Topic: Government and Politics

The Broad-Mindedness of Richard Holbrooke

Lots of scuttlebutt today involving the name “Richard Holbrooke.”  An emblem of the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment, Holbrooke is revered by some for his ruthlessness and ability to crack heads.  A dedicated global interventionist, Holbrooke is high on the list of “people antiwar Democrats don’t want involved in an Obama administration.”  In addition to ruthlessness, let’s take a walk down memory lane and attempt to determine how well Holbrooke would fit in an Obama administration that is supposed by many to be broad minded and determined to evaluate all arguments on a policy before leaping in.  Here’s Holbrooke in 1994 chairing a meeting with mid-level officials to discuss NATO expansion:

Without having spoken to [Anthony] Lake or to the president, Holbrooke told the interagency group that there was a presidential policy to enlarge NATO that needed implementation.  Holbrooke also made clear that [Warren] Christopher had asked him to set up and run the mechanism to expand NATO.

The new assistant secretary of state had a reputation for abrasiveness, and at this meeting, he demonstrated why.  General [Wesley] Clark has recalled:

[Joseph] Kruzel spoke first, since he was the policy guy, and said, “Why is this the policy?  It’s supposed to be an interagency process.”  Holbrooke crushed him like a bug.  He said, “It is policy.”  Ash Carter walked out of the room.  Then, as the meeting was about to conclude, I said, “I don’t know that a decision has been made.”  Holbrooke said, “Anyone questioning this is disloyal to the country and to the president.”  My ears turned bright red…and I demanded that he take it back.  The room stopped.  I got ready to leave.  Holbrooke took it back.

That’s from James Goldgeier, Not Whether But When, pp. 73-74.  So here you have it.  Pursuing disastrous policies while impugning the motives of career military officials and labeling them anti-American if they have the temerity to object?  Check.  As compared to the tactics of the Bush administration, that’s not exactly “change,” but I sure can believe it.

The Left Embraces the Shock Doctrine

Last week Rahm Emanuel said to a prestigious audience, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.”

And that’s just the strategy that bestselling author Naomi Klein accuses right-wingers of employing. Weaving a convoluted yet superficially simple tale of world events, she claims in her book The Shock Doctrine that right-wing ideologues and governments both use and create moments of crisis to implement their nefarious agenda.

“Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters,” Klein writes. “Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas.” Which is exactly what American left-liberals have been doing in anticipation of a Democratic administration coming to power at a time when the public might be frightened into accepting more government than it normally would. The Center for American Progress, for instance, run by John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and is now President-elect Obama’s transition director, has just released Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

The ideas in that report mesh well with the opportunities that Emanuel identified. After re-emphasizing the opportunities that crisis provides, he told his audience that the Obama administration wanted to use the opportunity to implement central planning of health care and energy, higher taxes, a federal program directed at “training the workforce,” and tighter control of financial institutions and capital flows.

But Emanuel isn’t the only one. As I mentioned previously, Paul Krugman has also endorsed the “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” power grab.

And now Arianna Huffington, the founder of the left-wing bulletin board HuffingtonPost, makes the same point in a public radio appearance. On KCRW’s “Left, Right, and Center,” November 21 (at about 27:20 in the podcast), she declared: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And it might be this particular crisis that will make it possible for the Obama administration to do some really innovative, bold things on health care, on energy independence, on all the areas that have been neglected.” (Hat tip: Thaddeus Russell.) Last year Huffington wrote a rave review of The Shock Doctrine, calling it “prophetic.” So it seems.

So … Emanuel. Krugman. Huffington. They’re all rallying around the theme that, well, that a left-liberal government should use this crisis to implement a more sweeping agenda than it could achieve in the absence of crisis. That’s the Shock Doctrine. Where are Naomi Klein and her legion of fans to expose and denounce it?

Of course, Klein might well decry their corporatist, big government/big business plans as just another example of Friedmanite/neoconservative/Pinochetist right-wing ideology. Anything other than local worker’s collectives smells like capitalism to her. So she can add the Obama administration to Milton Friedman, laissez-faire, the Bush administration, the Iraqi government, the Pinochet government, the Chinese Communist Party, and the ANC government of South Africa on the list of things that seem so many peas in a pod to her.

