3.04.2009

Moderates of the World, Rise Up



In his column earlier this week, “A Moderate Manifesto,” David Brooks has penned a stirring call to the silent middle of this country, to mediate between a power-drunk far left and a reactionary far right. His words are timely for me, as I have lately been mulling over a post on my thoughts on the Obama Administration’s first month and a half in office. (Has it only been 44 days?)

I had been convinced by my Democrat friends, and had convinced myself as well, that Obama the President would not be as leftish as Obama the Campaigner. And the Administration started well in this regard, with center-right economics team picks and overtures to the other side of the aisle that had dyed-in-the-wool liberals howling.

Then I got sidetracked from issues and philosophies and worried myself over signs of inexperience: the way he let old guard congressmen subsume key policy decisions and struggled with the departures of key Cabinet picks found guilty of funny business with taxes. Did we know all along that he was too green but let our adoration of his soaring rhetoric fool us?

In my mind, he quickly regained his footing and found his stride during his address to Congress and his stops in key Republican states to sell the stimulus bill to America. And so while I continued to scratch my head with skepticism over his philosophies, I found myself accepting the fact that if I disagreed with my President, at least I respected his ability to make bold decisions and set a steady course.

But the Brooks article captures the gnawing feeling I’ve had in the last few days, that something is not quite right in Washington, and that there is a very real possibility that we are embarking on a disastrous sea change in the way we do government. And the Brooks article also captures the equally gnawing feeling I’ve had with many responses from the Republican Party, many of which ring hollow because they are either prefaced with “we admit we were just as bad when we were in power” or should be.

(On a smaller scale, the fiasco that was the California budget process last month was a microcosm of partisanship gone horribly wrong: gerrymandered districts leading to vitriolic primaries and equally vitriolic partisans on both sides; one side voting itself all sorts of plums and the other side digging in against tax increases; and then, when – surprise, surprise – state finances were on the brink, these same decision-makers were willing to risk a complete meltdown of the most important state in the nation rather than compromise on a budget and commit to a long-term solution.)

The irony is that the root cause of the financial mess we’re in is the illusion that we can have it all: big house, two gas guzzlers, and whatever else our credit limits can bear. And now the “solution” is cut from the same self-deception: we can spend our way out of recession, unsustainable environmental behaviors, and a broken health care system, with no time for the notion of opportunity costs.

Or is it, even worse, that we can afford to spend more than we’ve ever spent because the richest among us – and we shake a fist at them – will foot the bill, and rightly so, since it was their greed that got us here in the first place. Never mind that the top 1 percent of earners already pay 39 percent of federal individual income tax and 56 percent of federal business income tax; or that Obama’s proposed budget, by reducing the tax deduction on charitable donations, will hurt individual giving, which is by far our greatest mechanism for redistributing resources from the rich to the poor. Soaking the rich to give to the poor via the mechanism of federal government may sound like an enlightened version of Robin Hood, but it’s not the America I know.

Here’s hoping that glorious stable of brainiac economists that flocked to Obama last year can help knock some sense into this Administration, and remind our leaders in Washington of three fundamental truths: governments should not run banks or car companies, life is about trade-offs, and beware the unintended consequences. And in light of the vapid venom emerging from the so-called spokespeople of the Republican Party, here’s hoping a silent middle can become not so silent and not so caught in between, but rather assert its more reasoned perspective on business and government.

In short, a new “New Deal” is not what we need, nor is a sore-loser whining about irresponsible spending that comes on the heels of 8 years of irresponsible spending. Instead, how about some measured responses that unleash government where government can make a difference (say yes to properly pricing scarce resources and yes to infrastructure investment and yes to minimizing distortive tax policy) and signal government’s restraint in not mucking up Americans’ innate drive to innovate and create and build and grow (say no to protectionism and no to anti-immigration policies and no to regulations on industry that pander to our vilification of the rich).
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