Sunday, January 31, 2010

Moral Satisfactions of the 2009 NFL Playoffs
It's probably no surprise to regular AIS readers (the few, the proud!) that I was emotionally crushed and spiritually appalled by the Eagles' pair of season-ending blowout losses to the Dallas Cowboys, an organization I'd rank near the Club for Growth, if not NAMBLA and al Qaeda, in terms of pure evil. If it weren't for the company and comfort of friends, and some high quality musical entertainment enjoyed with vodka and beer immediately after the second of those losses, the aftereffects might have lingered much longer. (I guess it's arguable too that I've grown up some since my late teenage years, when an Eagles loss on Sunday would weigh on my spirits till about Thursday. Though my wife might argue that one.)

But while nothing can totally remove the sting of my beloved Eagles getting waxed by those bastards--and the shot of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and George W. Bush high-fiving in a skybox after the game-sealing touchdown in the third quarter was one of the most horrifying images I've ever had to endure--the way the NFL postseason subsequently played out was pretty gratifying. First, the Cowboys themselves got embarrassed by the Minnesota Vikings eight days later, losing 34-3, with the last Vikings touchdown coming on a fourth-down attempt with under two minutes left. It might have been the most beautifully vicious fuck-you gesture in pro football since former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan called a fake kneeldown against the Cowboys that led to a touchdown in the final seconds of a 1987 game the Birds won 37-20. That Vikings coach Brad Childress was a longtime Eagles assistant, and surely had been talking to former boss and good friend Andy Reid during the week, added an extra dose of zing.

After the Vikings performed that socially useful fumigation purpose, they went on to face the New Orleans Saints for the NFC title last week. From a narrative standpoint, that game saw the perfect end of the Brett Favre story, which has agitated football fans for years. If you don't know, it goes something like this: Favre, the object of more sports-yak fellatio than anyone this side of Derek Jeter, publicly vacillates on the subject of whether or not he'll retire at the end of each football season--then comes back, basks in adulation, plays well for awhile and then fucks up in some highly consequential moment, killing his team. In the morally absolute football universe dreamt of by ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook, Favre is undone by his hamartia, or tragic flaw--in this case, the same need to be the star and hero of the story that drives his annual offseason Hamlet routine. All I know is that after a season in which he was uncharacteristically careful with the football, the "ol' gunslinger" threw just about the most damning interception possible at the last and worst moment, with his team on the cusp of victory... and now he and his team will watch the Super Bowl at home like the rest of us. This is beyond perfect:

(But the vexing thing about Favre is that, like Jason or Freddy or Michael Myers, however many times you seem to kill him, he keeps coming back! His last pass could have been the interception he threw against the Eagles in overtime of the NFC Divisional Round in January 2004, leading to a 20-17 loss for his Green Bay Packers. Or, more plausibly, his last pass for the Packers four years later: another overtime interception, against the Giants, to set up the game-ending field goal that gave New York a 23-20 win in one of the most exciting games I've ever seen. Or in the season-ending 24-17 loss to the Dolphins in 2008 while with the New York Jets that finished a 1-4 tailspin after an 8-3 start to miss the playoffs. But the guy simply doesn't fucking go away. I guess it's almost as admirable as it is pathetic.)

The Super Bowl matchup of Saints vs. Colts next weekend is the one a lot of us were hoping for as far back as three months ago, when both teams looked like they might get there undefeated. While that didn't happen, there's no villain that I see; it should be nice to enjoy the game without hoping someone will get a comeuppance and fearing that they won't.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

This Could Take Awhile
A little less than a year ago, I had the opportunity to interview economist Anthony Carnevale for CUF. During our conversation, he made a point I hadn't previously thought about: the way recessions work now is that the bulk of job loss isn't cyclical, but rather structural. In other words, you don't grow out of modern economic downturns by hiring back people who've been laid off from their old positions, but rather by creating whole new categories of jobs for them to fill.

A New York Times blog post from a couple days back made much the same point:

Lots of the bloodletting we’ve seen in the labor market has probably been permanent, not just cyclical. Many employers have taken Rahm Emanuel’s famed advice — never waste a crisis — to heart, and have used this recession as an excuse to make layoffs that they would have eventually done anyway. Some economists refer to this as the “cleansing effect” of recessions.

