Thursday, November 03, 2005

MORE CRONYISM: Bush appoints nine campaign contributors (out of 16 slots) to his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

ARE UNIONS ILLEGITIMATE? Lawrence - This post is in response to a private conversation we had several days ago. You asked me to blog it, but to reply I have to provide a little background.

You had forwarded me an article from the Economist regarding auto industry labor unions, specifically the Delphi bankruptcy and how it may impact GM's labor negotiations.

However, the way you characterized unions was surprising to me. You called them "rapacious," and when I hesitated to take you seriously you replied that you meant it.

Here's my reply:

GM is possibly the worst-managed large American corporation. It is the laughingstock of the auto industry, the perpetual underperformer, and has been for thirty years. GM is often the first to acknowledge this through its periodic ad campaigns promising to do better.

Auto analysts claim that GM spends $1,500 per car on employee and retiree health benefits. It happens that GM spends even more than that on the rebates and discounts needed to sell its cars to GM's typically reluctant customers. While most mainstream auto makers resort to discounts from time to time to adjust to slowdowns or to move cars that haven't sold as expected, GM's discount programs are positively unending. GM invented the "employee discount for everyone" ploy, for example, and has most recently resorted to "value pricing" - that is, substantially lowering MSRP on most of its product line to reflect the discounts it knows will eventually have to be given away anyway.

With a few notable exceptions like the Corvette, Pontiac's new Solstice, and most of Cadillac's lineup, it is no exaggeration to say that GM builds substandard dreck that is years or decades behind industry standards. People have to be bribed to buy GM's cars. In fact, probably the biggest problem GM faces is its absurdly large number of brands, which forces GM to spend money on redundant departments and brands, reducing its per-vehicle R&D investments to a fraction of what Toyota spends. It maintains expensive marketing programs and dealer networks for 8 self-cannibalizing brands while its more successful competitors make do with 2 or 3. This is because GM has for years avoided confronting a hidebound and expensive relic of its past that refuses to face up to new economic realities: Its bloated dealer network.

So my point here is that if GM built cars people actually liked, they'd more than cover their per-unit healthcare costs, and that it has loads of other problems besides legacy and labor costs. Pointing the finger solely at labor completely misses these key facts about GM's performance in the marketplace. It's a mistake to blame GM's (or Delphi's) woes solely on labor. (And, briefly, all the above applies equally to Delphi: Delphi, for example, makes many of GM's interiors, which most observers of the auto industry - and most consumers - consider to be far inferior to the interiors of even cheap Korean cars.)


Any compensation unions and their members get is the result of negotiations between themselves and management. Prices are set by mutual agreement at the end of an adversarial process (negotiation). I think it's a mistake to attach moral significance to things like wage/benefits haggling, a naturally and appropriately adversarial process. There is no "good" or "correct" price of labor. As I said at the time, don't blame labor unions if GM's managers are lousy negotiators.

You said high union wages harm consumers. I disagree for two reasons: it's hard to define "high" and it's hard to define "harm," and it begs the question of why unions should negotiate on behalf of non-members. I agree that it seems like $65/hour is a high price for labor, that's no different from saying that cold cereal seems too expensive. My response, in either case, is the same: Well, yeah, it does seem expensive, but that doesn't mean it is. If in fact, it is "too" expensive then it will drop. If it's not, it won't. That’s how markets work.

What seems like a fair price is not how prices are set. When I negotiate with my boss, am I harming my customers? Should I care? Is it my job to negotiate with my customers' financial interests in mind? You may make this argument (I'd be surprised), but then you'd have to call everybody who seeks to maximize his income rapacious, not just members of labor unions.

We can make more objective arguments. $65/hour is much higher than autoworkers make in developing countries, countries that GM may choose to build more cars in in the future. True - and this is an excellent negotiating point for GM's managers to make in the next round of union negotiations. Or, GM could actually move more manufacturing jobs there (it already builds some of its SUV engines in China). Labor unions could reply that Porsche and BMW (and Toyota and Honda), with their even higher home-market labor costs, make plenty of money.

I happen to agree that wages that high are probably unsustainable. But all this moralistic language - unions are rapacious - strikes me as unwise. Labor prices - like other prices - are determined by the interplay of demand and supply, not by some objective measure of rightness or goodness.

