Thursday, November 06, 2008

It's All Falling Indelibly Into the Past
(Anyone? Anyone?)

On my way home from a meeting Wednesday afternoon, I was all abuzz in my head with thoughts about the election and plans to set them down here. Since then, of course, I've forgotten almost everything: I got home and just read the sites for a couple hours, did some work, then went to the gym. Now it's more than 48 hours after Obama was declared the victor, we're already starting to get a sense of who will people his government, and the meta-discussion is beginning anew about how he should attempt to govern: just see David Brooks and Paul Krugman, all but arguing with each other directly, in Friday's NYT.

But as always, where we've just come from is an important consideration in where we're about to go, or where we should want to go. Obama will have to guard against the bait-and-switch acts of the last two presidencies, in which Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both won as centrists but then seemed to govern as partisans. The perception that Clinton had run as a centrist but was trying to govern as an unreconstructed liberal cost him first his honeymoon, then those same Democratic majorities; in Bush's, the same would have happened (and in fact, he did lose the Senate in mid-2001) but for 9/11, which sadly bought him a lot more time and leeway. But the vexing question for Obama is whether, per Brooks, pegging left would constitute a deviation from how he ran ("as a post-partisan centrist"), or, per Krugman, a course of moderation would represent the betrayal of his supposed mandate for "guaranteed health care and tax breaks for the middle class, paid for with higher taxes on the affluent."

I'm not sure about the answer; beyond a certain superficial level (exit polling that asks, "What was your top concern when you cast your vote?") it's always impossible to determine why people voted the way they did. I do believe that, among other reasons, Obama and the Democrats won because they were obviously closer to the dead center of American politics, to the true perceived needs and interests of the voting public at this moment and going forward, than were McCain and the Republicans. They seemed to take governing more seriously, and what I am pretty sure about is that the large majority of the country couldn't care less for ideology. We aren't, and probably never really were, a "50-50 nation"; more like 10-70-20, give or take, and at the moment most of the 70 in the middle is actively behind or open to the possibility of supporting the Democrats, largely because the Republicans screwed up so badly.

So while I want Obama to pursue a boldly progressive agenda--what Krugman wrote about--I want him to go about it in a way that's empirical and, to the extent circumstances allow, incremental. One of the things that drew me to this politician was that he seems to have clear liberal goals--but is almost entirely agnostic as to how to pursue them. A number of his key advisors can be characterized as "behavioralists," a group that, as a recent New York Review of Books column speculating on Obama's economics views put it, "seeks to marry the insights of psychology to the rigor of economics" while operating on a middle ground between the classic schools of thought championed by Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes:

The central tenet of the Chicago School is that markets, once established and left alone, will resolve most of society's economic problems, including, presumably, the mortgage crisis. Keynesians—old-school Keynesians, anyway—take the view that markets, financial markets especially, often fail to work as advertised, and that this failure can be self-reinforcing rather than self-correcting. In some ways, the behavioralists stand with the Keynesians. Markets sometimes go badly awry, they agree, especially when people have to make complicated choices, such as what type of mortgage to take out. But whereas the Keynesians argue that vigorous regulation and the prohibition of certain activities such as excessive borrowing are often necessary, behavioralists tend to be more hopeful about redeeming free enterprise. With a gentle nudge, they argue, even some very poorly performing markets—and the people who inhabit them—can be made to work pretty well.

What this basically means is that they prefer to use as light a touch as possible: strong incentives, not mandates, and collaboration rather than imposition. This bodes well, and seems like a good fit for an uncertain time when Americans might be more amenable to a larger government role, but remain deeply skeptical of both its intentions and its competence.

In this respect, the current situation is somewhat comparable to 1933, when Democrats similarly inherited a government disastrously mismanaged by Republicans with an opportunity to lead, but not a mandate for specific policies. (In fact, a big complaint about FDR through the 1932 mirrored one about Obama this year: that he was too vague in his positions and had managed to win without giving the country a sense of what exactly he would do.) Then, a president and an administration committed to "bold, persistent experimentation" was sufficiently effective to win its mandate; Roosevelt earned the hatred of both those on the socialist left, who believed he had saved a corrupt system, and the far right, who felt that he had imposed a soft Bolshevism that eroded freedom. He contented himself with the gratitude and enduring support of the 70 percent or so in the middle, and essentially cemented them to his worldview for a generation.


Feral said...


David said...

Ding. I initially screwed it up, thinking that it was "fading," not "falling." Actually, I think "fading" works better, but who am I to tell that guy his business?

Feral said...

I'm gonna go on a limb and side with Don. 'Falling' has more of a helpless quality to it than 'fading', which works better with 'indelibly'.

The man has a far better grasp on 'depressing' than you or I. Which is saying a lot.

David said...

The more I think about it, you're probably right with "falling." And almost definitely about depressing.

Debbie said...


First time visitor here...I've really enjoyed reading your thoughts. I was looking back over the old posts, and would like to direct your attention to the very last paragraph of your post on April 29, 2005. You should play the numbers!

David said...

Thanks Debbie. Though at first (having missed your "very last paragraph" qualifier), I was terrified that you had been sarcastically referring to my post about the Phillies and Marlins, and that maybe I'd written something as stunningly dumb as this:

(Which isn't to say that I probably haven't written anything as or dumber than that somewhere or other...)