Balkinization  

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tom Friedman finally begins to connect the dots

Sandy Levinson

The November 23 column by Tom Friedman begins as follows:

So, I have a confession and a suggestion. The confession: I go into restaurants these days, look around at the tables often still crowded with young people, and I have this urge to go from table to table and say: “You don’t know me, but I have to tell you that you shouldn’t be here. You should be saving your money. You should be home eating tuna fish. This financial crisis is so far from over. We are just at the end of the beginning. Please, wrap up that steak in a doggy bag and go home.”

Now you know why I don’t get invited out for dinner much these days. If I had my druthers right now we would convene a special session of Congress, amend the Constitution and move up the inauguration from Jan. 20 to Thanksgiving Day. Forget the inaugural balls; we can’t afford them. Forget the grandstands; we don’t need them. Just get me a Supreme Court justice and a Bible, and let’s swear in Barack Obama right now — by choice — with the same haste we did — by necessity — with L.B.J. in the back of Air Force One. [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, it would take too long for a majority of states to ratify such an amendment. [emphasis added.] What we can do now, though, said the Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, co-author of “The Broken Branch,” is “ask President Bush to appoint Tim Geithner, Barack Obama’s proposed Treasury secretary, immediately.” Make him a Bush appointment and let him take over next week. This is not a knock on Hank Paulson. It’s simply that we can’t afford two months of transition where the markets don’t know who is in charge or where we’re going. At the same time, Congress should remain in permanent session to pass any needed legislation.

Of course, the Congress that would be meeting from now through the beginning of January would be the lame-duck Congress, about which see my earlier posting today. Why in the world does Friedman believe that the obtuse Republicans in the Senate, at least half a dozen so far who are lameducks--and at least three of whom were fired by their constituents--would agree with Democrats on what counts as "needed legislation"? But I don't want to be churlish. Perhaps Friedman will be able to jump-start a serious national conversation, since at last a genuine pundit has finally figured out that our Constitution is a hindrance rather than a help. For what it is worth, incidentally, there's not a single sentence in Ornstein and Mann's otherwise fine book The Broken Branch that addresses any constitutional difficulties with Congress. And Ornstein's suggestion that Paulson be fired and replaced immediately with Tim Geithner requires acquiescence by George W. Bush, who would have to recognize that he is indeed the most abject failure in the history of the American presidency. But if he can come to that recognition, then why stop with Paulson. Why, indeed, shouldn't Friedman join his colleague Gail Collins and demand the resignation of Cheney and Bush, in that order?



Comments:

"And Ornstein's suggestion that Paulson be fired and replaced immediately with Tim Geithner requires acquiescence by George W. Bush, who would have to recognize that he is indeed the most abject failure in the history of the American presidency."

Let me preface this by saying that I'm very ignorant of American history, only know what I learned in high school. But put it this way - I've heard some very bad things about Buchanan. Hoover arguably helped turn a mere crash into a Depression. And if you're basing your assessment of Bush largely on Iraq, I'd remind you that Vietnam was a much bigger misstep. Johnson's misstep, mostly. Conservatives would claim that the Great Society directly fed into a lot of crime and social problems. Certainly Johnson's manhandling of the Fed helped lead to 70s stagflation. Of course, Johnson did three very good things - Medicare, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act. But you could certainly argue that if Kennedy had picked Humphrey as his running mate and gotten shot in '63, Humphrey would've gotten that stuff through the Congress too. It all passed by pretty overwhelming margins; you could easily argue Johnson gets way too much credit thanks to this myth of Johnson as The Great Wheedler. As for Bush, I'm sure you've got some very bright people you read, Krugman for instance, who attribute this economic mess to him. But there are some equally good arguments on the other side that he didn't somehow deregulate this bubble into existence. Those are my two cents.
 

Asking Cheney to resign seems like a non-starter. Barely seen him since the '04 election. How can he be asked if he can't be found? But in any case his response will likely be something like "Fuck you".

This is what is known as a non-starter.

The constitutional problem is to impose on a person in that position. And there are no short term solutions . . . neither asking (see above), nor amending the Constitution (too slow, too hard), nor impeaching (need 2/3 of a Senate along with arguments about the meaning of "high crimes and misdemeanors") will work.

The best that can be done in the short run is the rapid construction of a "shadow" cabinet. This is nearly complete. This might help somewhat when it comes to matters of confidence in the markets. It is probably of help in removing some regulations that have been made less than 60 days before the end of Bush's term. It might even help for a few detainees in Guantanamo, should the administration not feel the resistance to court decisions is worth the effort given almost certain dropping of charges and release early in the Obama administration.

But for actually having a capable administration in place to deal with the financial crisis, or international crises, or to halt unaccountable mischief of a (hopefully) more petty nature, we are screwed. In that sense, and that sense only, Cheney would be correct (see above).
 

"Unfortunately, it would take too long for a majority of states to ratify such an amendment."

Wouldn't be, if there were actually a consensus that Bush was as bad as you think him. Or that Obama really was the messiah.

Anyway, this mis-identifies the chief obstacle to amending the Constitution these days: Congress, not the states. It doesn't matter how long the states would take to ratify, when Congress stopped sending out amendments, what? A couple of decades ago?

And from a crassly political perspective, the first term of a popular President is the ideal time to pursue such an amendment, because members of his own party could presume that the change would be neutral with respect to his time in office, stealing time from his first term, and adding it to his second.

Finally, I'm somewhat bemused by the suggestion that putting Obama in office a month or two early is going to make a significant difference to an economic crisis which is world-wide, and by many accounts much worse abroad. And which Obama himself is at some pains to warn people will still be going strong when he's up for reelection. Having him and his people getting up to speed after they're already in a position to implement their decisions might even be counter-productive.
 