You made a few other comments along these lines: You accused labor unions of benefiting their members to the detriment of non-members. You accused them of working against the interests of consumers. You asked why they should enjoy health benefits and job security if you don't. My impression is that you feel labor unions are simply illegitimate, and this would explain why you blame them for doing the same things (maximizing member benefits, maximizing wages and benefits, negotiating) that are perfectly acceptable in any other economic realm. When companies make product pricing decisions, adjust wages or benefits, or make marketing decisions, it's perfectly legitimate because they're "the market." But when workers press for higher wages or win health benefits or job security, they're somehow outside the market and are therefore illegitimate - conspiring against the public, whose interest they should be representing instead of their own.

This is a common theme, and I'm at a loss to explain where it originated: The idea that collective bargaining is unwholesome, immoral, illegitimate, extra-market or anti-market.

I've tried to represent your arguments fairly here but if I haven't, please correct me.

Friday, October 14, 2005


The growing Iraqi withdrawal debate is wrong-headed. The pullout mooted by such diverse figures as Senator Hagel, John Stewart, and Cindy Sheehan would be catastrophic, and our growing national fantasy that it is imminent is hazardous. It creates unreal expectations that embolden the insurgents to hang tough, gives false comfort to military families especially, and tempts the Democrats to abdicate responsible policy input for cheap shots from the gallery.

The problem in Iraq is not some macro-failure of America’s post-9/11 grand strategy. Rather it is a mundane, if widespread, process failure. The problem with the occupation is not its existence, as the American left increasingly says, but its staggering ineptitude. The answer is not exit, but a meaningful occupation – nation-building - that demonstrates real commitment to the outcome. This would require, as John McCain has long observed, and Eric Shinseki before him, more soldiers.

The reasons for a successful occupation are so clear, they barely merit repeating.

First, an exit timetable would be an admission of defeat. It would signal to the insurgents to simply wait us out.

Second, a hasty exit would reinforce an old image problem in American foreign policy - casualty-shyness. The Islamists remember our pull-outs from Beirut and Somalia. As in Vietnam, American credibility is at stake (it always is when great powers commit overseas), and we are far from 1969. The costs of credibility maintenance do not yet outweigh the likely costs of defeat. We have not reached a Tet-like tipping point.

Third, an exit/defeat would not end the war. Although Bush incorrectly targeted Iraq in 2003 as a part of the War on Terror, we are stuck with it now. Regardless of the left’s resentment, Iraq is now a part of the War on Terror. If Iraq is left prostrate and chaotic by our withdrawal, that would not end the conflict. We will face Islamist threats in neighboring states.

So why are we losing - defined in a guerilla conflict as not defeating the rebels? Political will.

We have the resources. With a population of 300 million and a GDP over $11 trillion, the US has the capacity to easily win both the war and the peace. We can defeat the insurgents and rebuild the Iraqi state as we did in Germany and Japan.

The true answer is the Bush administration’s disdain for nation-building – its half-hearted political commitment to reconstruction. It did not expect to nation-build, and it does not wish too. This is the flimsy work of the Europeans and international organizations. The Pentagon ignored the State Department’s "Future of Iraq" project from the 1990s which planned for this very scenario.

So with no real plan or structure for the occupation, we lurch from crisis to ‘turning point,’ hoping for a break. The public was never mobilized for the long haul, hence the growing discontent and the ‘quagmire’ analogies. Instead of cutting taxes to pay for the war and impart a shared sense of national sacrifice, the Bush team cut taxes, and now we are borrowing again. Instead of expanding the Army to meet the strenuous demands of Iraq (Shinseki's concern), the occupation struggles undermanned and underequipped. Because we have not won decisively, the mission must remain militarized. Instead of mobilizing civilian reconstruction resources – Americorps/Peace Corps, college students, or nongovernmental organizations - to bring a human face to American power in the Gulf and actually build a functioning Iraqi public sector, the mission remains under DoD. The requisite military victory has not been achieved.

We can win this conflict, rather than simply hold, but we must recognize the necessity of domestic sacrifice. The Army needs more soldiers, and we must pay for them. We must raise taxes and put more boots on the ground. Then, in a secure environment, we can ‘civilian-ize’ the mission and get about the difficult, grubby business of building a functioning and democratic Iraqi state. This too will cost money - lots of it. German reconstruction took four years, and there were greater cultural similarities. Let's recognize the long slog in front of us.