As a recent Congressional Budget Office report put it, “Recessions often accelerate the demise or shrinkage of less efficient and less profitable firms, especially those in declining industries and sectors.”

Think glassmaking. Or clerical work. Or, for that matter, newspapers.
There are multiple ways to explain why permanent job-losers represent a higher share of the unemployed this time around. Maybe, as others have suggested, many of the jobs gained in the boom years were built on phantom wealth. Or maybe the culprit is a corollary of Moore’s Law, the idea of exponential advances in technology over time. That might suggest that innovation and automation displace more and more workers by the time each recession rolls around.

Whatever the underlying cause, the result is disconcerting: compared with previous recessions, many more of the employment gains in this recovery will have to come from new jobs.

That is much easier said than done.

The diagnosis of a structural versus cyclical recession changes the prescription for how to ease the pain and restore growth. In addition to steps like putting more money into programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps, there's much more of an imperative for government to take what actions it can to accelerate the process of new business development and job creation. That means investment in research and development, financial support for post-secondary education of all kinds and at all levels, and steps to make credit more readily available. Obviously, the Obama administration did a good deal of this through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act passed a year ago in February, but it's now clear that they underestimated just how bad this recession would be and passed a too-small, too-slow measure as a result. (Frustratingly, the truly bright folks like Carnevale didn't--but they weren't "centrist" Republican Senators or "pragmatic" White House insiders, so their views weren't determinative.) And it's arguable that other measures within the ARRA that clearly had a longer-term focus and purpose, while probably justified in and of themselves, exerted an opportunity cost of less "stimulus" per se.

The political problem for the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress is twofold. One, if they don't see economic gains this year, they're going to get wiped out in November and even the president's reelection in 2012 might be at risk; two, the unprecedented lack of faith in government's ability to do pretty much anything both constrains what they can do in response, particularly with fears of the structural budgetary imbalance now well established in the public mind. (That Republicans are approaching all these challenges with utter cynicism--blasting the president on deficits with a straight face, then turning around and voting en bloc against restoration of pay-as-you-go budgeting, because cutting taxes is more important than moving the budget toward balance--doesn't help either; and that they're counting on the cognitive dissonance of the electorate to shield them from paying for this hypocrisy at the ballot box is additionally depressing.) In December, the president described this as "about as difficult an economic play as possible": trying to goose growth while being prepared to slam on the spending brakes as soon as the recovery is deemed secure. This is the signal they're trying to send by mooting the (substantively quite dumb and ineffectual) freeze on discretionary domestic spending.

Long-term, the problem is that the American public isn't ready to come to grips with the fact that our means--the revenue structure we've created for ourselves--are nowhere near sufficient to pay for our desired ends of generous entitlements, super-aggressive (and by any rational standard wildly and wastefully excessive) international/"defense" posture, and expansive safety net. I think Obama gets this, and he probably has a sensible plan to bring the country toward that realization. But unless we pull out of the worst of this downturn by 2012--with unemployment below 8 percent and real wage gains at the median--he probably won't have the chance to try it. For everyone's sake, other than perhaps the Republicans hoping to ride economic misery back into power, let's hope those new jobs show up sooner than later.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Down We Go
As it becomes increasingly likely that the Democrats will suffer a catastrophic loss in the Massachusetts Senate election to fill the remainder of Ted Kennedy's term, I'm not sure that anybody other than perhaps Sullivan fully grasps what's at stake here.

But first a quick word on the race itself. I don't find it "shocking" that Martha Coakley is probably going to lose; by all appearances, she's a mind-blowingly awful candidate. (This gaffe might be the last shovelful of dirt on the coffin of her candidacy; as an unforced error, it's truly hard to believe.) I just don't understand why anyone with no aptitude or appetite for retail politics chooses to run for office; there are certainly enough other routes to ego gratification or "power" in our world. Even in "deep blue" Massachusetts, I don't think it's a shock that a skilled politician, as Scott Brown seems to be, beats an awful one in a special election--which ensures both lower turnout and a closer focus on the personal attributes of the contestants on the part of those who are following the race.

