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Friday, July 22, 2011

The GOP: For Federalism or Less Government?

The stance of Sen. Jim DeMint (SC-R) in 2010 is emblematic of the ambiguity in the hierarchy of goals in the Republican party. DeMint can be taken as being primarily oriented to restoring the balance of federalism by having the federal government do less and the State governments more, at least in terms of domestic policy. This could bring the General Government back to its enumerated powers. Accordingly, Time magazine maintains that DeMint’s real target in 2010 was “a radical downsizing of the federal government.” This downsizing includes “turning education policy over to the states and gradually dismantling safety-net programs like Social Security and Medicare.”

Even so, DeMint may not have been assuming that the state governments would then create various degrees of “safety-net.” That is, his agenda could have been to get government out of the business of providing basic needs to those who might otherwise not survive. In other words, his primary goal could have been to reduce government itself, especially outside of defense and foreign policy. For instance, citing “creeping socialism in the U.S.”, DeMint wanted to “shrink government.” He “was incensed by what he considered a growing public reliance on government largesse for things like housing, food and income, which to him was creating dependency and stifling free enterprise.” The senator’s ideal here is distinct from his goal of downsizing the federal government in order to shift power to the state governments. A shift does not necessarily imply a reduction. It is precisely on this point that the Republican Party has been far too ambiguous. What is more important to the party: less government or restoring federal government?

Too often, the two goals have been conflated by Republican office-holders, as if restoring federalism means a reduction in government. It is possible, after all, that restoring social programs at the State level could result in more government. As Massachusetts demonstrates, the states are able to enact expansive social programs such as universal health-care. However, in a federal system, one size does not fit all; republics such as Texas and Oklahoma would doubtless have approaches to health-care that rely on far less government. So moving to toward a balance between the U.S. Government and the governments of the member republics of the Union may or may not mean less government. Whether government is more or less would depend not just on what Congress and the U.S. President want, but also on what the elected representatives and heads of state in the member states want.

Therefore, a Republican might say, “I want a shift toward the states in domestic domains and I want my particular republic to have less government while the federal government focuses on defense, regulating interstate commerce, and foreign policy.” I contend that such an integrated position is rarely, if ever, enunciated on behalf of the Republican Party. I suspect that the reality undergirding the GOP is less government, with occasional lip-service thrown to federalism.

Source: Michael Crowley and Jay Newton-Small, “Leading the Rebel Brigade,” Time, November 29, 2010, pp. 34-37.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Presiding over a Debt Precipice

In the context of a rapidly approaching deadline on increasing the ceiling on U.S. Government debt, Barak Obama found himself rebuffing pressure from anti-tax “Tea Party” Republicans in the U.S. House while needing enough non-partisan credibility for his warning of an impending economic catastrophe to be believed by the citizenry and Congress. That is to say, Obama’s failure to stand back as the Democrats and Republicans in Congress duked it out on spending cuts and tax increases mitigated his stature or credibility as Presider in Chief. An editorial in the New York Times refers to this role of the president as "the utimate guardian of the constitutional order." To preside is to be oriented to the viability of the whole. This means stepping in when the system itself is at risk. Partisan involvement compromises the ability to function in a failsafe capacity, as the "ultimate guardian."

Concretely, as the deadline on raising the debt-ceiling approached, someone with credibility was needed to stand up and get the attention of the partisans to say: We are running out of time. You need to come to an agreement. Taking and advancing one of the sides of the dispute detracted from Barak Obama’s ability to act as the party oriented to the deadline itself. It left the deadline itself vulnerable because the role designed to protect it was also interested in advancing a certain agreement (and killing another). I contend, therefore, that Obama’s priorities were at odds with that of how his office is designed to function in the system. The system itself is left vulnerable.

By analogy, a fire inspector is hired to sit in a crowded theatre to keep an eye on the building in case one of the special effects of the play causes a fire. Keeping an eye on the theatre itself, including backstage and the balcony, is less interesting than watching the plot unfold on stage. Taking the side of the protagonist, the inspector is diverted from noticing the smoke at the back of the balcony. The theatre, and its occupants, are at risk because the inspector does not reach the stage in time. To be sure, watching a play is more interesting, but the inspector role is designed to look out for the people as a whole—indeed, the theatre itself.

Now, say the theatre is host to a debate, and that the inspector steps on stage to take part in it. Not only is he or she distracted from keeping an eye out for sabotage, people in the audience favoring the other side on the debate might not believe the inspector’s eventual announcement that they must leave the building.