Lasting victory will require domestic mobilization. Either we make that public national sacrifice, or we stumble on, day-to-day - so desperate to leave that we may pass off a failed state to Islamist clerics.

----- Lawrence D

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


In his new book, Buchanan provides an intelligent critique of the Bush administration from a surprising direction – the right - and without too much controversial ethnic language.

Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency
By Patrick J. Buchanan.
(St. Martin’s Press, 264 pp., $24.95)

For awhile there in the 1990s, Pat Buchanan seemed to lose his way. A sharp and smart, if avowedly conservative, speechwriter for three presidents in the 1970s and 80s, Buchanan seemed to jump the rails during Bush 41 as a polemicist. His social conservatism, perhaps without the binders a White House staff position put on his tongue, boiled over into ethnic and religious controversy. William Buckley acquiesced in calling him an anti-Semite for his controversial remarks on the value to Israel of the first Gulf War. At the 1992 RNC, he gave his notorious primetime ‘culture war’ speech that may have cost Bush votes to Perot. And his abandonment of free trade early that decade cut his last tie with cosmopolitanism. His political and economic nationalisms melded into a somewhat disturbing American First-ism and flirtation with xenophobia. His 1996 and 2000 presidential bids were flops and his political views increasingly moved away him from respectable discourse. Smart, to be sure, but cranky.

But if the owl of Minerva brings enlightenment at dusk, than threat the Bush 43 administration represents to traditional conservatism has re-energized Buchanan at this late hour. In his new book, Buchanan shows - in a way only a conservative who cares for these subtle distinctions can - how the current Bush administration is re-making the GOP and with it American conservativism. A ‘paleo-conservative’ who wrote a preface to Barry Goldwater’s important Conscience of a Conservative, Buchanan is badly out of step with the conservative activists of the Bush administration. He comes from the capital-C Conservative tradition in the sense of Burke, de Maistre, Disraeli, Metternich, Oakeshott, and in the U.S., Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk and Robert Bork (many of who are named in the book). He combines an aristotelian concern for the possibilities of tyranny arising from state power (think Communism), with the augustinian sense that institutions (Church and Throne, or Church and Republic) are necessary to curb flawed mankind (think the 1960s). A devout Catholic, he really believes, one imagines, in original sin. And while such pessimism may make his positive vision of America disturbingly strict, his deep roots in European Conservativism make him a unique critic of Bush’s big-government conservatism. Not quite the philosopher from the list above, imagine Buchanan as Burke’s bulldog for contemporary America.

The Rosetta stone for Buchanan’s work is American nationalism, the city on the hill – a Jeffersonian-Madisonian paradise of religious, independent-minded, rugged, free Americans. And this drives the three big criticism he poses of the Bush administration – an expansionist foreign policy which will terrify the rest of the world, while undermining republican freedoms and virtues at home; free-trade multilateralism which will de-industrialize the US and imbricate it in international laws and organizations that trump the Constitution; and big-government conservatism at home which balloons the budget deficit and saps rugged individualism.

As with his last book, A Republic, Not an Empire, nothing so much as the Bush Doctrine and the Iraq war has invigorated Buchanan in recent years. This is the best part of the book. Buchanan’s argument is two-fold. These are, in Chalmers Johnson’s great expression, ‘the sorrows of empire.’ First, terrorism, which Buchanan correctly identifies as a tactic, not an ideology, will be endemic if we serious pursue global hegemony. This is not far-fetched; academic international relations theory has long expected other states and actors in world politics to balance the massive concentration of US power. Our democratic process and timid foreign policy goals are the frequent explanation for that missing balancing. Terrorism, as the weapon of the weak, represents what little there is. If the US truly pursues a neo-imperial grand strategy, it is hardly overwrought to expect resistance in the form of terror from alienated groups, with equally alienated states as sponsors. This is a good and interesting check to the wilsonianism of writers on both the left (Beinart of the New Republic) and right (Podhoretz of Commentary) speaking of the WoT as the first phase of ‘World War IV.’ Such explosive language, and the long, nebulous conflict it entails, should give us all serious pause.

The second argument is more certifiably ‘paleo-con.’ Buchanan makes a ‘throw-back to the Founding Fathers,’ libertarian argument that American external interventionism undermines its ability to be a free society at home. In this, one truly sees Buchanan’s lineage with Robert Taft and Russell Kirk. He notes, correctly, that the expansion of the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Department, and taxation to fund ‘empire’ threaten domestic liberties. The Economist and human rights NGOs have made similar arguments since the Guantanamo detentions began. Certainly previous wars have spat up constrictions of freedom we today reject – Japanese internment camps and the House UnAmerican Activities Subcommittee are probably the best known.

