Obama’s Touch Cured Me of Scrofula

Arjun Appadurai (of “Magic Ballot” fame) has replied to my recent post. I think it’s at least worth clearing up a few misconceptions:

I assume Mr. Kuznicki is sympathetic to the mission of the Cato Institute, whose name can be traced back to Cato the Younger, implacable foe of Julius Caesar. Alas, he sounds a lot more like Cato the Elder, also known as Cato the Censor, famed for his rigid moralizing, his ascetical approach to public spending, and his brutal approach to war against the enemies of Rome.

I don’t care for moralizing, and still less for war, but I’m guilty as charged when it comes to asceticism in public spending.

I believe that the government should live within its means, and that whenever possible, workers and investors should keep what they earn. Call me a penny-pincher, but I think that terming a $700 billion bank bailout “magic,” as Mr. Appadurai did, is the single weakest justification I’ve ever heard for any government project, ever. And I’ve heard some doozies before.

Calling acts of government “magic” gives our political leaders way more credit than they deserve. Our leaders may be intelligent, or charismatic, or honest, or judicious. But even the best of them are not magic. To tell the truth, I hadn’t thought this a controversial idea.

Mr. Appadurai continues:

Mr. Kuznicki is keen to remind me that the United States is a Lockean republic, that Barack Obama is not a priest or magician, that the Presidency is just a job (presumably like employment at Kinko’s) and that Obama was elected and not crowned. Well, where do I begin? I do know these facts. My essay was an interpretation of what seemed to us (not to Mr. Obama) so special about this election.

But his essay was the first to use the word “crowned,” not mine.

This election certainly was special: We shattered a racial barrier, and I’m thrilled to see it gone. We repudiated neoconservatism, our ill-conceived foreign wars, and the big-spending Bush administration. So much the better. But none of this is magic, and we don’t need the vocabulary of mysticism to express it. (In fact, I believe I just did express it.)

Mr. Appadurai also gets the following wrong:

Mr. Kuznicki is the kind of “secular” libertarian to whom the entire world of non-secular feelings, sensations, experiences and actions makes no sense, indeed it makes him sick. Well, in that case, 90% of humanity makes him sick, and perhaps 80% of the American electorate, including those who believe in faith-based philanthropy, religious calls to dialogue between faiths, and I assume the entire family of words from grace and charisma to hope and redemption also makes him sick. I am afraid there is no easy cure for this ailment.

It’s a bit silly to think that because I won’t call Barack Obama “magic,” I must have some deep-seated problem with 80% of the American electorate. I’d think, rather, that Christians would be on my side: Obama is a man and a sinner like any other, and all magic – excuse me, all glory – belongs to God.

In fact, the only thing I object to here is magical or mystical thinking about the government. The government has to serve people of all religious faiths, and of none. It can’t play favorites, and it can’t be some strange mysticism unto itself. If it were, it would alienate much of the public, and make tyrants of the rest. That’s what I object to.

A government of, by, and for the people is a huge advance over the divine rule of kings, kings who in former ages claimed that they really were magical, and whose touch was said to cure scrofula. Our leaders are human like the rest of us, and they should be open to our criticism, just like the guy at Kinko’s if he ruins our copies. That’s the genius of America: having a government we’re not afraid to criticize.

America is also about celebrating individual virtues. These virtues, however, take a pounding from Mr. Appadurai:

…Mr. Kuznicki knows the answers already and is sure that what makes the world go around are: “reason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift.” I assume that when things go wrong, it is due to a deficit of these things. Well, there’s his answer to global warming, the biggest financial meltdown in the world’s wealthiest economy, military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan for the world’s most sophisticated army, not to speak of Avian flu, sudden infant death and Katrina.

“[R]eason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift” are virtues. Virtues aren’t “the” answer, but they’re the beginning of one, and it’s a weak theodicity that gives up on virtue when the going gets tough.

(Ask yourself: Can there be a solution to global warming or Avian flu – without reason? A solution to Iraq – without courage? A solution to the financial crisis without hard work and thrift? Well, yes, there can be such solutions, but we wouldn’t want to implement them.)

And you know, it’s funny. I’d imagined that liberals would really go for the “reason” line, having plausibly accused the Bush administration of waging “war on science.” But I suppose that for at least a few liberals, when their guy wins, “reason” is out the window, and “magic” is what it’s all about.

Marshall Fritz Passes

Marshall Fritz, founder of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, passed away last week. Marshall was a principled, honorable man, and one of the clearest voices for the view that the state should play no role in the education of children. He advocated parental responsibility and private philanthropy as the only proper means of ensuring universal access to education. While Marshall and I disagreed on some issues, he was always the model of civility and empathy. He strove to lead a good and charitable life, and he succeeded. Rest in peace, Marshall.

Isn’t It Nice: Obama Can Choose!

Speaking of school choice, here’s the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews on President-elect Obama’s upcoming school selection.

Read it and then let me know: Could Mathews be any less critical? Jay regularly dodges any meaningful discussion of private-school choice reforms like vouchers while railing about such peripheral tweaks as increasing Advanced Placement offerings. Apparently, school-choice reforms don’t even rate when the incoming President—a choice opponent—is about to choose a school for his kids. Jay just happily discusses Mr. Obama’s impending decision with the friendly warmth of a helpful new neighbor, for all intents and purposes dodging not just the political implications of the President-elect choosing a private school for his own kids, but the exceptionalism that seems to be heading his way within the public-schooling system.