The San Francisco Chronicle says that Klein “may well have revealed the master narrative of our time.” The reviewer may have been more right than he knew.

Was There a Realignment?

Pollsters debate whether the 2008 election is a fundamental realignment of American politics, with liberals and Democrats now in the driver’s seat. But some ask, how can it be a realignment when the largest public opinion poll, the election-day exit poll, found liberals still a small minority of voters?

Twenty-two percent of those polled identified themselves as “liberal,” 34 percent as “conservative,” 44 percent as “moderate.”

One reason, not discussed in this article, is that liberal-moderate-conservative is a crude and one-dimensional view of the political spectrum. At the very least we should recognize that holding fiscally conservative views doesn’t necessarily make you a social conservative, and being a social conservative doesn’t make you a free-marketer. So when you add just one more dimension to create a matrix, you can get two new categories, whom we might call “populist” (socially conservative and pro-government activism, like Lou Dobbs and Mike Huckabee) and “libertarian” (fiscally conservative and culturally liberal).

In 2006, after another election that involved a sharp shift to the Democrats, Cato asked Zogby to poll voters on their political views. We asked half the respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” We were quite surprised that fully 59 percent said yes. And when we asked the other half of the sample, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” we knew the number would go down. But it only went down to 44 percent. So 44 percent of American voters are willing to label themselves as “libertarian” if it’s defined as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

Which is one reason that Democrats were able to roll up a big victory with an electorate that described itself as 78 percent conservative or moderate. Pollsters should ask more creative questions to get more revealing information about just where the electorate is and just what electoral changes mean.

Reply to Tax Policy Center on Corporate Tax Rates and Revenue

Len Burman, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, suggests  I was “careless” in a recent Wall Street Journal article when I said, “the Tax Policy Center (TPC) estimate of corporate rate cuts … is also nonsense because it’s entirely static. The estimate assumes raising or lowering corporate tax rates has no effect on corporate decisions about where to locate production, income or costs, and no effect on the economy’s performance.”

Burman says, “That is simply untrue (as we would have told Mr. Reynolds had he asked). If corporate tax rates were 10 percentage points below the top ordinary income tax rate, there would indeed be increased reporting of corporate income. But individual income tax revenues would fall too, quite possibly by more than the pickup in corporate revenues… . Investors would have had a huge incentive to channel their income through closely-held corporations instead of reporting it on their individual tax returns. Many S-corporations and partnerships, which are taxed at individual rates, would have chosen to be taxed as C-corporations at a lower rate… .I know the Wall Street Journal editorial page tries not to let facts get in the way of its tax-cut narrative, but those facts do matter.”

Was it “simply untrue” for me to say the Tax Policy Center’s corporate income tax estimates are static?  The footnote to their Table T08-0167 about “Senator John McCain’s Tax Proposals” could not be more clear: “Corporate income tax estimates are static (they do not include a behavioral response). Official estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation would likely differ.”

Burman attempts to justify static revenue estimates by asserting that “quite possibly” there is no behavioral response to corporate tax rates, aside from shifting business income to and from the individual tax system.  But that just proves he is assuming, as I correctly said, that lowering corporate tax rates wold have literally “no effect on corporate decisions about where to locate production, income or costs, and no effect on the economy’s performance.” If that static assumption made any sense, then doubling corporate tax rates would double revenues (though more of the loot would show up on individual tax returns). That is certainly not what the economic literature suggests. Many countries in which income switching is impossible or trivial have cut their corporate tax rates to 25% or less with no loss in revenue as a share of GDP.

Trying justify static estimates on the basis of undocumented conjectures about the scale income shifting looks like an ad hoc rationalization. Guessing what might “quite possibly” be true has nothing to do with “facts.”  It amounts to abandoning economic theory and evidence in favor of a dubious hunch.

Under both the Obama and McCain plans the corporate tax rate would be 5-7 points below the individual tax through 2013.  Yet the Tax Policy Center mentions income shifting only in connection with the McCain plan.  If bias does not explain that, what does?