Surely all these arguments are right. But if concerns about domestic liberties feel disingenuous coming from the old right, they are. This is clever, but only because so few conservatives have shown the spine to defend due process against Bush’s imperial presidency. Still, Buchanan is a poor defender. He worked for the presidency synonymous with an imperial White House and was a strong supporter of the Cold War - which spawned a national security state so freedom-encroaching that a Republican president warned of the ‘military-industrial complex.’ Perhaps as a result, Buchanan flags here. He falls back on distant quotes from Madison about the cost of armies and Reagan’s famous ‘city on the hill’ – leading by example, not seeking monsters abroad to destroy. But it is hard to cast cold warrior Buchanan and the ACLU in the same camp defending us against the excesses of an imperial executive.

From here it is an odd non-sequitur to the next target – global governance. In the wake of castigating the US government for seeking global hegemony, Buchanan turns on himself by suggesting we are actually oozing sovereignty to international organizations simultaneously. This is the biggest logic failure in the book, and marks Buchanan more as a polemicist than philosopher. But it does introduce Buchanan’s most interesting claim in the book – that ‘free-trade fundamentalism’ is eviscerating the industrial capacity necessary to maintain US superpowerdom. This is fascinating political economy, for almost no one - except a few in labor - make such claims any longer. It is certainly correct that the globalization is reducing the competitiveness of America’s industry, but the neoclassical response, of course, is that the division of labor and international specialization improve living standards. Indeed it is a noticeable lacuna that Buchanan avoids the bonanza for poor American consumers that trade and Walmart have brought.

But unlike leftists like Michael Moore, Buchanan knows he can’t defend protectionism in the language of economics. Mercifully, Buchanan spares us the shoddy logic and false concern of labor and NGOs who ridiculously claim to oppose trade in order to protect the global South from the oppression of foreign investment. To his credit, Buchanan takes a clear neomercantilist stance, supported by a smart argument pulled from Paul Kennedy. He rejects the absolute gains reaped by all from free trade, for the relative gains to be achieved, in America’s favor of course, by managed trade. His approach, so derided in the US, is actually not quite different from that of many Asian developmentalist strategies.

Battling the Thomas Friedman approach head-on, Buchanan argues that no great power can hang on at the top without an industrial base to arm and produce the goods its people want and need. In case of conflict, a great power must retain the capacity to produce goods. It must not fritter it away through trade with less developed, cheap labor states, and indulge in ethereal white collar and service professions that produce nothing tangible. His Kennedy-esque example is Britain in the 19th century. Taking a page from Marx, Buchanan sees industrialism as the highest stage of economic development. An industrial base is the root of national power, and for this there is a long pedigree in both economics and practice (Hamilton, List).

The answer then is to manage trade with the rest of the world to insure that the US gains relative to others in the transaction. Friedman and the globalizers see free trade tying us together, so if China grows relatively faster, it is not so bad. We are tying her into modernity and the global economy along the way, thereby reducing the likelihood of future conflict. Buchanan is cynical (or perhaps the nationalist in him wants to be). Citing similar arguments about Europe before WWI, he prefers relative gains and economic sovereignty. And this dovetails easily with the political nationalist’s resentment at international law and organization. The WTO, which infringes on both America’s economic and political sovereignty, comes in for special criticism.

The proper answer to this logic is not an economic one. Buchanan seems to realize he is sacrificing absolute gains. Rather it is historical and political. Historically, Buchanan seems trapped in the Industrial Revolution. Like the late Soviet Union, he seems baffled by the Digital Revolution of our generation. He does not see that America’s vast intellectual, service, and financial sectors also contain elements of power. If he is correct that Britain could not grow all the food or manufacture all the weapons it needed in WWI and II, it is also true that the City of London gave her the credit to borrow hugely. And warfare too has digitized. The 20th century model of war - where states hurl as much steel and soldiery as possible at each other - is fading. High precision weapons and warfighters have allowed the US to establish global dominance with a comparatively small active duty force. Buchanan, like Kennedy (who predicted that Japan and the Soviet Union would be major 21st century powers), overrates the national security necessity of a raw coal-and-steel style industrial base.

