The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Eleemosynary Capitalism

Those Anticipating a Return to Power Are Going to Find Out That They Are Merely Next in Line

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat believes President Obama’s recent Oval Office address regarding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was a tipping point or catalyst in which U.S. liberals begin turning against him. “Many liberals look at this White House and see a Presidency adrift,” he postulates.

His liberal colleague, Frank Rich, seems to provide confirmation. Rich urges Obama to act more proactively and forcefully than he had done to date in reaction to the spill. “It’s not just the future of the Gulf Coast, energy policy, or his Presidency that’s in jeopardy. What’s also being tarred daily by the gushing oil is the very notion that government can accomplish anything.”

“Liberals had hoped that Obama’s election marked the beginning of a long progressive era,” Douthat explains. Now they are panicking, fearful their dominance may last a mere two years before Americans opt for conservative reactionary retrenchment. Their growing contempt for Obama, Douthat continues, draws it source not from any demonstrated incompetence on his part but their fear that “liberalism itself may be running out of time.”

All this leaves many on the right celebrating gleefully. Conservatives understood George W. Bush “blew it” in his second term and they feared an extended period of power for Democrats as well. They believed a Democratic fall was inevitable but cannot believe their luck that the tide is turning so quickly.

Many conservatives, the smart ones at least, are not so naïve as to believe their return to power will cool the anger pervading this country. However, they also believe they will succeed where Obama and the Democrats have failed because unproven extremist theories drive the latter, whereas they operate on sound, common sense conservative principles.

They may well be correct that, rightly or wrongly, a majority of Americans now see liberal Democrats as too extreme to be comfortable leaving them in charge. However, this intolerance with extremism may doom them just as much as the public’s impatience for results. Nothing is hurting Obama more than a lack of public confidence in government but anti-government conservatives are in for a shock by how little confidence this same public has in their own panacea to all problems – free market capitalism.

This is not an essay on the death of capitalism, which is alive and well both in this country and throughout the world. Nor is it an attempt to argue that government control is a superior solution to free markets. Rather, it is an observation that capitalism’s luster has dimmed considerably for most Americans in recent years. Obama’s failure to turn his progressive vision into government success stories may have leveled the playing field between government and capitalism but it has not returned capitalism to its former unassailable reputation.

In the past, conservatives’ best and frequently employed argument against what they saw as the insidious forces of creeping socialism was to roll their eyes and observe that private enterprise, even at its worst, is always more effective and efficient at running anything than government. It became cliché because people accepted it as obvious. Nowadays, such claims carry far less credibility. Voters – from Tea Partiers to Independents – may be angry but they are not stupid.

Agree or disagree with Obama’s stimulus, Americans understand that greed and corruption by loosely regulated private financial institutions led to the need to pull back an economy perceived as on the brink. Regardless of Obamacare’s popularity, most Americans still want some type of healthcare reform precisely because private caregivers and insurers made such a mess of the current system. Even if the Obama Administration reacted too slowly or insufficiently, Americans place the bulk of the blame for the Gulf spill on BP and an all-too-cozy relationship between Big Oil and federal inspectors.

The loss of faith in capitalism as the solution arises from the same source that conservatives blame for loss of faith in government – the rise of extremism within each. This extremism has resulted in what I am going to call “liberal capitalism.” By this, I do not mean some variation on Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” It does not refer to capitalism that welcomes regulation or seeks to promote social welfare. Instead, I refer to the other meaning of “liberal” – overly generous, unconstrained, unrestricted, even licentious.

For much of this nation’s history, we practiced a conservative form of capitalism. Companies created good and services that brought demonstrable values to consumers; investors demanded nothing less before placing their money at risk. Growth occurred slowly and carefully over time; wealth acquisition was protracted but sustained. Reward followed from hard work and more than a little bit of luck.

Industrialization and technology brought about mass production, allowing entrepreneurs to gain massive wealth based on the labor of thousands. These players used part of their wealth to dominate the free market and avoid its natural competitive restrictions. The economy adjusted by allowing government to regulate business when it would not police itself and/or free market forces proved insufficient.

However, after the economic recession and malaise of the 1970s, conservatives advanced a new theory under Ronald Reagan. They insisted limitations on unrestrained greed were not common sense conservatism but radical socialist impediments holding down wealth creation. Democratic government was no longer the partner of capitalism but its most bitter enemy. The economic upturn of the 1980s and boom of the 1990s solidified this belief in the minds of many in a manner the shaky economy experienced since 2000 could not dilute.