If income switching was as huge as Burman speculates, then the Tax Policy Center’s estimates of individual tax revenues from the Obama plan (which include a very modest behavioral response) are much too large, though corporate receipts would be somewhat higher.  In fact, that is exactly what I estimated in the 60-page paper cited in the byline to my op ed, which is mainly an empirical critique of Tax Policy Center methodology. I estimate that corporate income tax receipts under the Obama plan would be larger than the Tax Policy Center expects (because they ignored income shifting in Obama’s case).  But I also found their estimates of added receipts from higher tax rates on individual income, capital gains and dividends to be unbelievably rosy.

Obama’s Shock Doctrine

Paging Naomi Klein. In her book The Shock Doctrine, the left-wing polemicist claimed that right-wing governments — which she defined very broadly — take advantage of crises, or “shocks,” to implement their dastardly policies of free trade, privatization, and tax cuts. Well, one government has now announced its intention to take advantage of an economic crisis to implement “things you could not do before.” And since this government no doubt includes a lot of people who have read Naomi Klein, she may very well be able to take credit for giving them the idea.

According to the Wall Street Journal, President-elect Obama’s first and most central appointee is excited at the opportunities presented by the current economic shock:

Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, speaking to a Wall Street Journal conclave of business leaders Tuesday, said the economic crisis facing the country is “an opportunity to do things you could not do before.”

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Mr. Emanuel said.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Klein’s fans would be all over that if a Republican had said it. Instead, Paul Krugman praises that very line. Maybe he’s learned a few things from Naomi Klein, too.

In Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs demonstrated that government growth in the United States has not been slow and steady, year in and year out. Rather, its scope and power tend to shoot up during wars and economic crises. Occasionally, around the world, there have been instances where a crisis led to free-market reforms. Generally, though, governments seek to expand their power, and they take advantage of crises to do so. But they rarely spell their intentions out as clearly as Rahm Emanuel did.

See Klein’s thesis skewered by Johan Norberg here and here, and by Jonathan Chait here.

Observations about the Auto Bailout

Things went badly for Detroit’s automakers in Washington this week. What was to be a decisive lobbying blitz planned months in advance proved reminiscent of GM’s efforts to market the Chevy Nova in Latin America. Both were all show, no va!

The arguments against a bailout under any circumstances are well-established. A lot has been said and written lately, including this new piece, about the improprieties of so-called bailouts, generally, and in this case, specifically. Basically, we need a shakeout, not a bailout. What we’re witnessing is a shakedown.

Rather than emphasize those arguments here, there is a lot of subtext to this auto bailout frenzy. The subtext hasn’t received much attention, but is fascinating enough (to me at least) to write about.

Even before CorporateJetGate forced Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to bid the CEOs an abrupt and scathing adieu, support for Detroit’s case to raid the Treasury was melting away. But there wasn’t that much of a partisan divide over the issue. In fact, early October’s limited government, fiscal conservative darling, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), who gave one of the most compelling, moving, forceful, principled floor-speeches I’ve ever seen on the House floor in opposition to the financial bailout, is this month’s political hack. Apparently, his principled opposition to bailing out the “very people who caused this problem” doesn’t extend across state lines into Michigan. What a bitter disappointment he turns out to be.

The failure to garner enough support for a bailout bill was mostly the result of intra-party squabbling between factions within the Democratic Party — the Greens and the Laborites. The Greens view Detroit as carbon-belching heathens who must be brought to their knees before the almighty Sierra, Goddess of Flora and Fauna. The Laborites view the Greens as the Palinistas view those big shots who go to college to learn and stuff.

A Wall Street Journal editorial today picks up on this theme, which colors the battle between Henry Waxman (of the ascendant Greens) and John Dingell (of the declining Laborites) for Dingell’s long-held seat as top Democratic on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Much of the same cultural and class animus that popularly defined the Red State-Blue State divide is very much evident within the Democratic Party itself and could mean that we have some form of divided government after all.

Credit the Bush administration for helping to drive this wedge between the factions and sideline the bailout — for the time being at least. “Credit” might be too strong a word since, after all, it was the Bush administration that concocted the mother of all bailouts in the first place. The automakers just want a teensy-weensy $25 billion, or 3.57%, of the $700 billion pot.

