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February 16, 2009

Elevating Style over Substance

"Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental 'reset button,' wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration."

- Jonathan Haidt

It's hard not to be dazzled by Barack Obama. At the 2004 Democratic convention, he visited with Newsweek reporters and editors, including me. I came away deeply impressed by his intelligence, his forceful language and his apparent willingness to take positions that seemed to rise above narrow partisanship. Obama has become the Democratic presidential front-runner precisely because countless millions have formed a similar opinion. It is, I now think, mistaken.

- Robert J. Samuelson

I enjoy Robert J. Samuelson's columns: I find him an unusually well grounded and perceptive analyst. One year ago, Samuelson wrote an eerily prophetic column about our future President:

As a journalist, I harbor serious doubt about each of the most likely nominees. But with Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, I feel that I'm dealing with known quantities. They've been in the public arena for years; their views, values and temperaments have received enormous scrutiny. By contrast, newcomer Obama is largely a stage presence defined mostly by his powerful rhetoric. The trouble, at least for me, is the huge and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views.

The subtext of Obama's campaign is that his own life narrative -- to become the first African American president, a huge milestone in the nation's journey from slavery -- can serve as a metaphor for other political stalemates. Great impasses can be broken with sufficient goodwill, intelligence and energy. "It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white," he says. Along with millions of others, I find this a powerful appeal.

But on inspection, the metaphor is a mirage. Repudiating racism is not a magic cure-all for the nation's ills. The task requires independent ideas, and Obama has few. If you examine his agenda, it is completely ordinary, highly partisan, not candid and mostly unresponsive to many pressing national problems.

Flash forward to 2009. Barack Obama has just been handed what many are calling a huge victory in the passage of the stimulus bill. His arguments for urgent action ranged from the disarmingly non-partisan ("I won, therefore your opinion is irrelevant") to the bracingly inspirational "Every day we delay increases the chances of an economic catastrophe we may not be able to reverse". Aided by a Democrat-dominated Congress, Mr. Obama has just passed a stimulus bill his own Congressional Budget Office admits is not only unlikely to stimulate the economy but may well make things worse:

President Obama's economic recovery package will actually hurt the economy more in the long run than if he were to do nothing, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday.

CBO, the official scorekeepers for legislation, said the House and Senate bills will help in the short term but result in so much government debt that within a few years they would crowd out private investment, actually leading to a lower Gross Domestic Product over the next 10 years than if the government had done nothing.

CBO estimates that by 2019 the Senate legislation would reduce GDP by 0.1 percent to 0.3 percent on net. [The House bill] would have similar long-run effects, CBO said in a letter to Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, who was tapped by Mr. Obama on Tuesday to be Commerce Secretary.

Unfortunately, the stimulus bill isn't the first gap between Obama and his elevating rhetoric. Mere weeks after taking office, the President was already ignoring his pledge to make government more transparent:

Obama’s 5 p.m. signing came barely three hours after the House approved the bill, breaching Obama’s promise to have a five-day period of “sunlight before signing,” as he detailed on the campaign trail and on his website.

“Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them,” the Obama-Biden campaign website states. “As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.”

Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act only two days after it received final passage last week, and it wasn’t posted on the White House website until after it became law.

So much for promises.

Samuelson, in a op-ed in the Washington Post, points out the blatant dishonesty behind Obama's 'lost decade' argument:

What happened to Japan in the 1990s?

It did not, as some commentators say, suffer a "depression." Not even a "great recession," as others put it. Japan experienced a listless, boring prosperity. Its economy expanded in all but two years (1998 and 1999), although the average annual growth rate was a meager 1.5 percent. Unemployment rose to 5 percent in 2001 from 2.1 percent in 1990. Not good, but hardly a calamity. Japan remained a hugely wealthy society.

Its situation compelled attention mainly because it confounded conventional wisdom. From 1956 to 1973, Japan had grown 9 percent a year; in the 1980s, it was still growing at 4 percent. Japan was widely expected to overtake the United States as the richest, most advanced economy. It didn't. Worse, its semi-stagnation defied the notion that modern economics enabled government to ensure adequate growth.

