Monday, January 4, 2016

Obama's Phone-and-Pen Politics is a Weakness, not a Strength

The standard conservative line on President Obama is that he is a lawless president that has wantonly expanded presidential power where no previous president dared to go.

I get this. And I get that no Republican president could ever get away with the extra-legal executive actions that have characterized Obama's presidency.

Now we have President Obama returning from his Hawaiian Christmas vacation determined to enact "common-sense gun laws" by executive action. (Which I expect to be very small beer, when we actually get a look at it.)

But I think that all the extra-legal stuff in the Obama era reflects not a liberal president demolishing our cherished freedoms so much as a liberal movement out of ideas, out of energy, and out of sync with America.

Because if you are a movement at the height of its power you don't have to play bureaucratic games to get your agenda passed.  You sit astride the political process like a colossus and everyone is eager to get with the program. But that is not the way things work in the Obama era. Everything, but everything that liberals push through the political process has to be pushed through by some sort of procedural shenanigans. If I were a liberal, I would be very concerned.

Forget Obamacare, which was advertised with a lie, that you could keep your doctor, etc. That was born of the failure of Hillarycare in 1994 and the iconic Harry and Louise TV ads. But the Democrats learned the wrong lesson from Harry and Louise. They didn't learn the obvious truth that average people opposed Hillarycare and would oppose Obamacare because they already had decent health insurance. They learned the lesson that they had to lie to the American people to get Obamacare passed.

I am talking about the shenanigans with the National Labor Relations Board, where the New-Deal-era agency was used to bully Boeing into keeping most of its manufacturing in unionized Washington State. Where the Democratic majority is making franchise outfits like McDonalds treat the employees of their franchisees as if they were employees of McDonalds. Then there is the effort to impose "net neutrality" on the internet by a decision of the Federal Communications Commission rather than by express legislation. And the effort to use the Environmental Protection Agency to kill coal-fired electric generation without benefit of Congress.

Put it this way. Republicans already hate all these regulatory agencies that seem to be wholly-owned subsidiaries of the liberal ruling class. We have all learned about the settled science of "regulatory capture" that makes regulatory agencies the creature of the people they are supposed to regulate. But up to now, Republicans have hesitated to reform these agencies because they didn't want to have to spend political capital on sideshows when more important things were on the agenda.

But you have to believe that in 2017, with a Republican president and Congress, Republicans will be loaded for bear. And if they have any sense they are already planning the public relations battle and how to marginalize the usual suspects in the MSM when they rise to oppose what we might call common-sense reforms of corrupted and unjust regulatory agencies.

In football, teams will occasionally use "Hail Mary" plays, long-shot pass plays that have a low chance of succeeding, but you never know. That's how I see a lot of today's Democratic politics. As Walter Russell Mead writes, the "blue model" of big government programs is breaking down, most particularly in blue states and blue cities where government worker unions have cleaned out the kitty. So why not put the ball up in the opponent's end zone and hope for a miracle?

The problem with Hail Mary plays is that quite often they make things a lot worse, as in interceptions returned for a touchdown. That's also the problem with the president's phone-and-pen presidency. By ignoring the old rules about getting some apology of a bipartisan consensus before enacting legislation in Congress the president is riling up the opposition.

My biggest fear a decade ago, in the wake of the Judis and Teixeira prophecy of The Emerging Democratic Majority, was that President Obama would carefully advance the liberal agenda with cunning bipartisan legislation that had just enough support from squishy GOP centrists to make a reality out of the Judis and Teixeira prophecy and set the Democratic majority of 2008 in concrete. Instead, Obama punched the moderates in the eye from Day One, forcing them to throw in their lot with the conservatives. Everything he has done is Democrat-only. Since most government is a disaster, that makes the job of Republican candidates very easy, because nobody can say: well, you voted for it.

My prophecy is that we will look back at the Obama era as the last great effort of the supporters of the administrative regulatory state. It was the last effort of the policy analysts to devise cunning administrative and regulatory ploys to advance the liberal agenda by any means necessary. That's how I judge Jonathan Gruber's Obamacare, Elizabeth Warren's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, and all the cunningly wrought abuses of the old-line regulatory agencies. It will all crumble into dust, and for a good reason. That reason is that these policy ideas could never have passed Congress because they could never persuade a majority of the American people that the ideas would improve their lives.

I've been reading a number of Marxists in recent years, and one thing has struck me. Marxists don't acknowledge any economics later than the classical economics on which Marx built his theory of surplus value. They can't because if they did the whole edifice of Marxian economics would collapse. For instance, here is Theodor Adorno making a swipe at the exchange economy in ¨Progress," an essay in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords.
Exchange is the rational form of mythical ever-sameness. In the like-for-like of every act of exchange, the one act revokes the other; the balance of accounts is null. If the exchange was just, then nothing should really have happened, and everything stays the same. (p159)
No, Ted. No. You miss the point completely. Exchange is not "like-for-like" or a double-entry bookkeeping transaction that balances out. Exchange only takes place when both parties prefer the exchange to the status quo. I go out and buy Adorno's Critical Models because I value having and reading the book and deepening my understanding about the mind of a Frankfurt School Marxist more than the $16.50 the book cost me. And I am glad to pay the bookseller for the effort of finding and stocking this hard-to-find item. Exchange is not about like-for-like. It is about win-win.

So much for the Marxists. With administrative state liberals we have a similar settled-science problem. Liberals believe in society by administration, but the science has showed that administrative government is a very weak reed to lean on. Mises pointed out that socialism couldn't work because it couldn't compute prices. Hayek sharpened the analysis by pointing out that the man in Whitehall (or Washington DC) couldn't outperform a million consumers and producers interacting through the price system. He called it an information problem. Today we would probably call it a bandwidth problem. Administration and bureaucracy just cannot get the job done, because they don't have the information and they don't have the bandwidth to compete with the information and the knowledge and the experience of the consumers and the producers. Yet liberals keep coming up with new Hail Marys hoping that that this time they will thread the needle with their administrative plan to centralize and homogenize education or healthcare or consumer finance.

One day, I hope to understand Hegel, and his notion that progress is not a straight line but a to-and-fro of ideas and counter ideas. It's an irony that the left, which bases its ideas on Marx's take on Hegel, always wants a one-size-fits-once-for-all solution to every problem. As though everything shouldn't be reworked every few years or every generation.

The wonder of the market is that it institutionalizes the to-and-fro in a process that responds to everyone's input and bends the world to peoples' needs expressed through their buying and selling. The problem of government is that it does not respond to individuals, only to power plays big enough to register on the political radar.

President Obama's faith in his phone and his pen, and in the efficacy of the administrative state is going to cost his party plenty. And you ain't seen nothing yet.

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