The political answer is more troubling, but more important. Pursuing absolute gains, multilateralism, and cosmopolitanism are political strategies to achieve security. They signal openness, flexibility, and warmth in an anarchic world. They mitigate anxiety, generate trust, and today, are the likely reasons so few states balance American power. To be sure, this opens us to surprise attacks like Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But the medium and long-term benefits of trust and benign engagement are high. Buchanan’s cramped, lonely vision of America would reduce these stocks of ‘soft power’ in the same way the Bush administration’s truculence has. On the economic merits alone, Buchanan is simply wrong, but as a national security strategy it is flawed at best.

The final major criticism of Bush 43 neocons is the emergence of ‘big government conservatism.’ Liberals will find it comforting to know that someone on the right is still nervous about deficits, pork, and the growth of bureaucracy. As ex-leftists, neoconservatives do not resent government, so they don’t mind the New Deal or the Great Society. Again, Buchanan’s paleo-con sympathies return, and for simple originality, it is fascinating to watch an admirer of Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater elaborate. Some is analysis – bring back the gold standard, e.g. - that simply is not heard much anymore. But much of the attack on the welfare state is pretty standard Reaganite stuff – end busing/affirmative action, balance the budget, reduce the role of the federal bureaucracy to the advantage of local communities (on education, for instance).

This would be even less remarkable were it to come from Republicans in power, and it is here that Buchanan’s claim of the abandonment of principle in the GOP is strongest. Even conservative think-tanks like Cato and Heritage, enjoying unprecedented access to power, have raised deep concern over the Bush administration to borrow recklessly and fund new programming. Now in power, conservatives are enjoying funding their own pet programs – marriage and abstinence promotion, an FEC crack-down, the re-balancing, rather than abolition, of public television. Buchanan correctly notes the Gingrichian highpoint of small government conservatism, but cannot seem to reconcile himself to it. Americans want to retain the middle-class entitlements to which they are accustomed but Bush 43 is unprepared to pay for.

Most of this is not beyond the pale. It is good to see Buchanan return to saner and sharper commentary. But old habits die hard. The book is stuffed with other critiques that sound like a TV polemicist cutting loose. China and Taiwan somehow wander in and then wander out. The judiciary too gets a bracing; it seems there’s some overlap between paelocons and the religious right. And Buchanan does indulge a few of the barbed one-liners that pull down his stature and make him so hot to handle. California is “Mexifornia;” America is “Mexamerica;” trade is making the US a “third world country.” Indeed it is one of the books flaws that Buchanan starts to wander from topic to topic. It gives the book the feel of a rant with lots of facts, rather than a focused polemic. And social science this is not. There are no citations; some of the authors he cites as authorities you’ve never heard of, and others (like Joseph Sobran, another Catholic paleo-con) are more ideological allies than authorities. That said, the book is entertaining, and designed for the semi-smart reader with some free time. Don’t read it with a pen; its not worth it. But the state of conservative commentary today is terrible. Coulter, Hannity, Limbaugh, even William Kristol have all sold their souls to the Bush administration. Fox News reads like RNC talking points. Even the Wall Street Journal and the National Review aren’t trying too hard anymore. Given the sorry, sycophantic state of conservative punditry today, Buchanan’s work is a unique and piquant reminder that the right and the GOP needn’t be the same thing.

----- Lawrence D

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Stop Obsessing over Campus ‘Academic Freedom’

David Horowitz and a state senator in Ohio have pushed hard for an academic bill of rights for students who feel ideologically oppressed by faculty. And they are correct that universities are overrun with lefty faculty.

But I don't really have the sense that there is an intellectual repression occurring. I know this is an article of faith on the right, but I am a conservative in my (unnamed) department. If there was some conspiracy, I think I would be on the receiving end of it. I just don't see any evidence of what Horowitz is saying. He writes "The abuse of students and university classrooms for political purposes is widespread both in Ohio and nationally." Widespread? Nationally? I can’t speak for Ohio, but nationally too? Come on. I just don't see anything to substantiate that.

But I will go one step further and sound openly naive to the right-wing blogosphere-types. I think lefty academics care pretty passionately about freedom of speech. Yes, they may think their rural students are benighted, or that the market is exploitative, or that W is an imperialist. And they are wrong on all 3 counts. But they are liberals mostly, not stalinists. They are more committed to pluralism than indoctrination. You sorta have to be a liberal - skeptical, intellectually open, critical of the status-quo - to be an academic. Conservatives hate that kinda talk. Smart conservatives are also open and self-critical – I try to be one of them - but that is not the general ethos of conservatism, with its trust in established social matrices and institutions.

