prize in economics based on his trade studies early his career. However, Krugman had spent most the Bush term as a  regular, relentless, and often rabid critic of the Bush Administration. Awarding Krugman the prize was just too tempting in this context. Assist Bush

It is not as if there are too few potential recipients that the Nobel Peace Prize can be awarded frivolously to score political points. The Weekly Standard cites Sima Samar, an activist who has pursued women’s rights in Afghanistan at personal risk; or Hu Jia, a human rights activist jailed by the Chinese; or Dr. Denis Mukwege, who has “dedicated his life to helping Congolese women and girls who are victims of gang rape and brutal sexual violence” as those who could have be recognized. The award could have gone to the dissidents in the streets of Iran for protesting a stolen election.

It appears that Obama has a tin ear, as he doesn’t appear to realize that he will be easy to mock for accepting a prize he doesn’t deserved. He could demonstrate integrity, mute criticism by political opponents, and provide counter evidence to the charge that he is self-aggrandizing by respectfully declining the prize. Better yet, he could accept the prize as Commander and Chief on behalf of the US military, particularly General David Petraeus, for their heroic  efforts to bring freedom and security to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider that advice that will not likely be followed.

Obama Undermines His Own Credibility

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

Scott Rasmussen is at the peak of the polling industry having been one of, if not the most, accurate predictor of the last presidential election. It is pretty straightforward for anyone to conduct a poll, but to adjust polls properly for how many Democrats and Republicans or how many likely voters there are in the sample, is either a very sophisticated science or an art. Rasmussen has been tracking the standing of President Barack Obama with likely voters since the inauguration.

Obama came into office with a 65% approval rating among likely voters, with 44% percent strongly approving. Rasmussen has been trying to estimate the passion behind approval or disapproval by also tracking the difference between those who “strongly approve” and those who “strongly disapprove.” When Obama became president, this index was at +28%. Clearly Obama came into office as a very popular figure, even for a freshly minted president.

Since then, his approval rating has steadily dwindled. Among likely voters, the total approval or disapproval rating is about 50-50, just as many people approve of Obama’s job performance as disapprove. However, the passion has definitely shifted toward those who disapprove. The difference between those who strongly approve shifted negative somewhere in June 2009, now hovers at about -10% though it fluctuates daily in the Rasmussen poll.

A general decline is to be expected. Some of this has been due to a worsening unemployment rate, now far higher than Obama promised when arguing for his stimulus package. As always, to govern is to decide. To decide is to make some people angry with your policies. Obama has been able to pass or at least propose very consequential legislation, from the stimulus package, to cap-and-trade, to medical care (now insurance) reform. There will be winners and losers as a result. This would explain a drop in Obama’s approval rating and an increase in those who strongly disapprove. However, there has been no parallel increase in those who strongly approve.

Allow me to respectfully suggest that this may be due in part to the fact Obama’s early mountain of credibility has been continuously eroded by the flow of his own words. A case a point is his argument that there is no intention for the “public option” for health insureance to be used as a wedge to create a single-payer system for health care. In this prime-time speech on health insurance reform, he said: “Now, my health care proposal has also been attacked by some who oppose reform as a `government takeover’ of the entire health care system… So let me set the record straight here. My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition. That’s how the market works.”

However, neither supporters of the President or others believe this. Congressman Barney Frank and others have spoken candidly about using the public option as a wedge for a single-payer system. The only thing that seems to unite those who support the President’s health insurance reform  and those who oppose it, is the conviction that a public option will inevitably lead to a single-payer system roughly analogous to Canada’s or England’s. Most realize that if the President was focused solely on more competition, he could simply urge the removal of  cross-state barriers to health insurance competition. The government could mandate the publication of doctors and hospital prices and institute health care savings accounts to increase competition in the health care and health insurance market. Very few people believe the public option is really about competition.

Obama supporters are forced to quickly glide by the president’s words and rationalize them as a way to get the health insurance reform bills passed in the current political environment. Supporters are left with a disappointment that Obama does not make the open case for the type of reform they want. Others are provided further evidence of duplicity. The president cannot  maintain his credibility if neither his supporters or opponents believe his words. If Obama and the Democrats cannot  make the open case for the reform they want — a single payer system —by being honest about it then in a society ruled by the assent of the governed, it should not pass.