Zen and the Art of Politics

If you listen to Sean Hannity every night on Fox News – not recommended actually – you will learn that President Obama is the most hated American president ever – and he’s so hated no one will vote for him, save for the intellectually and morally deficient dark folks and those few scattered hippies left over from the sixties, and those lazy welfare queens sprawled in front of their big flat screen televisions, stuffing their faces with greasy chips and watching Jerry Springer, while they wait for their next government check. Yes, that’s a paraphrase, but it’s close enough – the only reason that everyone says the upcoming election will be close is because the wrong people will be allowed to vote. And that discussion usually drifts into talk about how Obama is the most divisive president ever, tearing the country apart by waging class warfare on the successful – the “makers” and not the irresponsible “takers” – raising their taxes sky high and forcing businesses, run by good and honest businessmen, to close down left and right, what with all the new regulations and all. Yes, taxes have not risen at all and remain at their historic lows, and many taxes have dropped. And corporate profits have skyrocketed since Obama took office, and all the Dodd-Frank financial regulation is still in draft form, and will stay there forever, as the financial services industry has invested wisely in massive lobbying to assure nothing significant will ever be approved. Jamie Dimon is safe – he’ll still be able to use hundreds of billions of taxpayer-guaranteed deposits in his highly leveraged bets on the rise and fall of secondary indexes of credit default swaps on derivatives of derivatives of derivatives, and lose it all, or not. In short, nothing has changed much. But Hannity has a compelling narrative and sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

And of course many Democrats are worried that there’s no way to deal with such a compelling narrative, particularly since Obama is so cool and reasonable and cerebral all the time. The guy just doesn’t fight back – he listens, comments that he understands the other guy’s point of view, and would certainly never question the other guy’s motives – we all want things to get better. And then he explains why he disagrees – in often boring detail – then makes a few concessions, getting what he can, and moves on.

And this drives Obama’s base nuts. He doesn’t fight for them! And, because of this, their guy, such as he is, could very well lose the next election. The left, and the center-left, and the moderate center – they’re all a bit panicked now. We could be in for four years, or eight years, of President Mitt Romney and Vice President Ted Nugent or something. Sean Hannity may be a blowhard and a fool, and dead wrong on the facts, but Obama keeps channeling the measured and superbly rational Mister Spock from Star Trek. The guy just doesn’t fight back. Hell, he doesn’t fight at all.

But of course everyone seems to forget what a masterful politician Obama is – not only brilliantly eloquent when that’s called for, but damned sneaky. The one-term junior senator from Illinois defeated the juggernaut that was the Clinton machine in the Democratic primaries – by stepping back at critical times and letting Bill Clinton say some incredibly foolish things, as he is wont to do if you wait long enough, and letting Hillary Clinton worry that she wasn’t seen as tough enough until she did the same. The Clintons controlled the Democratic Party, and then, suddenly, they didn’t. And then Obama did the same to John McCain and Sarah Palin – he set himself up as reasonable and calm, and thoughtful, and let them decide that they, of course, had to be the exact opposite, to give the American people a choice. In each case he used their ambition and energy against them – he was patient and allowed them to eventually flail about, in full public view. It’s was Zen politics. Obama was at the calm center. And it worked. Somehow he boxed them into impossible positions, where they looked somewhat foolish, seemingly by their own choice. And he could smile, enigmatically.

But the question is whether that will work this time, as now Obama has his own record in office. Maybe it is time for a new strategy, and the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne has some thoughts about that:

Progressives have yearned for President Obama to follow Harry Truman’s strategy from the 1948 campaign by giving his Republican opponents hell. Now that Obama is doing just that, his critics say he’s not looking presidential.

As a longtime advocate of the Truman approach (and a fan of Give ‘Em Hell Harry and his way of doing politics), I think Obama is doing the right thing. Critics of the battling style miss what Obama needs to get done in this campaign and also ignore the extent to which so many of his foes refuse to treat him in a presidential way. Far better for him to be a fully engaged fighter with passion for what he’s saying than a distant, regal figure pretending that the other side is playing by a dainty set of rules.