Financial analysts no longer judged companies by the value of their products or the solidity of their assets but solely by their quarterly bottom lines. Investors forsook creation of sustained wealth for quick profits. Financial gurus promised that wealth could be created by wealth itself and the whole system could continue growing at ever-increasing rates forever. Risk was virtually non-existent. It was liberalism run wild.

The whole thing was a pipe dream, of course. The bursting of the high tech bubble threatened the dream but business executives found ways to cook their books and government responded by ordering regulators to look away as well as offering bailouts, tax breaks, subsidies, and other forms of corporate welfare. The housing bubble was even larger and its bursting threatened the entire economy. The stimulus offered by government in response, while necessary, angered Americans not only for its size but because it basic approach was all too familiar and frustrating.

Ultimately, capitalism is an attempt to manage limited resources. While fossil fuels are a topical prime example, the fact is that all resources are finite and, thus, so is the wealth they generate. Liberal capitalism has failed to acknowledge this difficult Truth. As a result, it has increasingly morphed into eleemosynary capitalism, requiring the charity of government and much of society to continue filling the pockets of a dwindling privileged few.

The almost unbelievable comments of politicians like Rand Paul and Representative Joe Barton of Texas, defending BP over the Gulf oil spill and criticizing the Obama Administration for attempting to hold the company accountable, reflects how squarely the Republican Party endorses government’s role as chief apologist for capitalism’s excesses. The vast majority of those angry today will discover that placing the GOP back in charge will fail to lower their blood pressures or increase the long-term worth of their portfolios.

Moreover, those who have sold their souls to liberal/ eleemosynary capitalism – sincerely but mistakenly believing it to be the only true form of capitalism – are going to discover that if time is running out for liberalism, they are next in line. Their return to power will last only as long as the vast but still finite wealth and resources of their benefactors holds out.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Man on the Beach

Obama Has Lead Us to the Shore; It Is Up to Us to Decide What Government’s Role Will Be There and Elsewhere

President Obama and the federal government garnered widespread criticism for failing to act quickly enough and do enough to staunch the flow of crude oil spewing from a BP drilling site nearly a mile below the Gulf of Mexico’s surface. Republican opponents quickly labeled it “Obama’s Katrina.”

David Brooks of the New York Times takes another tack, arguing, “The real parallel could be the Iranian hostage crisis.” His cohort, Frank Rich, frets, “It might not only wreck the ecology of a region but capsize the principal mission of the Obama Presidency.” Rich goes on to define that mission as turning around American distrust of government and portraying it as a (potential) force for good in our lives.

So, last Friday, Obama traveled to Louisiana to stand on one of its beaches and examine the spill’s effects for himself as well as hold a press conference to reassure the public once again everything that could be done was being done. By all accounts, he was not particularly successful.

“I take responsibility,” Obama said. “It’s my job to make sure that everything is done to shut [the well]. The federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged.”

This was a good start, according to Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, but it still fell short of what was necessary. The problem was not the message or even the messenger but the lack of passion in its delivery. Per Fineman, “Voters expect [Obama] to convince them that he cares, that he's focused . . . He didn't inspire any confidence, especially in contrast to those pictures from the Gulf.”

Brooks expands on this expectation but questions its validity. “[Americans] demand that the President ‘take control.’ They demand that he hold press conferences, show leadership, announce that the buck stops here and do something. They want him to emote and perform the proper theatrical gestures so they can see their emotions enacted on the public stage.”

Obama’s mea culpa certainly failed to impress his many critics on the matter. The President said he was wrong to trust BP so much, both in terms of estimating the size of the leak and the company’s ability to contain it quickly and effectively. “That's not a self-critique at all but classic passive-aggressive behavior,” sneered James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal.

Yet while some conservatives saw the federal government placing its foot on BP’s neck as an insufficient a response, others disparaged this approach for exactly the opposite reason. Rand Paul, Republican Senatorial candidate from Kentucky and Tea Party darling, caused eyebrows to rise nervously within GOP circles when he blamed Obama for being too harsh on BP.

“I think [Obama] sounds really un-American in his criticism of business,” Paul told an Associated Press reporter. “And I think it's part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it's always got to be somebody's fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky acted quickly to pull Paul out of the limelight and Republicans angrily denounced the media for taking advantage of the new candidate.