Where Samuelson stikes pay dirt is with this observation on the causes of Japan's lost decade:

The standard analysis reassures, because it suggests that with better decisions Japan might have avoided its prolonged slowdown. The reality seems to be that Japan's economic reverses reflect deeply held social and political values. The same might be true of us.

As Samuelson explains, the driving engine behind Japanese economic growth was exports: cars, steel and electronics. Its internal industries face far less competition and as a result are weak and inefficient. The driving engine behind the U.S. economy has been vigorous consumer spending fueled by an ever increasing amount of consumer debt. As I argued back in December, increasing individual deficit spending is an unsustainable engine for economic growth - the trend can't continue indefinitely. As we found out last fall, sooner or later the bubble always bursts and an economy with no deep roots is like a hothouse flower: unable to feed itself because the luxuriant foliage is unsupported by an equally well developed root system.

The problem doesn't get better when our leaders lie to us about the solution to our present predicament:

Since the bubble's collapse, there have been 13 stimulus plans, reckons economist Randall Jones of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even now, the economy is dependent on trade; in December, exports dropped 35 percent from a year earlier, pushing Japan into a deep recession.

What happened in Japan does not doom Obama's stimulus as futile. Sometimes, government should intervene to break the fall of a declining economy. Japan's packages probably temporarily bolstered a faltering economy. In this sense, the president is correct. Unfortunately, his stimulus is weaker than advertised, because much of the effect occurs after 2009.

Still, the operative word is "temporarily." Hannity is correct in that serial stimulus plans become self-defeating. The required debt is unsustainable. At some point, the economy must generate strong growth on its own. Japan's hasn't. Will ours?

Since the early 1980s, American economic growth has depended on a steady rise in consumer spending supported by more debt and increasing asset prices (stocks, homes). Just as the mid-1980s signaled the end of Japan's export-led growth, the present U.S. slump signals the end of upbeat, consumption-led growth. But its legacy is an overbuilt and overemployed consumption sector, from car dealers to malls. The question is whether our system is adaptive enough to create new sources of growth to fill the void left by retreating shoppers.

These days, the remedy being touted near and far is not only oxymoronic but calculated (if it works) to put us right back on the track that caused the financial crisis in the first place. Chastened by the prospect of long term recession, American families are finally increasing their savings and cutting spending they can't - and couldn't in the past - truly afford. They are beginning to live within their means.

By any standard, this should be a good thing. And yet, if the health of the American economy depends upon a rate of consumer spending that exceeds our earning power, the logical conclusion is that so long as this healthy behavior continues, consumer spending will continue to lag and our economy won't recover.

We need to treat the underlying disease rather than simply trying to alleviate the symptoms. The disturbing thought here, though, is neatly encapsulated by Samuelson's observation that the roots of our current crisis lay in our own deeply held values. So long as Americans continue to believe they are entitled to wages and benefits packages that render American industry non-competitive, the only available engine for economic growth is an unhealthy rate of spending that crowds out savings and critical investments in infrastructure. Simply put, lulled by unrealistic promises from pandering politics, I'm not at all sure Americans are still willing to work hard enough (let alone defer their desire for immediate gratification long enough) to be truly competitive in a global economy.

When we asked for a President with the empathy and communications skills needed to connect with the public and make convincing arguments for his policies, how many of us ever stopped to think that at the end of the day verbal dexterity is a double edged sword? It makes poorly thought out argments and policies that don't solve the problems they're meant to solve go down so much more smoothly. But what we need right now is not reassurance so much a fundamental shift in the way we view our economy. We need straight talk and hard decisions, not comforting pablum.

Barack Obama has elevated us all right. In electing him, we elevated glossy and immensely appealing style over the unpleasant and difficult substantive actions we need to rebuild a fundamentally unsustainable economic model. The truth is that we can't spend our way out of our current difficulties at the expense of savings and investment. That's what got us into this situation in the first place.