The real answers to the ideological diversity in academia that conservatives want are:

1. Find a way to make academia more attractive to conservatives as a profession. The problem is not the persecution of conservatives on campus, but their poor interest in academia. I have never felt persecuted for my views, but I do notice how few other ‘righties’ there are around among the grad students and faculty. But when conservatives do come and they are serious, they can be comfortable. Look at the University of Chicago. Strauss and Hayek have lots of disciples there who are respected. The real problem is that conservatives go into the market and make money. They don't come to campus to research. If I had to guess why, I would say it is the low esteem accorded college professors in the US. The right seems to think we are eggheads; Democrats have been far more welcoming of the professoriate and social science in general.

2. Crack down on politically protected departments/agencies/centers/etc. The snap between Cornel West and Larry Summers is an excellent example of this. I think there is a deep sense among academics that politically correct or ideologically preferred scholarship is protected/assisted/rewarded. Multiculturalism is ensconced in academia more than anywhere else in America, and I think it drives away conservatives who see it, correctly, as soft and politicized. If state legislatures really want to do something useful for America’s universities, they should look at ethnic and women’s studies departments’ scholarship, and the racial re-balkanization of student bodies. The post-modern departments too should deploy method and rigor, produce politically neutral investigations, and be measured by their ability to publish in serious, peer-reviewed journals. Normative ‘calls to justice’ or ‘expressions of rage’ are not what we are to produce. That’s for advocates and interest groups. Scholarship means data collection and dispassionate analysis, not poetry or homilies.

Unfortunately, partisan conservatives, like Horowtiz, and the GOP broadly speaking, loathe experts and social scientists. George Will has been saying for decades that we just dress up out lefty predilections in the language of objectivity. So I imagine there is little interest in my suggestions. O'Reilly would presumably scoff when I say that academic liberals are more committed to professionalism than ideology. But many years of experience with colleagues who reject my opinions say otherwise. And without a rigorous empirical study to demonstrate ‘nationwide’ oppression, I am hesitant to hand students another tool to make my life difficult. It’s already hard enough to get them to come, take the material seriously, be polite to me and each other, accept poor grades without seeing dislike or ill-will, etc. Now we are telling them that I am an ideologue too.

I think the right has won so much within government that they are starting to turn on other institutions where the left is still dominant - universities and public TV.

-----Lawrence D

Friday, September 16, 2005

WHY KATRINA WILL HURT REPUBLICANS MORE THAN DEMOCRATS: Katrina, and the flawed federal response, presents several critical challenges to Bush's strengths and plays to Democratic strengths. First, the bungled federal response undercut Bush's strengths: National security, the military, decisiveness, and competence (!). The federal government proved largely incapable of responding to large-scale emergencies, failing to take control of NOLA as it descended into lawlessness. It was perceived correctly as indecisive and incompetent. Nobody knows better the risk of having your strengths challenged: In the 2004 presidential election, Bush's campaign was geared almost entirely toward discrediting John Kerry's strength as a war veteran. By the end of the campaign, the Purple Heart-awarded war veteran was successfully painted as a soft, mushy-headed internationalist who would let France decide when and how we defend ourselves. The harm to Kerry was grievous and insurmountable, and the more he droned on about his 'Nam credentials, the wimpier and less secure in himself he seemed. Further, despite the administration's aimless flailing about in Iraq, the Kerry camp was unable to get any traction with its criticisms because, simply put, it was Bush's turf.

Not only did the hurricane attack Bush's strengths, but the rebuilding effort puts him on domestic-policy territory where he and his party have been weak for decades. Since when did Americans trust Republicans to provide free healthcare and housing to lower-income blacks? Since when have urban planning and environmental restoration been things people looked to Republicans to provide competently? And at this time - when we need the very best scientific advice available that will allow us to manage floods and hurricanes by building levees and dams and rehabilitating the wetlands of the delta and gulf regions - this administration has distinguished itself by its disdain of scientific expertise of all kinds.