No, the significance is that Brown is going to kill health care reform (for, it should be noted, no evident reason of policy substance--which is not surprising), and when it dies--whatever one thinks of its merits--a lot will go with it.

As I've written here many times, we have huge problems in this country that have festered for a very long time. Health care, complex as it was and is, should have served as a stretching exercise for some of those bigger issues, the most important of which are the country's long-term financial outlook and climate change. We needed the experience of solving a less intractable problem before taking on those tougher ones. Instead, we saw an unprecedentedly nihilist Republican minority solely interested in winning the political fight rather than solving the problem--with one result being that, even if reform still somehow passes, the Republicans kept their own most helpful ideas and priorities, such as tougher cost containment measures and tort reform, on the sideline rather than getting them into the legislation by the accepted path of negotiation. Meanwhile, a Democratic majority first failed to realize the new state of things, wasting months fucking around in the Senate Finance Committee with bad-faith Republicans Grassley and Enzi and Snowe before moving on, and then, at the endgame in December and January, snarled itself in the usual net of venality (the "centrists" in the Senate) and "principled" myopia (historically illiterate House liberals, who will deliver the death blow after Brown's election by accepting the unsustainable status quo over the already-passed Senate version... evidently failing to understand that they can come back to fix some of the problems BEFORE THE BILL GOES INTO EFFECT).

When he set out to do health reform, President Obama had a good idea in isolation--letting Congress, basically castrated during the Bush years, take the lead as it's supposed to do under the Constitution (and as Clinton didn't allow them when Democrats last took this on in 1993-94)--but one that failed to take into full account the realities that we've moved a good ways toward a de facto parliamentary system, or that he was a lot more popular than they were. (Still is, though they're both way down.) First-year presidents make tactical mistakes; as those go, this wasn't an awful one, but it's going to cripple him for the rest of his term.

And it's going to hurt all of us, Democrats and Republicans, in ways we can't yet fully perceive, by striking a potentially mortal blow to public faith in our governance system. That system is complex. It was never supposed to be easy to produce major change. But as the public increasingly expects instant gratification and self-selects into partisan echo chambers, failing to acknowledge that "the other side" might ever have a point--indeed blocks itself off from any information source that might convey a contrary view--frustration with the system's inability to deliver will mount. We already have an incipient proto-fascist movement in this country; I'm beginning to believe that a parallel, though probably smaller, movement will coalesce on the left. With this as backdrop, it might not take more than another terrorist attack, economic crisis, or natural disaster to unleash radical, destabilizing forces that bring us to grief.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How Did This Happen?
I should never have asked the question: What could be worse than having Kirsten Gillibrand, an unprincipled hack whose one political talent seems to be the ability to raise massive sums money, representing New York as a Democratic Senator? The answer: Harold Ford Jr.! The one-time golden boy of Tennessee politics and Democratic Leadership Council honcho evidently lives here now, and wants to run against Gillibrand for the Senate. His Wall Street friends--Ford is a Vice Chairman at Merrill Lynch, who seems to have avoided interactions with non-rich folks (other than the odd cabdriver, perhaps)for however long he's been here--think it's a swell idea, for reasons that seem pretty obvious: Ford is "a capitalist," except when the big guys fuck up. Then, evidently, his compassion overflows and he transforms into a socialist.

After an in-parts embarrassing interview with the New York Times, deservedly savaged by here, the Ford boomlet might be about to go bust. I hope so. Reading the full Times interview, I'm reminded of my impression of Ford when he ran for Senate in Tennessee four years ago: why the hell is this guy even a Democrat? Back then--his current elisions to the contrary--he actually tried to run to the right of Republican Bob Corker on "God, guns and gays." He's shamelessly flipped on all those--even more so than Gillibrand, who had her own set of conversions after being appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's seat--but if anything he's moved to the right on economic issues. He doesn't explain (and Times reporter Michael Barbaro doesn't push him to explain) why a relentless barrage of tax cuts from 2001-2006 didn't help produce long-term growth or other positive economic outcomes, but would do so now. There isn't a word about poverty, not a word about education, not much about finance reform--certainly no admission that the deregulatory policies of the last decade, which I believe he supported, did so much to create the current downturn. Again, why is he a Democrat? (The answer, of course, is that his daddy was, and Ford Jr. pretty much inherited Ford Sr.'s seat in Congress.)