In 2010, Barak Obama remarked to the press after a partisan meeting with Congressional leaders, “Being bipartisan cannot mean that Democrats give up everything they believe in, find the handful of things that Republicans have been advocating for, and we do those things, and then we have bipartisanship.” Even as his statement sounds fair, to make it from a partisan position from the presidential podium undercuts the presiding nature of the Presidency. How might Republicans have reacted to the President had he then announced an emergency and indicated what needed to be done to avert disaster? While his detractors would probably not doubt his veracity, in the face of an impending disaster every bit of credibility that the Presidency itself is capable of is necessary.

In the context of the debt-ceiling showdown in July 2011, the president’s pushback against the House Republicans compromised his warning that “we are now in the eleventh hour; we don’t have time for smoke and mirrors.” Whereas the warning is oriented to the deadline, the pushback was partisan in nature. What would prevent Republicans from assuming that the “smoke and mirrors” comment was just as partisan (and thus could be safely relegated or dismissed)? The president would have been better advised to let the Democrats in the U.S. Senate fight the partisan battle with the Republicans in the House while he, the presider in chief, saved his political and reputational capital to act as an alarm clock, for there is no other than the president. In effect, wanting it both ways (pushing one of two sides and sounding the alarm) is like putting a pillow over the clock. In the case of the debt ceiling, America could not afford sleeping in. In allowing our presidents to be so partisan, We the People rack up tremendous systemic risk without realizing it. It is as though we have forgotten the old question, Who is watching the store? We simply assume the status quo, wherein the store's very existence is not in question.


Helene Cooper and Carl Hulse, “Two Parties Join Together, Then Resume Divided Ways,” New York Times, February 9, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/10/us/politics/10obama.html?hpw

Eric A. Posner and Adrian Vermeule, "Obama Should Raise the Debt Ceiling on His Own," New York Times (July 22, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/22/opinion/22posner.html?_r=1&hp

Monday, July 18, 2011

Pay No Attention to the Banker behind the Curtain

U.S. Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, said he is not concerned about dire warnings from Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, one of the $1 trillion plus banks whose very existence proffers systemic risk. Dimon exclaimed that U.S. Government regulation may be suffocating the economic recovery. While it is nice of Jamie Dimon to be so civic-minded as to want to protect the recovery, his real objective was to increase his bank’s profitability. His ulterior motive was not in line with the economy over all, much less with society and the common good.

The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Risking Default of the U.S. Government: Other Priorities

In mid-July 2011, as several of the American states were in the midst of a heat-wave, the showdown on the debt-ceiling was becoming hot in Washington, D.C. The “heat index” on default was steadily rising with no end in sight. The refusal of republican representatives in the U.S. House to automatically increase the debt-ceiling had prompted unprecedented attention on what had been treated hitherto as a “housekeeping matter” of the U.S. Government. The attention can be referred to as a “fiscal moment.” Whereas a “constitutional moment” is one in which a citizenry’s attention is momentarily galvanized on a particular constitutional question, a “fiscal moment” is a window wherein heightened popular attention of the citizenry enables a societal recognition of what had been vaguely understood and recognized as a long-standing fiscal tendency or pattern.

The prospect of default by the U.S. Government was dire indeed. Talking to U.S. Senate leaders, Secretary of the Treasury Geithner said, as later recounted by Sen. Reid according to the Huffington Post, “default would result in a complete ‘loss of capacity to function as a government.’ If this country defaults on its obligations, it will be ‘much worse than the Great Depression, and it would make the massive financial crisis of 2008 look mild. It will make what we just went through look like a quaint little crisis.’” Sen. Reid concluded from the Secretary’s remarks, "Those who say this crisis would be a blip on the radar are wrong. Default would be a plague that would haunt our nation for years to come. Our credit rating would take years to rebuild. The country would never be the same." In the context of this awareness of an impending yet self-inflicted catastrophe, the failure of the “players” in the Congress and Obama administration to mitigate rather than exacerbate real differences of opinion within the citizenry was apparent.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the attention of a crisis announced and solved at the last minute would serve the interests of, and be practically irresistible to a politician. Add to the mix a perplexing tendency to acknowledge what the catastrophe would bring and yet assert other priorities—of value to be sure—over that of extending the debt ceiling. Allowing other priorities to get in the way of an agreement oriented principally to obviating default is so perplexing that it raises the question of societal dysfunction and compromised representative democracy. That is to say, are We the People mature enough to self-govern when so much is at stake?