“One educational gem happens to be the closest public school to their new home,” Jay writes, after noting without a hint of reservation that the Obamas will probably choose the private Georgetown Day School. “Strong John Thomson Elementary School is at 1200 L St. NW, three-fifths of a mile from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

There are a few minor problems, though, with getting into Thomson, problems that would be deal-killers for normal DC citizens. One is that “the White House is actually in the attendance area of the Francis-Stevens Educational Center.” President-elect Obama wouldn’t want to send his kids there, though, because “that is a recently merged school with a new principal.”

Another problem is that Strong John Thomson is, according to Mathews, “close to capacity.” But no worries. The principal “said she would have room after the holidays for a fifth-grader and a second-grader transferring from the Midwest.”

When the time finally comes for Mr. Obama to select a school for his kids, would it be too much to ask that the education columnist in the Washington Post not dodge the actual political implications of the decision? I know these kinds of decisions are too personal to listen to ”kibitzing from outsiders,” but I’d sure hate for people to perceive some kind of a media bias.

The Public-School-Choice Horror!

Here are a couple of articles discussing first the hope, then the disappointment, of charter schools and other public-school choice.

The problem especially with charters is that they dangle the hope of real change and competition in front of desperate parents but are all too often at the near complete mercy of their public-schooling masters. It’s why public-school choice alone simply will not transform American education from our current moribund, socialist monopoly into a thriving free system. Just because he lets you live doesn’t mean Col. Kurtz will set you free.

Macho Sauce Gives Cannon a Run for His Money

Here’s an interesting video in which the economics of health care are described in slightly more vernacular language than my colleague Michael Cannon would typically use. I venture to say that the presenter makes the eminently capable Mr. Cannon look quite staid.

This is a conservative, of course, and not a libertarian. Much of what comes after the first two minutes is off the mark in my opinion. But it’s good entertainment and it carries some good messages about how socialized medicine is a policy that’s best regarded as somewhat infelicitous.

The $700 Billion Honeypot

The Washington Post reports:

[There is] an army of accountants, financial advisers, asset managers, lobbyists and others descending on Washington as part of the government’s attempts to rescue the economy and bail out industries.

Big consulting firms like PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young have booked extended-stay apartments and blocks of hotel rooms. Out-of-town financial experts are scouting for office space, expecting to lease it for several months as they help do work for Treasury and others.

Commercial real estate brokerage companies have pulled lawyers and salesmen who usually put together deals on downtown offices to work out loans and foreclose on properties. Some have dubbed themselves the “TARP team” after the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program created to sort through assets.

“Everything from the policies, the regulations, to the money and the contracts to do the work will be emanating out of Washington, so people want to be here,” [lawyer Larry] Wolk said. “Wall Street has moved to K Street.”

National crises often provide a stimulus to the Washington economy….

“Firms see this as a potential gold mine,” said Anirban Basu, an economist and chief executive of Sage Policy Group in Baltimore. For Washington, “that has to translate into business sales, high-powered restaurant meals, business suit purchases, and travel and luxury hotel stays. We often talk about D.C. being different economically than the rest of the country and this is perfectly true. I don’t see much evidence of a slowdown here.”

As I wrote two years ago, “When you spread food out on a picnic table, you can expect ants. When you put $3 trillion on the table, you can expect special interests, lobbyists and pork-barrel politicians.”

‘After’ the Imperial Presidency?

Jonathan Mahler has a smart, informative feature on executive power in this week’s New York Times Magazine. I object only to the title, “After the Imperial Presidency.” As Mahler’s piece makes clear, the title could have used a question mark, at the very least.

Mahler writes:

Come January, the current administration will pass on to its successor a vast infrastructure for electronic surveillance, secret sites for detention and interrogation and a sheaf of legal opinions empowering the executive to do whatever he feels necessary to protect the country. The new administration will also be the beneficiary of Congress’s recent history of complacency, which amounts to a tacit acceptance of the Bush administration’s expansive views of executive authority. For that matter, thanks to the recent economic bailout, Bush’s successor will inherit control over much of the banking industry. “The next president will enter office as the most powerful president who has ever sat in the White House,” Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale and an influential legal blogger, told me a few weeks ago.

Some prominent commentators — Jack Goldsmith and Jeffrey Rosen among them — have noted the “irony” that an administration monomaniacally committed to the growth of presidential power has allegedly weakened the presidency with its unilateralism and contempt of Congress. Given the powers the office retains and continues to accrue, that’s an irony that’s hard to savor. As Mahler notes, “it’s worth keeping in mind that in the final year of Bush’s presidency — while facing a Democratic Congress and historically low approval ratings — he was able to push through a federal bailout bill that vested almost complete control over the economy in the Treasury secretary (who reports to the president), not to mention a major rewriting of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that will make it easier for the White House to spy on American citizens.”

Indeed, Mahler documents how political realities— and in Obama’s case, perhaps, the prospect of actually taking power — led both candidates to move away from their early criticisms of Bush-style “deciderism,” and flip flop on torture (McCain) and wiretapping (McCain and Obama).

In explaining the post-9/11 growth of executive power, Mahler properly focuses on the twin problems of congressional cowardice and poisonous partisanship. In the Bush years, all too many congressional Republicans put party unity over institutional responsibility. That’s a common vice under unified government, which may be why Mahler hardly sounds optimistic when he quotes Senator Levin: “When I asked Levin what needs to happen for Congress to take back the rest of the ground that it ceded to the executive branch during the Bush years, he replied predictably, ‘We need a Democrat in the White House.’”

For further reasons to doubt that the Imperial Presidency is behind us, check here and here.