Again, I'm no fan of Gillibrand. I wanted Carolyn Maloney to run against her. Or Carolyn McCarthy. Or Steve Israel. Hell, I would have supported Bill Thompson if he'd primaried her. The Tracy Flick comparison seems apt, and that she's an unelected senator appointed by an unelected (and thoroughly inept) governor is almost itself enough reason to want to see her challenged. But Ford has all of Gillibrand's flaws--the obnoxious and transparent ambition, the total absence of core beliefs, the evident faith that politics is about money--and a few of his own, notably the carpetbagging and the crony capitalist inclinations. If that's the choice, it's an easy call for me... but more than anything, it's infuriating that in a state with as many good progressives in public life as New York, our options seem to be limited to these two clowns.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Truths We Can't Admit
Inspired by Glenn Greenwald’s latest remaking of an obvious but largely taboo point—that American actions in the world bear some causal responsibility for anti-American sentiment, which is occasionally expressed in attempted acts of terrorism—I’m thinking about other logical conclusions we don’t allow to be expressed in our politics. Here are three to start:

  • Commitment to economic deregulation and “innovation” is in fundamental tension with commitment to a stable society. This is the underlying premise of the Jim Manzi essay I recently discussed: the faster the rate of economic change, the more intense the resultant dislocation and the more severe the punishment on those who lose out by these changes. It’s the fault line that lies beneath the Republican political coalition, one that some smart and financially independent pol eventually will exploit whenever other scapegoats for why “real Americans” are having so much trouble fall beneath a certain threshold of plausibility.

  • On the other side of the political spectrum, the center-left coalition fails to accept that neither “leveling the economic playing field” through actions such as strengthening organized labor or imposing living wage laws, nor “investing in education” through the aspiration of college for all will alone suffice to ensure broad prosperity. You need both—a truth that neither side seems willing to acknowledge, as seen in this recent back-and-forth between liberal advocates Michael Lind and Will Marshall. As is true on the right, this disagreement stands in for a larger cultural disconnect between the two core Democratic constituencies, which we can describe in shorthand as low-income communities and “knowledge workers,” that usually plays out in the party's presidential nomination contest. (In 2008, the twist was that Obama was African-American. Were he another white guy, based on the substance of the campaign he ran, he would have followed the well trod path of beautiful losers like Gene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean. That said, the fact that he's turned out to be such a centrist in policy, if not style, offers a hint that the "beer track/wine track" divide is more style than substance, if not straight up pig crap.)

  • There was no Golden Age, ever. To take the most glaring example, I find it darkly hilarious that the “Tea Party” crowd hearkens back with such feeling and strong identification to the founding of the American Republic: the guys that created the country were elitists and snobs far beyond the measure of the modern liberals so deeply loathed by the average Fox viewer. Were today’s angry righties around in the 1780s, they probably would have been shoveling crap on the estates of the Founders, or else swelling the ranks of Shays’ Rebellion or other abortive resistance movements. Probably the smartest of them would have been anti-Federalists.

I might come back to this, as I'm pretty sure it's an almost infinite subject.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Toward a Nihilist Majority
Coming home to the news that Sen. Dorgan won't run for re-election, making it even more likely that the Democrats will lose their super-majority this November, I'm thinking with even more apprehension about an Ezra Klein column published a couple days back that asks a very disturbing question:

What happens when one of the two major parties does not see a political upside in solving problems and has the power to keep those problems from being solved?

If all this is sounding familiar, that's because it is. Congress doesn't need a two-thirds majority to get anything done. It needs a three-fifths majority, but that's not usually available, either. Ever since Newt Gingrich partnered with Bob Dole to retake the Congress atop a successful strategy of relentless and effective obstructionism, Congress has been virtually incapable of doing anything difficult because the minority party will either block it or run against it, or both. And make no mistake: Congress will need to do hard things, and soon. In the short term, unemployment is likely to remain high and the economy is likely to remain weak unless Congress can muster another round of serious stimulus spending. [...]