Dionne is happy that Obama is doing a Truman, so to speak, given the obvious parallels:

Truman in 1946, like Obama in 2010 (and, for that matter, Bill Clinton in 1994), suffered a severe setback in midterm elections that substantially strengthened the hands of his congressional adversaries. Truman’s opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, was a Northeastern Republican governor who, like Mitt Romney, was not a favorite of the most conservative wing of his party. But unlike Romney, Dewey was a genuine moderate trying hard not be ensnared in the agenda of the GOP Congress.

For Truman, tying the “do-nothing” Republican Congress around Dewey’s neck was essential to reminding the many New Dealers in the electorate of the identity of FDR’s true heir. Dewey spent the whole campaign in a box. If he danced away from congressional Republicans, he looked unprincipled. If he embraced them, he put himself right where Truman wanted him.

But this is just another way of boxing your opponent into an impossible position:

To the extent that Romney can be tied to an unpopular Republican House and an obstructionist minority in the Senate, their unpopularity will rub off on him. But unlike Dewey, Romney has largely endorsed his congressional colleagues’ agenda. Obama’s task is to argue that whatever moderate sounds Romney made during his career in Massachusetts politics, these are irrelevant to how he would govern with the GOP likely to be in the congressional saddle. Obama wants to paint Romney as someone who would be a pawn of a runaway right-wing Congress, thus challenging both Romney’s strength of conviction and his ideology. As Truman did with Dewey, Obama wants to offer Romney the unpalatable choice of offending his party or offending swing voters.

That’s a classic trap. Romney must be the total anti-Obama, but if he wants to go there he has to align himself with that runaway right-wing Congress, with its record-low approval rating and the scorn of the nation or lose their support. You want their support. Fine – knock yourself out – and take on all the baggage. It’s your choice.

And there’s that other matter:

There is also an advantage in Obama directly taking on Romney’s background in private equity at Bain Capital. By raising these questions himself, Obama signaled that he would not let criticisms from such Democrats as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker force him to back down from a challenge he knows he needs to lodge against Romney’s claims as a “job creator.” By the end of last week, Booker had eased off while the Bain issue was still alive, to the point that even Rush Limbaugh was forced to acknowledge that private equity was about profit-making, not job creation.

You want to talk about Bain Capital? Fine – let’s talk about that, but even Rush Limbaugh now says Bain was not about job creation at all. And thus Obama is fighting back this time, but not that much like Truman. Obama is still letting the other guy choose to box himself in, in full public view. All he has to do is let the other guy talk, energetically, about his ideas, such as they are. People will see what’s what.

But that’s inherently dangerous, as what’s what is in dispute, with competing economic theories in play. Everyone seems to talk about the ideal, good jobs at good wages, but as Will Wilkerson explains in the Economist, there are two ways to look at that:

Because our political system is binary, we are being presented with roughly two broad theories as to why unemployment is high and wages are low. One theory is that people don’t have enough money and are too scared to spend it. We have a shortage of aggregate demand. Companies, banks and households are still deleveraging from excess debt taken on in the 2000s; credit provision is anemic; wages have been falling for over a decade due to a combination of globalization, automation, the winner-takes-all effect and what have you; and companies are uninterested in investing because they see no growth in disposable income. Our largest trading partner, Europe, is cratering because when the financial crisis exposed weaknesses in its single-currency regime, it decided to address them through austerity measures, which don’t seem to be working. Finally, our own government, after one inadequate jolt of stimulus in 2009-10, has essentially shifted to slow austerity through political gridlock, laying-off teachers, cops and firefighters, slashing infrastructure spending, and allowing unemployment insurance to run out. If you buy this theory of the economic crisis, then you will probably vote for Barack Obama, who though he has never full-throatedly embraced the aggregate-demand approach (and has been constrained by the political strength of the opposition) certainly lands closer to this side of the debate than the GOP does.

And in the other corner:

The other theory of the crisis is that America faces structural problems in its economy which were revealed, rather than created, by the financial crisis. On this theory, what we need to do to return to economic health is to make sure the unproductive sectors of the economy go out of business faster, and allow capital to flow to the growing, profitable sectors of the economy with as few impediments as possible. There’s at least one proponent of the structural-weakness theory, Joseph Stieglitz, who thinks the government should play an active role in identifying and stimulating such promising sectors. But for the most part, people who buy the structural unemployment thesis think that government will be lousy at picking economic winners, and what government needs to do is to shrink, rationalize, and get out of the way.