And without facing that reality, it seems increasingly unlikely Americans will sober up and get down to the hard work needed to fix our economy. What a shame.

Posted by Cassandra at February 16, 2009 10:44 AM

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"Barack Obama has elevated us all right. In electing him, we elevated glossy and immensely appealing style over the unpleasant and difficult substantive actions we need to rebuild a fundamentally unsustainable economic model. The truth is that we can't spend our way out of our current difficulties at the expense of savings and investment. That's what got us into this situation in the first place."
Or as we say down heah', we heard the wind blowin' but we didn't and probably will not, see any trees shakin'. In other words, I'll go with substance over style any day.

Which reminds me of what I think is an old Chicago folk song. It's They Call the Wind Obama...

Posted by: bthun at February 16, 2009 02:03 PM

I tried, I really did, to follow his answers at his press conference. After about 3 minutes I'd forgotten the question, after 5 minutes I'd totally lost the direction of the "answer" and three days later I was surprised to find myself in the hospital, when I spontaneously awoke from a catatonic state. (Well, I might remember that last bit incorrectly, but my mind was very hazy.)

I do not get the idea that he's articulate, and has mad communication skilz. I think he's a snake-oil salesman, and has a lot of buyers. I don't think he's ever done any heavy lifting. I think he's accustomed to looking unthreatening and being pushed forward as the face of awful policy ideas. I think he's a spoiled child whose grandparents tried to make up for their daughter's indifference to and abandonment of him, and he has always been treated as if the sun rises and sets in his nether regions. He reminds me of Arab men who are raised in the hareem until they are 13. Whenever they speak, a woman or girl overhears what they wish for, and provides it. So, if he says, "I want a glass of milk", soon, up walks a female delivering a glass of milk. The Arab boy learns that what he speaks he brings into existence. His formative years are spent learning that his words alone are enough to make things happen. Many never get the idea that they must expend effort to make things happen. This is why so many people say Arab men are liars.

And now, unfortunately, it is too late to wake up.

We've just swallowed a bolus of debt that is going to choke our economy, possibly for decades, but Obama will be having his third or fourth "memoir" ghost-written and a multi-million dollar contract to reward him for his awesomeness, and will be untouched by the policies he implemented.

If we're lucky, his daughters will also go into "public service" as their mom counsels her audiences to do, and we'll never get the gum off our shoes.

Posted by: MathMom at February 16, 2009 02:50 PM

Just a few words from a great patriot from oh so long ago....

"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen."

Sam Adams
(before he made beer)

Posted by: Kbob in Katy at February 16, 2009 04:19 PM

Kbob in Katy -

Would that be Katy, TX?

Posted by: MathMom at February 16, 2009 04:45 PM

MathMom, you need to start blogging.

Posted by: Cricket at February 16, 2009 04:54 PM

I'm onboard with Cricket about that, Mathmom.

"...I'm not at all sure Americans are still willing to work hard enough (let alone defer their desire for immediate gratification long enough) to be truly competitive in a global economy."

I'll buy that too, for sure, Cassandra.

Whatever you women say. Because the rest of us have surely screwed the pooch this time.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at February 16, 2009 05:01 PM

Yup, Cass has nailed it in this posting by pointing out the inevitable fall which results from spending beyond ones means. A natural progression that should surprise no one. And yet it's a behavior that has run rampant individually and collectively as seen in individuals going bust and in governments from the local level up though the federal level blowing tax revenue faster than they could seize it.

And making just a small adjustment on the objective lens to broaden the scope of the vista, one can see that the world economies are in a similar state. Those same nations that rely on the US consumer, US Aid, and the US military for its protection and well being are finding excessive obligations outstanding at the end of their balance sheets black ink too. Yeah EU socialism will save us.

As far as OPEC goes, I hope they have a Betty Crocker 1001 Receipes for Crude on hand.

Sorry for that outburst. Speaking of Sam Adams ale...