Further out, the long-term deficit problem, which is driven largely by health-care costs, is startling. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that debt will reach 300 percent of gross domestic product come 2050 -- and that estimate might be optimistic. But solutions seem unlikely. No one who watched the health-care bill wind its way through the legislative process believes Congress is ready for the much harder and more controversial cost-cutting that will be necessary in the future.

Similarly, Sens. Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg recently suggested a bipartisan deficit commission that would reach a consensus on the budget and report back to a grateful Congress. On Tuesday, a Wall Street Journal editorial showed the conservative interest in such compromises: Republicans should "agree to a deficit commission only if it takes tax increases off the table," it said, reminding wavering Republicans that "President George H.W. Bush renounced his no-new-taxes pledge and made himself a one-termer."

These two problems get to the essential difficulties confronting the nation: There is no doubt that minority parties generally profit in elections when the unemployment rate is high. But given that reality, what incentive do they have to help the majority party lower the unemployment rate? Further out, there is no doubt that the majority party has an incentive to prevent a fiscal crisis on its watch. But what incentive does the minority party have to sign on to the screamingly painful decisions that will avert crisis?

I suspect that part of what's going on here is that the same technological advances that provide politically engaged citizens greater access to their elected representatives and partisan champions, are pushing those representatives and champions toward actions designed to deliver more short-term gratification. This means acting in ways that thwart the opposition wherever and whenever possible; that's how you capture media attention, raise money and generate and sustain enthusiasm. You can't be too rabid or partisan; indeed any deviation from the party line now will be noticed, broadcast and condemned. Lindsay Graham, of all people, has been censured by two Republican groups in his home state of South Carolina for, far as I can tell, not being a global warming denier.

It's been said, and I agree, that the current group of professional Republicans are all tactics, no strategy. But the more important point might be that they now seem to care about power and ideology, not about what they do with the power or what ensues when abstract theories smack into reality. Consider the line Klein quotes about Bush 41, who "renounced his no-new-taxes pledge and made himself a one-termer." Never mind the myriad logical flaws and historical misreads here; that 1990 budget deal, along with the party-line 1993 deficit reduction (which probably had more to do with the Democrats losing Congressional majorities in '94 than Bush's "breaking his pledge" did with his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton), were decisive in teeing up the longest economic expansion in American history.

Shouldn't that count for something? Somewhere along the line, isn't the idea to make policy choices that serve the public good? The contemporary right seems to reject the whole premise that real-world results, not fidelity to some notion of purity that majorities don't even share, are what do and should drive election outcomes.

I've written many times here that I worry the norms and structures of our politics and governance institutions are inadequate for the challenges of our times. The blend of ideological absolutism, proud anti-intellectualism and pure spite in one of the two major parties as well as a proto-fascist populist movement doesn't do much for my confidence.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Dark Skies
This piece by conservative thinker Jim Manzi is getting some attention, including a mention in Ross Douthat's column today. I read it a few weeks back when one of Sullivan's guest bloggers mentioned it, and I agree it's a worthwhile and thought-provoking analysis of some of the "big questions" around the American economic, cultural and political scene. Which isn't to say that Manzi doesn't get a few things really quite wrong, even as he frames the overarching problem well and nails a few of the particulars:

Our strategic situation is shaped by three inescapable realities. First is the inherent conflict between the creative destruction involved in free-market capitalism and the innate human propensity to avoid risk and change. Second is ever-increasing international competition. And third is the growing disparity in behavioral norms and social conditions between the upper and lower income strata of American society.

These realities combine to form a daunting problem. And the task of resolving it turns out not, by and large, to be a matter of foreign policy. Rather, it compels us to consider how we balance economic dynamism and growth against the unity and stability of our society. After all, we must have continuous, rapid technological and business-model innovation to grow our economy fast enough to avoid losing power to those who do not share America's values — and this innovation requires increasingly deregulated markets and fewer restrictions on behavior. But such deregulation would cause significant displacement and disruption that could seriously undermine America's social cohesion — which is not only essential to a decent and just society, but also to producing the kind of skilled and responsible citizens that free markets ultimately require. Moreover, preserving the integrity of our social fabric by minimizing the divisions that can rend society often requires ­government policies — to reduce inequality or ensure access to jobs, education, housing, or health care — that can in turn undercut growth and prosperity. Neither innovation nor cohesion can do without the other, but neither, it seems, can avoid undermining the other.