On the other hand, columnist Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post is no political ingénue and his latest column makes it clear Paul’s sentiments are not a misstep but an unfortunate revelation into conservative thinking. Krauthammer blames the disaster on “environmental chic,” reasoning that rabid conservationists drove oil companies off land and near-shore drilling into deep water. The problem might have been avoided had unrestricted drilling been permitted in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Then Krauthammer espouses his own “accidents happen” philosophy.

“There will always be catastrophic oil spills. You make them as rare as humanly possible but where would you rather have one – in the Gulf of Mexico, upon which thousands depend for their livelihood, or in the Arctic, where there are practically no people? All spills seriously damage wildlife. That's a given. But why have we pushed the drilling from the barren to the populated, from the remote wilderness to a center of fishing, shipping, tourism and recreation?”

Conservatives keep insisting Obama “just doesn’t get it” and perhaps he does not. Yet the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of their criticisms suggest maybe they do not get it either; perhaps the whole nation does not.

Brooks sums up the problem. “[Americans] want to hold [Obama] responsible for things they know he doesn’t control. Their reaction is a mixture of disgust, anger, longing and need. It may not make sense. But it doesn’t make sense that the country wants spending cuts and doesn’t want cuts, wants change and doesn’t want change. At some point somebody’s going to have to reach a national consensus on the role of government.”

Brooks posits such irrational demands flow from a growing nervousness over “America’s inability to take decisive action in the face of pervasive problems.” Bob Herbert, also writing in the New York Times, suggests this helplessness is self-inflicted.”

“For a nation that can’t stop bragging about how great and powerful it is, we’ve become shockingly helpless in the face of the many challenges confronting us . . . The American public [needs] to begin coping in a serious and sustained way with an energy crisis that we’ve been warned about for decades. If the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history is not enough to bring about a reversal of our epic foolishness on the energy front, then nothing will . . . When are we going to stop behaving so stupidly?”

Last year, Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana and rising GOP star, responded to Obama’s first address to Congress by, among other things, belittling research into environmental and other dangers from volcanoes as ridiculous and unaffordable. When oil from the BP leak began threatening his state’s shores, he started begging the federal government to spend and act without limits.

Republicans and too many Americans in general do not seem to see any more hypocrisy in this than they did opposing “socialistic” healthcare while simultaneously screaming over potential cuts to Medicare. They criticize Obama for failing to fix the BP leak but when faced with a disaster that resulted from far-too-cozy relationships between Big Oil and federal regulators, they argue for less regulation and “Drill, Baby, Drill!” They claim to embrace risk-taking associated with entrepreneurial capitalism but when they and their families are the ones at risk, they expect government protection.

As E.J. Dionne noted in the Washington Post, “Deregulation is wonderful until we discover what happens when regulations aren't issued or enforced. Everyone is a capitalist until a private company blunders. Then everyone starts talking like a socialist, presuming that the government can put things right because they see it as being just as big and powerful as its Tea Party critics claim it is. But the truth is that we have disempowered government and handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task.”

It is the attitude of “not in my backyard” on a national scale. Unfortunately, the Gulf of Mexico is the nation’s backyard and, as Dionne concludes, the current mess there is ultimately “the product of our own contradictions.” During his press conference, Obama related how his older daughter, Malia, poked her head in the bathroom while he was shaving that morning and asked, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”

In many ways, she speaks for a generation of Americans so immature as to demand a birthright of abundance without the slightest desire to make sacrifices even approaching those of the forbearers who earned that birthright for them.

Krauthammer and other conservatives have cast Obama in the role of King Canute of England, who once had his throne placed at the sea’s edge and commanded the waves to cease, only to have them continue lapping about his ankles. The BP leak, they say, reveals Obama’s hubris in declaring his election “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

They overlook two important things. First, Canute did not engage in spectacle because power and success blinded him to his own mortality. Instead, he wished to provide a lesson to his over-confident subjects about the limitations of even the greatest leaders to do great things alone. Second, Obama jubilant declaration began with the proviso, “If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it . . .”

Obama did not go to Louisiana expecting the tides to obey him. He simply went to the disaster and offered to do his best to lead us in dealing with it. It is our choice whether we want to give the man on the beach the tools, support, and assistance needed to begin addressing the problem or whether we will continue asking him to make everything better at no cost and then jeering at him when he proves unable to walk on water.