"the rest of us have surely screwed the pooch this time."
Sorry to be the contrarian with regard to the us descriptor kee-mo sah-bee, but the landslide majority, aka the 30% of those of voting age, screwed the pooch by giving control of both our Congress and the White House to the Democrats. It is they who can claim to be one with the collective us. But that ain't me... no, no no, that ain't me you're lookin' for. So it's with no regret that I say I will not accept any guilt for the elevation to positions of power of the EU Democrats in the US.

But I will third what Cricket and Don said concerning a MathMom blog.

Posted by: bt_what-me-worry_hun at February 16, 2009 05:52 PM

This is quite an interesting post. I do feel as though many historic dimensions became the focus for many Americans during the campaign. The term "historic" does not indicate irrelevance, then, but rather politically off-topic aspects of the campaign. Tomorrow, Obama plans to sign on the stimulus bill package of $787 billion. If anything, the bill cannot be taken lightly nor viewed as the economy's magical fix. Earlier, I watched an interesting summary video about the "Winners and Losers" of the stimulus effort. It's worth watching for the sake of knowing who gets what from the bill:


Posted by: Kt Davis at February 16, 2009 06:12 PM

If you need an excuse to quaff large quantities of Sam Adam's finest, you can start with this and follow the links for as long as the Sam Adams holds out and/or your ability to absorb remains intact.

Posted by: bthun at February 16, 2009 06:45 PM

I like coming back and rereading Cass's posts and the comments on it because it is all thought provoking, entertaining and seriously good fun.

The Engineer has been gainfully unemployed for over six months now. We prepared for that eventuality by first, learning to live within our means and getting out of debt. We still have a mortgage, but it is the only debt we have, and there is no second mortgage attached to it.

We own our cars.

We are plotting our garden. We have a one acre size lot in a subdivision, so we are looking at square foot gardening and espalier trees for a fence along one side, as well as edible ornamentals.

We do not eat out; we have learned how to preserve and prepare foods in such a manner as to shame Escoffier and Julia Child. We have not missed a dime of the extra income because of our preparations. We are not in the lap of luxury, but we are on the knees of comfort and count our blessings; others have it worse.

We have learned to do this, knowing that all good things must come to an end. We are not homeless; his pension is enough to toss puppy biscuits to the wolves at the door.

While we are not happy that Obama is in office, neither are we in deep mourning. We will do what we have always done no matter who is in office.

Posted by: Cricket at February 16, 2009 07:15 PM

Surely many of us did not vote for Mr. Obama for President.
But did we all do as much as we could have to get John McCain elected?
I think not.

So here we are, in the wilderness, as it were, waiting for the next election to try to set things right. But what if that doesn't work? Or the election after that?
I blame no one in particular, but I have read plenty of blogs on the right side of the blogosphere that
1) were lukewarm to hostile to John McCain
2) were openly glad he lost, even after the election.

Surely, in my own mind, I saw him as the lesser of two evils. But I could have, I should have, done more, as should have ....thousands of other like minded folks.
But now, it's just too late for that, isn't it?

We screwed the pooch, all of us. John McCain included, because he could have run a better campaign.
So now, we stew and wait.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at February 16, 2009 09:58 PM

I understand what you are saying Don, and I too held my nose and voted as I have so many times since 1972.

And yes, I'm stewing alright. So much so that I often can't bring myself to comment directly about BO for fear that my better judgment and restraint might give way and give the opposition fodder. But I also write my congressman and senators at every opportunity to offer opinion and support *and in a hushed whisper I'll admit to sending money*.

And I use every opportunity to speak with folks I know and associate about the importance of staying updated on the issues and the voting records of the people we elect to represent the best interests of our county, state and nation.

I was very vocal this past election in my circle of family and friends. But unfortunately, I'm not able to get out and about very often or for long periods when I am able, so I do what I can, when I can.

Limited though my actions may be, I'll not shoulder guilt for the actions of the Congress and the White House. They are solely responsible for their actions as are those who voted them into office.

I did what I could and I will continue to do what I can, but I did not... *wags finger and bites lower lip* have sex with that pooch!