All of the tools required for a successful rebuilding effort are things that the Bush administration is uniquely unqualified to provide and has no credibility. So far the Bush administration has fallen back on the ineffectual remedies of the past, including the kinds of low-tax, low-regulation "enterprise zones" championed back when some people actually believed they worked (they don't). Call it neo-Kempism.

If the Democrats were smart (bear with me here), they'd remember never to interfere with an opponent who's hanging himself. They should insist on a genuinely bipartisan Katrina commission, but otherwise tone down their criticisms of the administration's bungled inital response, which is self-evident. (This is not to suggest that there aren't plenty of Democrats to blame at the state and local levels.) Instead, their best play is to relentlessly highlight all the legitimate concerns surrounding the corruption and incompetence inevitable in any huge project of this kind, but especially likely under this secretive, nepotistic, and incompetent administration.

Examples: Why is Karl Rove running the rebuilding effort? Why has the Davis-Bacon Act (which purports to require merely "prevailing" wages under federal contracts but in practice sets elevated wages) being suspended? How's it all going to be paid for? The point, obviously, is not for Democrats to benefit politically, but to help ensure that the next 3 years of rebuilding are completed as transparently and competently as possible. To the extent that that's not possible under this administration, and to the extent that this administration is ill equipped to really grapple with urban planning and racial equality and free healthcare, Democrats will benefit and legitimately so.


Thursday, September 15, 2005

MARSHALL PLAN: Lawrence, per your post earlier, the Dems have inevitably called for a Marshall Plan for the gulf coast. They need a new cliche. Also, Marshall plans require Marshalls, and none are much in evidence in either party.

Other late thoughts: With regard to accountability in deed and not just word, note that the man put in charge of the entire reconstruction campaign, including possibly $200 billion in reconstruction funds, is Karl Rove - a man whose job is patronage. Note also that one of the first executive acts the administration has taken is to suspend the rule that contractors pay employees prevailing wages. Normally I don't support this kind of thing, but if there was ever a case where paying generously was justified it's this. For goodness sake, the whole point is to rebuild the economy, and this is one of the administration's first decisions?


INITIAL REACTION TO BUSH'S KATRINA SPEECH: His speech was much better than I expected it to be, and I think it will help him. He acknowledged (some) the sense of betrayal I think we all felt in seeing Americans left for dead or in a state of nature for 3 or 4 days while utterly clueless bureaucrats contratulated each other on TV. He also said he took responsibility, although of course he did not apologize.

Now, what does it mean to accept responsibility? One aspect is apology, already noted. Another is accountability, and asking DHS to examine how and why DHS failed to do its job is totally inadequate. Equally unacceptable is the move in Congress to place the Katrina autopsy in the hands of the majority, instead of setting up a bipartisan committee.

Having inspectors general on the ground at least indicated an awareness of the deep concerns many of us feel that the gulf rebuilding effort will quickly devolve into an accountability-free contracting free-for-all, and patronage machine along the lines of the Coalition Provisional Authority that briefly mismanaged Iraq.

Bottom line for me: Actions speak louder than words. Nothing will change the fact that President Bush stacked FEMA with cronies, and was willing to put hundreds of lives at risk to reward political supporters. That can never be forgiven. The incompetence, the cronyism, the lack of preparation, the callousness - none of us should forget any of that.

The best we can hope for is honesty and transparency in the rebuilding effort, care for displaced Americans who certainly have every right to expect such benefits as taxpayers, respect for the culture and history of New Orleans so it's not rebuilt to look like a gigantic patch of tract housing, and, finally, true accountability, for which there is no evidence yet.

Good speech - but still just a speech.


Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Katrina May Hurt the Democrats More than Bush

The post-Katrina debate has the potential to politically damage both parties, depending on how the response failure is interpreted. I see 2 possibilities, but its likely worse for the left:

1) Katrina revives a national debate on poverty, and by extension race. It is painfully clear that the suffering of the disaster was disproportionately carried by the poor and black. If this is understood as a failure of social policy, of domestic poverty-alleviation, or even worse, as a civil rights issue, than Bush and the GOP are in real trouble. Bush has no anti-poverty agenda at all. This is less because of any GOP faith in the magic of the market (Bush is pro-business, not pro-market), than W’s surrender on any serious domestic agenda at all. Tax cuts are hardly a proactive policy. Beyond that the administration has No Child Left Behind and the Medicare expansion, but these are scarcely related to the social dislocation and confusion so prominent in the televised images.