If you buy this theory of the crisis, then you will probably vote for Mitt Romney, whose background as a private-equity executive gives him extensive experience in helping firms to identify their core businesses and growth opportunities, focus on those, and eliminate everything else. Of course, Mr Romney’s expertise in identifying and nurturing productive businesses will be useless if he actually adheres to the GOP’s nominal laissez-faire philosophy that the government shouldn’t try to identify or nurture productive businesses. Which makes the whole business of claiming that one should vote for him because, as a businessman, he knows how to create jobs a bit self-contradictory.

And there Wilkerson cites Adam Davidson – “It’s a puzzle of modern politics that Republicans have had electoral success with a policy that fundamentally asserts there is nothing the government can do to create jobs any time soon.”

Yes, that is a puzzle, but Wilkerson comes down here:

For the record, the structural argument seems to me like utter hogwash as an explanation for high current unemployment, because there aren’t any sectors of the economy where employment is growing very rapidly. …

But it seems more interesting as a way to think about long-term wage stagnation. Some of the most interesting versions of this thesis are the ones Tyler Cowen has been putting forward over the past couple of years. In April, Mr Cowen argued that America’s economy has pretty good prospects for export-led growth in the long term, but that isn’t actually going to help the average American worker much, if at all. Technological progress means our automated, computerized manufacturing sector will be able to beat Chinese labor costs, which will be good for the robots and the plutocrats who own them, but won’t help workers since there won’t actually be many jobs for them. And while the service sector will grow, jobs there will be low-paid, inefficient and insecure. … It is a vision of an economy in which structural improvements in productivity of the kind Mr Romney says he delivered at Bain Capital are not actually likely to entail more jobs or higher wages for average Americans.

And the whole business of the relationship between private equity firms and job creation is a muddle:

In his career at Bain, Mr Romney created a lot of jobs, and he destroyed a lot of jobs. Had Mr Romney not existed, the companies in question would have turned to another player in the capital markets for funding, or different investment and strategic decisions would have been made, and roughly the same number of jobs would most likely have been created or destroyed. In all likelihood, Bain Capital, and for that matter the private-equity industry as a whole, did not make any appreciable difference to America’s unemployment rate in the 1990s.

But this is an election year, so none of that will come up, as everything will be put in simple terms:

Mitt Romney will claim people should elect him president because as a private-equity investor, he created lots of jobs. Barack Obama will say that people should not elect Mitt Romney president because as a private-equity investor, he destroyed lots of jobs. Both of these points are sort of true and sort of misleading, but they both stand as imperfect easy-to-grasp representations of the real argument that’s going on here.

What Mr Obama’s campaign is arguing is that a theory of economic improvement that concentrates on efficiency is not addressing the questions of why America has high unemployment right now, and why Americans’ wages have failed to grow over the past decade. A candidate who puts himself forward as an efficiency-obsessed financial-sector innovator cannot rely on that record to bolster the claim that he knows how to bring Americans well-paying jobs, when so many Americans (even the conservative David Brooks!) don’t think that financial-sector innovation or improvements in efficiency are going to bring Americans well-paying jobs.

That’s where we’re at.

But can people grasp that? Severe efficiency is wonderful – and it surely means fewer jobs, at much lower wages. That’s just the way of the world. But if you create a ton of new jobs, through government incentives and stimulus programs, you can blunt the effect of increasing efficiency – as then there are just more jobs to begin with. But of course that’s hard to run on. And thus it’s probably best for Obama to ask Romney to carefully explain this hypothetical direct connection between severe efficiency and the creation of good jobs at high wages. Obama can sit back and smile, enigmatically, as Romney ties himself up in knots on that one. It’s a Zen thing.

And then there are the non-Zen politicians:

Gov. Chris Christie today attacked the legislature’s non-partisan budget expert, calling him “the Dr. Kevorkian of the numbers.”

“Why would anybody with a functioning brain believe this guy,” Christie said of David Rosen, the budget officer for the Office of Legislative Services. “How often do you have to be wrong to finally be dismissed?”

Rosen testified before an Assembly budget committee this morning that revenues will fall $1.3 billion short of Christie’s most recent estimates through fiscal year 2013.