Manzi edges up to, but doesn't quite explicitly describe, a puzzle I've been noodling over for a few years now: the stark contradiction between Republicans' calls for a radically deregulated economy and for "a return to traditional values." At least if we're talking about low rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, it was a lot easier to sustain these things when employment was stable and the fruits of prosperity were more equitably shared. (The irrefutability of this premise is why I think that eventually a political faction we might characterize as "Buchananite"--favoring intrusive regulation in both the bedroom and the boardroom--might gain prominence. It isn't happening now because there's no economic model for such a political party: someone like Sarah Palin, the most obvious leader for such a faction and someone not overburdened by a deep and nuanced understanding of economics or, indeed, much else, is too dependent on big-money support to move in that direction. But someone probably will figure this out sooner or later; maybe this is what the "Tea Party" movement turns into, though right now that too is financed by super-rich a-holes like the Koch brothers.)

Manzi mostly sidesteps this nexus of tough questions (other than an allusion to the Nixon-era blending of cultural pushback and economic interventionism, and Reagan's subsequent political triumph of fusing traditional morality and laissez-faire economics--which was easily sold by the master pol since no experience had yet proven its impossibility) by labeling the Democrats as the party of "cohesion." This is a big oversimplification that I think muddies his whole analysis, but at least lets him move on to the points in which he's more interested anyway.

Fortunately, he's on more solid ground here, noting a cultural schism that poses a significant threat to our long-term well being and, admirably, doing it without recourse to the hypocritical finger-waggery of a crypto-racist jerkass like Charles Murray. Manzi simply asserts, I think inarguably, that some social norms "work" better than others in terms of the life outcomes they tend to generate:

Increasingly, our country is segregated into high-income groups with a tendency to bourgeois norms, and low-income groups experiencing profound social breakdown.
[W]hile affluent and educated Americans are returning to the traditional family model, the poor and less educated are not. The gap between rich and poor today is also a gap in cultural norms and mores to a degree unparalleled in our modern experience. The overall divorce rate, for example, exploded in the 1970s, but has since returned to just about its 1960 level for those with a college education. For the less educated, however, the rate has continued to climb — and women without high-school diplomas are now about three times as likely to divorce within ten years of their first marriage as their college-educated counterparts.

Child-rearing has seen a similar split. In 1965, almost no mothers with any level of education reported that they had never been married. Today, this still holds true for mothers who have finished college: Only 3% have never been married. But that figure stands in stark contrast with the nearly 25% of mothers without high-school diplomas who say that they have never been married. In fact, last year, about 40% of all American births occurred out of wedlock. And about 70% of African-American children — as well as most Hispanic children — are born to unmarried mothers. But this situation obtains for low-wage, non- college- educated whites as well: It is estimated that about 70% of children born to non-Hispanic white women with no more than a high-school education and income below $20,000 per year were born out of wedlock.

The level of family disruption in America is enormous compared to almost every other country in the developed world. Of course, out-of-wedlock births are as common in many European countries as they are in the United States. But the estimated percentage of 15-year-olds living with both of their biological parents is far lower in the United States than in Western Europe, because unmarried European parents are much more likely to raise children together. It is hard to exaggerate the chaotic conditions under which something like a third of American children are being raised — or to overstate the negative impact this disorder has on their academic achievement, social skills, and character formation.

Unfortunately, he can't resist following this insightful observation with an ideologically derived cheap shot: blaming "the welfare state," which "creates incentives that push people toward short-term indolence, free riding, and self-absorption." Other than the descriptor "short-term," this could have appeared verbatim twenty years ago, and it would have made a lot more sense back then. Today's "welfare state" has a very different shape and purpose, as Jason DeParle (author of the superb American Dream, probably the best book ever written about public assistance in America) detailed in an unsettling piece that appeared in Sunday's Times about the millions of Americans whose only current "income" is Food Stamps.

After a bracing and perceptive discussion of inequality that includes an allusion to what I think might be the most disturbing economic trend of the last forty years--the decline in income mobility--Manzi again wallows in his welfare state phobia. This is where I believe he really gets it wrong, badly mischaracterizing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed last February:

The first major initiative of the new president and Congress was the artfully labeled stimulus bill, which will have the federal government spend nearly $800 billion over the next ten years — less than 15% of it in fiscal year 2009. More than a short-term emergency measure, the stimulus represents a medium-term transformation of the character of federal spending — and government action — in America.