But don’t expect the GOP not try. A standard of Rove-ism is to generate 2 or 3 policy proposals as magic bullets to answer all pesky questions in an issue area (just look at W’s Texas gubernatorial bids). So Bush will at some point try to suggest that the tax cuts and NCLB were in fact aimed at alleviating exactly the kind of impoverishment we all witnessed in New Orleans. Something like this happened when Bush shoved through the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts despite 9/11. Tax cuts help growth; we need growth to fight the WoT; ergo, tax cuts help the WoT. But I bet this won’t work this time. Too much urban plight was on display for such slipperiness to work.

So the GOP may be in serious trouble if the dominant question K leaves us is, what is the state doing to help the poor? This would be the first major national discussion on poverty since the Great Society, and the GOP is not ready for it. Proposal in the mode of 1990s welfare reform will look downright stingy.

But I doubt the debate will break that way.

First, I don’t think the country cares that much about poverty alleviation, or wants to revisit racial polarization. And the hyperbolic civil rights leadership will unfortunately accelerate that return of disinterest. There is much attention at the moment. Obama will get some good air time and say some meaningful and promising things; but then Sharpton and Jesse Jackson will start in with overwrought slavery analogies. They will attract the media’s interest with their antics, and Fox will give them generous coverage to hang themselves by their own rope. Liberals like Ted Kennedy will start talking about “Marshall Plans for our cities,” and that will doom the whole thing. The Howard Dean left has been itching for this moment, but they’ll blow it in excessive rhetoric and racially loaded guilt mongering.

Second, and perhaps as a cause of the disinterest above, the right has won the fight on poverty I think. The American economy’s growth in the past 25 years has been astonishing, and it is increasingly difficult for the left to make the ‘structural causes of poverty’ argument so dear to its activists. This cherished notion will be obvious in the left’s policy recommendations. They will show no imagination at all – think ‘Marshall plans for the cities,’ vague job creation proposals, and – always, ALWAYS - more money for schools. Yawn. No one believes this stuff anymore, and suburbanites will not be taken by such language. In the wake of Jim Crow and awful rural and elderly poverty, the New Deal and Great Society seemed like good policy. But today is the age of Walmart, cheap imported goods, and illegal immigrants taking jobs Americans find beneath them. When that last point – that the business case for illegal immigration is that our poor would rather remain jobless than take jobs they cultural/socially reject – becomes common knowledge, this debate will be over for the left. It will set liberals against one another, particularly black and Hispanic leaders. Lots of un-PC remarks will be heard, similar to Vincente Fox’s, and any electoral possibilities for a serious anti-poverty agenda will evaporate as the rhetoric becomes sharper and more racialized. This is unfortunate.

2) Katrina sparks a debate on public sector competence. It is also painfully clear that the bureaucracies of New Orleans and Louisiana don’t function. The photo of dozens of NO school buses underwater will define this debate – and likely cost Nagin his job. And Democrats will be lost – perhaps not the DLC, but the lifers in the House will be downright confused. Public sector bureaucracies in the United States are wildly less efficient than anything in the private sector. We all know this which is why we loathe USPS and BMV, call our congressman rather than the actual correct agency, and avoid townhall meetings, PTAs and the like.

And the Democrats are the most important political force blocking civil service reform of the kind that Schwarzenegger and many other governors want. Out-institutionalized by Rove and W’s massive party-building efforts, the Dems are desperate to hang onto what organizational bases they have left, and public sector unions are the biggie. Hence they will end-up defending changes increasingly recognized as necessary by just about everyone in the private sector – performance-benchmarking, easier ‘hire-and-fire,’ reduced job security, the elimination of seniority advancement, tougher benefits requirements etc. Anyone who has worked in a city, state or federal agency knows of the sloth that is protected by public sector unions like the NEA or AFSCME. If that is connected to the slow movement and corruption of the public agencies in NO/LA, the debate may turn from why didn’t the feds coordinate disaster to relief, to, how do we discipline local government to be responsive to constituents?

I bet the later is a more likely outcome. Poverty is eternal – or at least we perceive to be – so it will hardly grasp us, and decades of growth and cheap imports have pushed the poverty debate toward bad individual choices, and away from societal structures. But the debate on slothful, unresponsive, surly public sector bureaucracies would be pretty new, and it is far more attractive to the middle class which dislikes government unresponsiveness.

----- Lawrence D

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