But Christie said Rosen is often wrong, and is being “manipulated” by legislative Democrats.

“It should be humiliating to him,” Christie said at a transportation conference at the Trenton Marriott. He spent a few minutes talking about the administration’s transportation initiatives, but spent the rest of the 30 minute speech criticizing Rosen and legislative Democrats, who he said don’t want to cut taxes “under any circumstances.”

Rosen, who has been the subject of Christie’s ire before, declined to comment.

Ah, but that’s New Jersey, not exactly a Zen place, and just across the Hudson, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman offers this:

Until now the attack of the fiscal phonies has been mainly a national rather than a state issue, with Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, as the prime example. As regular readers of this column know, Mr. Ryan has somehow acquired a reputation as a stern fiscal hawk despite offering budget proposals that, far from being focused on deficit reduction, are mainly about cutting taxes for the rich while slashing aid to the poor and unlucky. In fact, once you strip out Mr. Ryan’s “magic asterisks” – claims that he will somehow increase revenues and cut spending in ways that he refuses to specify – what you’re left with are plans that would increase, not reduce, federal debt.

The same can be said of Mitt Romney, who claims that he will balance the budget but whose actual proposals consist mainly of huge tax cuts (for corporations and the wealthy, of course) plus a promise not to cut defense spending.

Both Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney, then, are fake deficit hawks. And the evidence for their fakery isn’t just their bad arithmetic; it’s the fact that for all their alleged deep concern over budget gaps, that concern isn’t sufficient to induce them to give up anything – anything at all – that they and their financial backers want. They’re willing to snatch food from the mouths of babes (literally, via cuts in crucial nutritional aid programs), but that’s a positive from their point of view – the social safety net, says Mr. Ryan, should not become “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” Maintaining low taxes on profits and capital gains, and indeed cutting those taxes further, are, however, sacrosanct.

But they’re playing to a national audience, and Krugman decides to look at New Jersey:

Here’s the story: For some time now Mr. Christie has been touting what he calls the “Jersey comeback.” Even before his latest outburst, it was hard to see what he was talking about: yes, there have been some job gains in the McMansion State since Mr. Christie took office, but they have lagged gains both in the nation as a whole and in New York and Connecticut, the obvious points of comparison.

Yet Mr. Christie has been adamant that New Jersey is on the way back, and that this makes room for, you guessed it, tax cuts that would disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

Last week reality hit: David Rosen, the state’s independent, nonpartisan budget analyst, told legislators that the state faces a $1.3 billion shortfall. How did the governor respond?

Well, it wasn’t Zen politics, and it certainly wasn’t rational:

By the way, even Mr. Christie’s own officials are predicting a major budget shortfall, just not quite as big. And the two big credit-rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, have recently issued warnings about New Jersey’s budget situation, which S.& P. called “structurally unbalanced” because of the governor’s optimistic revenue assumptions.

New Jersey, then, is still in dire fiscal shape. So is our tough-talking governor willing to reconsider his pet tax cut? Fuhgeddaboudit. Instead, he wants to fill the hole with one-shot budget gimmicks, including reneging on a promise to reduce borrowing for transportation investment and diverting funds from clean-energy programs. So much for fiscal responsibility.

Will Mr. Christie’s budget temper tantrum end speculation that he might become Mr. Romney’s running mate? I have no idea. But it really doesn’t matter: whoever Mr. Romney picks, he or she will cheerfully go along with the budget-busting, reverse Robin Hood policies that you know are coming if the former governor wins.

But all you do is let these guys talk, or nudge them and innocently ask them to please explain, in greater detail, because it’s all so very interesting. And with their egos, they will go on, and on and on and on. And they’ll sink.

Or they won’t. What’s worked so well before might not work again. After all, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a wonderful book – but it isn’t about motorcycle maintenance at all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bain Capital, Obama - Master Politician, Obama as Spock, Obama Calm and Steady, Obama Disappoints the Left, Obama Needs to Step Up, Obama Too Cool, Obama Traps his Opponents, Obama's Temperament, Obama's Limitations, The Power of Narrative and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Zen and the Art of Politics

  1. You've got says:

    Rather insightful….looking frontward to coming back.

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