Only about 5% of the money appropriated is intended to fund things like roads and bridges. The legislation is instead dominated by outright social spending: increases in food-stamp benefits and unemployment benefits; various direct and special- purpose spending relabeled as tax credits for renewable-energy programs; increased funding for the Department of Health and Human Services; and increased school-based financial assistance, housing assistance, and other direct benefits. The objective effect of the bill is to shift the balance of U.S. government spending away from defense and public safety, and toward social-welfare programs. Because the amount of spending involved is so enormous, this will be a dramatic material shift — not a merely symbolic gesture.

This is misleading, if not actually malicious, in at least two respects: first, "increases in food stamp benefits and unemployment benefits" are explicitly temporary responses to an economic emergency rather than some kind of diabolical plot to revive Big Gummit. That's the "Recovery" part of the ARRA (along with the tax cuts, which had the least stimulative effect and were included in a misguided and failed bid for some Republican love).

The "Reinvestment" part, which Manzi also erroneously dismisses as a move toward "social democracy," is designed as a down payment on human capital improvements, reorienting our educational and job training infrastructures toward a 21st century model. I think there's a case to be made that it was disingenuous to characterize this as "stimulus," since the spending was primarily intended to yield long-term gains. Nonetheless, ultimately this represents a big bet on dynamic capitalism--setting the conditions for economic growth rather than trying to define what it will comprise.

The other piece of Manzi's argument that the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress is steering the country toward a European-style quasi-socialist state is the interventions in the finance and automotive sectors. Again, I think you can take issue with the policy choices, and you can argue that the motivations were political--the direct and indirect consequences of standing idly by while GM and Chrysler died might have been unbearable for the Democrats--but putting it on ideology just seems flat wrong to me given Obama's innate operational conservatism, not to mention the administration's decision not to nationalize the banks when it probably could have early last year.

One problem with a "tour d'horizon" (as Douthat somewhat douchily calls it) such as Manzi's is that when you throw so many points into the mix, the good ones can get lost. So it is here: with some big exceptions--notably his call to avoid "a government takeover of health insurance" (which we did, probably to a fault)--I can at least sort of get behind most of Manzi's suggested agenda going forward. Financial regulation to "contain busts" that would eliminate the current moral hazard problem? Sign me up. Likewise the notion to "reconceptualize immigration as recruiting." He really nails this: "It is hard to imagine a more damaging way to expose the fault lines of America's political economy: We have chosen a strategy that provides low-wage gardeners and nannies for the elite, low-cost home improvement and fresh produce for the middle class, and fierce wage competition for the working class." This is fairly brave for a conservative, though perhaps less coming from a Manhattan Institute fellow than, say, a state senator from somewhere in the southwest.

Even his call to "deregulate public schools" is pretty defensible. I find this tough to argue with, for instance:

In a nation where about 40% of births occur outside of wedlock, many children will be left behind. Nonetheless, schools remain one of our primary policy instruments for enhancing both social mobility and our competitive position. They are essential to the task of balancing innovation and cohesion. To function effectively, though, America's schools need to be improved dramatically. Our basic model of public schooling — ­accepting raw material in the form of five-year-olds, and then adding value through a series of processing steps to produce educated graduates 12 (or more) years later — reflects the vision of the old industrial economy. This worked well in an earlier era, but improvements that might have kept this model up to date have been stalled for decades. We now need a new vision for schools that looks a lot more like Silicon Valley than Detroit: decentralized, entrepreneurial, and flexible.

His call for "a market in which funding follows students, and far broader discretion is permitted to those who actually teach and manage in our schools" is something you're about as likely to hear from very liberal activists as well as conservative think-tank types. Of course, the impact of any educational reform is ultimately limited by how bought in the parents prove to be--which takes us full circle to the point about cohesion at the family and community levels.

It's a mixed bag overall. But these days there are so few attempts from the right to think seriously about the problems we face as a nation and as a society that it seems worthwhile to grapple in good faith with thoughtful pieces such as this one.