Now is this where I should once again harp on term limits and closed primaries?

Posted by: bthun at February 16, 2009 10:45 PM

Cricket, Don, bthun,

You are all too kind. I don't know what brought that reaction from what I said, but I appreciate your confidence.

Don, what you said about being insufficiently supportive of John McCain is interesting. On the one hand, I know that I felt obligated to donate to his campaign because I knew George Soros and other very deep pockets were bankrolling The One. But I didn't support him financially until I wrote my first check the night he introduced Sarah Palin. Her command of the camera and her fearlessness gave me hope. Perhaps she was not perfectly ready to assume the office of Vice President (and possibly the Presidency), but as a counterpoint to that argument I offer to you Joe Biden and Barack Obama. Case closed.

On the other hand, Obama outspent McCain by a factor of 10, yet that brought only a 7 point lead over McCain. This tells me that if he had been publicly funded, McCain might have beat him. Of course, McCain wouldn't campaign, so there's that.

On the third hand, I think the fix was in, and there was going to be an Obama presidency, regardless of what it took to do it. I think that is why, when Obama was running out of money, the Obama campaign removed all the safeguards against credit card fraud on their donation website and suddenly the juggernaut was on the move. People were able to donate with gift cards, put 10,000 $200 donations on a single credit card using many fake names, donate from Gaza, donate from Kenya. When I learned that there was brazen, flamboyant fraud happening with his donations and a compliant press that looked the other way, I knew we didn't have a chance.

I voted for John Cornyn, who ran against Rick Noriega here in Texas. Noriega's donations were handled by Act Blue, and his credit card fraud protections were also disabled. I personally donated $5, twice, to Rick Noriega as Raggedy Ann on Voter Fraud Lane, and it went through. I have screen grabs and receipts to prove it. In fact, I still get emails from Act Blue to Raggedy Ann, asking for money for this or that. Act Blue did the credit card processing for many democrat campaigns, so I'd guess they allowed fraud on any who didn't mind. Perhaps on all of them.

When this sort of thing is permitted, and our watchdogs in the press say such lame things as "it's difficult to say why a person would donate under an assumed name", or "perhaps they wish to maintain their privacy", you know the game is up. I don't get to remain private when I donate to a campaign that follows the law. My name, address, occupation, political affiliation and donation amounts are public information.

John McCain's campaign is in the process of being audited to assure us that everything was on the up-and-up there. But Obama's campaign will not be audited. So the fraud will become even more brazen, and with ACORN receiving billions of dollars from the "stimulus" package, their cancer will spread to more unsuspecting states.

I have to stop now. When I think of what has already happened, and now that I know what a "community organizer" does (steal elections), I teeter on the brink of despair.

But times in this country have been dark before. I wonder if there was a genetic tendency to yearn for freedom in those who first settled America, a yearning strong enough that they braved the Atlantic Ocean in wooden sail boats.

Did those adventurers have children with the genetic tendency to want freedom and to be self-reliant? Nearly four hundred years have passed since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Could centuries of breeding those who prize self-reliance and freedom be the thing that saves us in the end?

Maybe there really is a difference in the genetic makeup of those who were born or became American, something in our spirit which will choose freedom and risk over certainty and subsidy, and that something will stir again and help us put the brakes on the current trend of stupidity and helplessness and begging for bailouts. As Frank Zappa said, Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe. There are examples to support this line of thinking: The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Senator Barbara Boxer, Rep. Maxine Waters (all from California), Senator Susan Collins from Maine, and Senator Specter from Pennsylvania.

Frank Zappa also said, Communism doesn't work because people like to own stuff. Let's hope this is more true than the quote about stupidity.

Posted by: MathMom at February 16, 2009 11:59 PM

I think people like to own stupid stuff, don't they? :)

I think that whatever genetic or learned predisposition that people in this country have (or had) toward "freedom" has regressed to the mean, because now they only want to have their drool cups emptied and watch "American Idol". We may all have to re-learn something in the next four years.