But here’s how the administration played a role. First, Treasury secretary Henry Paulson claimed he was unauthorized to allocate any of the $700 billion to the automakers under the TARP law. Congress didn’t challenge that interpretation too vehemently, and set out to rewrite the law to specifically authorize $25 billion for Detroit. But the White House indicated it wouldn’t sign that legislation, but that it would go along with a bill to redirect the $25 billion already authorized under the energy bill for Detroit to “retool” its plants to produce higher-mileage vehicles. This seemed the more workable political solution, until the Waxman faction objected and mobilized. Prospects for a deal went south after that.

The corporate jet scandal was actually a gift to Pelosi and Reid. Instead of the focus being on the fractiousness of the Democratic Party and the question of whether those two can herd cats, the press had a field day with the spectacle of top hats and tails in soup kitchens.

It’s revealing, though, that the congressional leadership didn’t once ask how the $25 billion infusion would be used to right the ship until AFTER the bailout idea was made toxic by the CEOs’ choices of transportation. It should have been the very first question. Other than helping to cover operating expenses for four to five months, how is $25 billion going to rescue three companies that are bleeding $6 billion per month? Seems pretty straightforward. When you go to a bank for a loan and say you’re bleeding cash and facing imminent collapse, should you expect the loan officer to write you a check? Shouldn’t the banker at least be interested in a business plan?

Well, the idea of a business plan didn’t even strike Pelosi and Reid until yesterday, when they told the CEOs to go back, sharpen their pencils, and show us how you’ll succeed. In a statement this afternoon reported in CQ Daily, which reveals how utterly lost in space the leadership is when it comes to business, Pelosi said she and Reid “would make it clear [to the three auto companies] they want to know how the automakers ‘plan to make investments in the advanced technologies, so that they can compete in the marketplace, so that people will want to buy their cars.’ The letter will also reiterate demands for accountability, including a ban on bonuses for executives earning more than $200,000 and a freeze on dividend payments.”

Then, as though to give the Justice Department’s antitrust division one last task, Pelosi invited the companies to collude. About providing their business plans, she said, “They could do it singly, jointly or severally, however they wish. But we need to have that response” (as though it were akin to a permission slip signed by a parent).

Maybe someone will say I’m being too harsh. But this dismissive tone, this lack of understanding the purpose of business plans, this conflating of irreconciliable objectives (like stopping the immediate financial bleeding by investing in green car technology), all suggest that the congressional leadership, and probably most Greens and Laborites, don’t really care one bit what happens to the companies, as long as their own political objectives are served.

The Greens want to show the world that consideration of production costs and consumer demand is passé. It’s all about the product being made quietly and invisibly. Someone should remind them there were no latte stands in the Stone Age either.

The Laborites seem most concerned about making sure the unions persist, but act as though the companies’ health has nothing to do with the unions’. If they really cared about saving the Detroit automakers, they would support the bankruptcy process. The automakers cannot survive much longer unless they shred their labor contracts. But if they shred the contracts, union management will have less to give to the Laborite politicians. It’s tough business these days being a leach on a leach.

Obama the Question Mark Man

I picked up my local beer magazine, On Tap, and was surprised to see a front page story on Matthew Lesko, the government subsidies guy who famously wears a question mark jacket. The question marks indicate that all you folks out there can get on board the federal gravy train, and Lesko can show you how.

As president-elect Barack Obama is trying to fill out his cabinet posts, I realized that Lesko would be perfect. I’m thinking maybe secretary of commerce because Lesko’s approach to commerce is to get everybody hooked on federal handouts. That’s exactly the same as Obama!

Obama has refundable tax credits for everyonehe’s got goodies for federal unions, and he’s got subsidies for health care, toddlers and college students, homeowners, prescription drug users, energy companies, and on and on.

Once President Obama gets all those new subsidy programs through Congress, Lesko would be the perfect salesman to travel the country and pump up excitement over a new era of subsidy-fueled prosperity.

Mr. Lesko, all your years of hard work making late-night TV commercials may pay off big time! All the Obama administration would have to do is change www.lesko.com to www.lesko.gov and Americans could start cashing in.

Let’s face it: Lesko’s message captures today’s new spirit perfectly. Working hard for a paycheck is for chumps. Today, everybody can become a member of the Government Money Club and experience Hope and Change under the new administration.