An accumulated public debt of over $14 trillion (plus $68 billion among the states) points to a basic imbalance, ultimately of values and rooted in psychology and its related culture. External discipline, while a tacit admission of self-government, is necessary where such an imbalance is countenanced (and perhaps not even recognized at large until a jolting fiscal moment of self-serving attention). One means of external discipline is a balanced budget amendment. To better understand, the rationale for this crutch, I discuss the ailment that is compromising our self-governance. The sickness is most apparent where incredulous claims are represented as taken-for-granted facts of reason.

Even in the context of a U.S. debt of over $14 trillion, and especially when an upcoming solvency deadline was looming, the question of whether the rich should contribute more in taxes was being allowed—incredibly—to prevent an agreement that would obviate default. Rationally speaking, it does not make sense to believe that default would be catastrophic while objecting to a solution because those who can pay more would face higher taxes. If something is crucial, it does not make sense to hold up because someone who can do something refuses because it is not convenient. At the very least, this evinces a problem of priorities, if not garden-variety selfishness at the expense of the public weal.

Put differently, if averting catastrophe is not enough of an incentive for people who can afford higher taxes to let an agreement go through with revenue increases as well as spending cuts, then closing the budget gap can be expected to be nearly impossible politically. “We have a terrible track record, Republicans and Democrats alike, of promising to get our spending under control and never doing it,” Senator Coburn (R-Okla) said on July 17th.  He could have added that the politicians do no better at getting their revenue in line with what they have decided to spend.

During the Bush administration (2001-2009), for example, the federal debt went from $5 trillion to $10.5 trillion because neither the Iraq and Afghanistan wars nor the prescription-drug benefit program were “paid for,” while tax cuts reduced federal tax revenue. This disconnect between spending and revenue, as well as the convenient decisions to spend borrowed funds, suggests that some form of external fiscal discipline. President Obama’s disclaimer that no such discipline, such as in the form of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. constitution, is needed rings hollow. Even beyond the fiscal policies of the Bush administration, the pattern of debt-ceiling increases belies Obama’s claim.

We as a people, and our elected representatives, do not have sufficient discipline (and priorities) on our own. A balanced budget amendment, with a two-thirds majority in both bodies of Congress and a presidential signature necessary to go into debt (e.g. for an emergency such as to fight an invasion), ought not be so dismissed out of hand by such a people just because it would require us to confront our long-standing habit of living beyond our means governmentally.

The denial concerning the need for imposed or external fiscal discipline is itself indicative of the psychology sustaining the budgetary problem. It is to be expected that those used to spending beyond revenue levels would object to external discipline, but for officials to claim that such discipline is not necessary borders on recklessness. To be sure, a few years of preparation and adjustment would be needed for the Congress and president to get the U.S. Government’s spending and tax levels closer into line, and it is unlikely that such a task would be accomplished. The likely refusal to close the gap even to forestall a jarring adjustment is itself a testament to the need for the amendment. Even then, I predict that we would allow other priorities, such as the interests of the wealthy as well as debates on the size of government, to get in the way.

In other words, we, the American people, are not even close to a mentality capable of suitably managing our Union’s fiscal matters. We are like a bike tire out of balance and yet we seem to refuse even to recognize it. If there is to be recovery from our comfortable brain-sickness, a jolt, such as that which a balanced budget amendment could proffer, may be necessary.

Plainly spoken, Barak Obama’s claim that external fiscal discipline is not necessary and the republican decision to put the Bush tax cuts for the rich, a desire for a smaller government, and the (putatively tax-cut-related) priority on economic growth above an August 2nd deadline on the debt-ceiling BOTH point to a serious underlying psychological (or, at the very least, political) problem inhibiting our collective ability to get the fiscal house of our Union in order. Given the magnitude of the problem, our distractedness and denial says a lot finally about us as a people and whether we are adequate to self-governing. If our representatives were inventing a crisis in order to be viewed in the end as the saviors after having stirred up attention on themselves, We the People could perhaps do much better; we might reconsider how we approach our exercise of popular sovereignty on election day. We blame one party or the other at our own peril, as we are the sovereign and are ultimately responsible as one people. Are we something more than distracted, blaming, angry, and selfish? 


Eric Lipton, “Both Sides Confident on Deficit Talks Despite Impasse,” New York Times (July 17, 2011).

Michael McAuliff, “Tim Geithner: U.S. Debt Default Means ‘Lights Out’ and a New Depression, Treasury Secretary Warns,” [sic] The Huffington Post, July 18, 2011.