I think that the financing of the Obama campaign this year was one of the greatest election scandals of all time. But if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make any noise, or does it even matter? If there is one telling aspect of all this, it is that campaign tells me Obama and his associates are unprincipled crooks, who will do anything expedient to get and use power. Nothing now will surprise me, although I am sure that a lot of things in the next four years will appall me.

And I sure didn't mean anything personal towards anyone about John McCain and supporting him, but just if EVERYBODY that wanted him to be President or is really upset at Barack Obama right now had done more for McCain's campaign, he might be President today. But of course, we'll never know, will we?

And I think that now that I have emptied my tiny head of thoughts, I have to get back to work.

Thanks for listening, and thanks for not smoking.:)

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at February 17, 2009 08:35 AM

If there is one telling aspect of all this, it is that campaign tells me Obama and his associates are unprincipled crooks...

It tells me the Federal Elections Commission is either terminally incompetent or a wholly-owned subsidiary of the DNC. Given the rampant fundraising fraud *and* the attendant publicity, there are no other possible explanations.

Posted by: BillT at February 17, 2009 09:03 AM

Chuck Norris is angry at Washington. And you know what a bad it is to get Chuck Norris angry.Chuck Norris is the reason that Waldo is hiding.

Posted by: spd rdr at February 17, 2009 09:50 AM

And you know what a bad IDEA it is to get Chuck Norris angry.

Now I've made Chuck Norris angry.

Posted by: spd rdr at February 17, 2009 09:52 AM

I like this one:

Chuck Norris doesn't get frostbite. He bites frost.

Posted by: MathMom at February 17, 2009 10:13 AM

MathMom, you so totally rock.

Posted by: Cricket at February 17, 2009 12:00 PM

Don Brouhaha said: I think that whatever genetic or learned predisposition that people in this country have (or had) toward "freedom" has regressed to the mean, because now they only want to have their drool cups emptied and watch "American Idol". We may all have to re-learn something in the next four years.

I've been too busy to reply to this, Don, but you've said something important, and scary, and possibly true. But I recall after 9/11 when my then 12-year-old MathLad said to me, with great seriousness, during a discussion about gearing up for war, "I would fight for my country." This really stunned me. I'll explain.

My parents were members of the John Birch Society, and so in their circle of friends there were some very strange, vocal, reactionary people who held meetings to spread their beliefs. I remember being taken to meetings where film strips about the different forms of government were explained (Democracy = Mob Rule), and this indoctrination rankled after I got old enough to think for myself. The result of this force-feeding was to make me hate politics, and swear never to do this to my kids. I registered to vote as a Democrat and voted, but in a very uninformed way. I voted for Jimmah Cahtuh because the news kept showing Gerald Ford slipping on the airplane stairs and I didn't want a president who looked dumb coming down stairs. (Unfortunately, this is the complete truth.) Instead, I got a president who had hemorrhoids and was attacked by a rabbit, but I digress.

When I got older and began to pay attention, I still kept political discussions away from the children, because I wanted them to be able to make up their own minds and not be brainwashed like I had been.

So I was surprised when this love of country spontaneously sprouted in the heart of MathLad. Many people volunteered for war under George Bush, not just those uneducated losers with no other choice that Charlie Rangel talks about (and is), but cardiologists, professional football players, lawyers, engineers, and kids right out of high school.

Maybe the seeds of self-reliance and love of freedom are like some seeds that will not germinate unless they have been burned in a forest fire. That is sad if true. But I suspect O'Bambi's tenure will provide ample opportunities for hardship to bring out the best in us. Let's hope we don't prefer the government teat.

Posted by: MathMom at February 18, 2009 10:22 AM

"Maybe the seeds of self-reliance and love of freedom are like some seeds that will not germinate unless they have been burned in a forest fire. That is sad if true."
FWIW, I've long thought the same thing, based on little more than history. And of my observation of humans, who are, for the most part, content to graze in their natural habitat, until roused.

Or as the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon once wrote,

" but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em. Thy Fates open their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them;".

Posted by: bthun at February 18, 2009 11:01 AM