I think this post calls for a short-term market prediction. Obama unveils his economic team tomorrow and, low and behold, the market responds as favorably to that as it did to the leaks from the transition team on Friday.

What would this tell us? Is the shadow almost as significant to the market as the act?

Finally, shouldn't we be talking about the economic issue that, ostensibly, divides Bush from Obama? Are they really that far apart on bailing out the auto industry?
 

There are, I admit, other economic issues that divide Bush from Obama.

But the question remains: What if the mere announcement of Obama's economic team and agenda gives a decisive lift to the market? What would that tell us about the economic case for amending the Constitution?

Does it all depend upon one's counterfactuals?
 

"What would that tell us about the economic case for amending the Constitution?"

Next to nothing. Even assuming that Obama's policies are going to be better than Bush's, this tells us nothing about whether the Constitution should be amended to speed the transition of every single SUBSEQUENT incoming President.

The way Sandy keeps harping on a comparison of Obama and Bush in this connection makes me wonder if he even understands the difference between decisions in the present instance, and decisions about procedural rules. For every Obama taking the place of a Bush, you're going to have a Bush taking the place of an Obama. Speed the former transition, you speed the latter. It's a wash, leaving only the effects of giving the new President less time to prepare, and the old President less time to do mischief.

Which is more important? The problems of Obama getting the reins of power in hand before he's gotten together his staff, and been fully briefed on the less public aspects of the situation? Or denying Bush the opportunity to screw Obama over with last minute appointments and executive orders?

It's a judgment call which prevails, but the circumstances of the present transition say nothing about the merits, because the amendment will apply to MANY transitions, not just this one.

Not this one at all, as a matter of fact. You'd be lucky to get an amendment in time for the next transition.

I'd rather see an amendment limiting the outgoing President to a caretaker status, all his appointments being officially temporary in nature, and any bills signed or vetoed only being provisional in nature, until the incoming President confirms or reverses the decisions. Including pardons, of course.

But the argument for reducing the time is much weaker.
 

"Hoover arguably helped turn a mere crash into a Depression."

The stock market crash did not lead to the Depression. Rather, they were both caused, or at least not prevented, by policies of the Coolidge Administration. Much of the country had been in a depression for a couple of years before Hoover took office. Hoover "helped" make some things worse, but in many ways he was just the unlucky stiff who happened to be in office when the bills run up by his predecessors came due.

"And if you're basing your assessment of Bush largely on Iraq, I'd remind you that Vietnam was a much bigger misstep."

Two points: One, I don't think anyone is assessing Bush "largely" on Iraq any more. Bush's entire administration has been a disaster. Remover Iraq, and the Bush Administration would still be a disaster. He has left such a train wreck in all parts of the government that it will take years to straighten it out.

Two, I don't think Vietnam was a bigger misstep than Iraq, and as a college student during the Vietnam years I participated in quite a few protests against it. So I do appreciate the misstep that was Vietnam. The difference is that the invasion of Iraq is going to cause a lot more trouble going forward than the Vietnam War did. For the U.S., once we were out of Vietnam we put it aside and moved on. I fear that won't be true with Iraq. It's going to keep coming back to bite us.

"Johnson's misstep, mostly."

Yes, but Nixon took ownership of it, and for the last few years of it, it was Nixon's war as much as Johnson's. Vietnam was a bipartisan misstep.

"Conservatives would claim that the Great Society directly fed into a lot of crime and social problems."

The "crime and social problems" had myriad long-standing causes. The Great Society may have not helped as much as one would have hoped, but I can't see that it things worse.

Yes, there were some other really bad presidents, notably Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. Bush joins them at the bottom of the barrel. Quibbling about which one of those four is the absolute worst is kind of pointless.
 

As for Bush, I'm sure you've got some very bright people you read, Krugman for instance, who attribute this economic mess to him.

That's not accurate. Krugman doesn't pin the blame on Bush specifically but more so on the general GOP ideology, laissez-faire in a word.
 

I'd remind you that Vietnam was a much bigger misstep.

Certainly more people were killed in Vietnam, many more. But in terms of dollar cost, Iraq will cost us more. And there's the potential for long term problems which maha pointed out.

I'm somewhat bemused by the suggestion that putting Obama in office a month or two early is going to make a significant difference to an economic crisis which is world-wide, and by many accounts much worse abroad.

A number of economists are urging immediate action because the inertia of the system, if you will, is such that a delay of even a few months can be much more costly than you'd think. There are key moments for intervention, and we're at one now.

I'd rather see an amendment limiting the outgoing President to a caretaker status, all his appointments being officially temporary in nature, and any bills signed or vetoed only being provisional in nature, until the incoming President confirms or reverses the decisions. Including pardons, of course.

This isn't a bad idea, but it does leave the problem of lameduckitude (you read it here first). Sometimes there will be situations in which the outgoing president needs to act immediately. That's hard to do now; if we reduce his/her power even further, then we'll have a power vaccuum. That could be real trouble. I'd like to see someone actually in charge at all times.
 

Doncha wonder if Freidman's new-found caution might spring from the fact that his billionairess wife's fortune was redued by about 80 in the last couple of weeks?

It's dang hard to sell enough mediocre books to make up for a close to $3Billion hit to the family fortune...

And yes, i do enjoy a sip of schadenfreude with my breakfast, why do you ask?
 

And, yes, I concur that the inter-regnum/lamedickitude is far too lang, and that there are far too few limitations placed on the limping fowl...Give the loser 15 days to clear out. That's plenty of time...

i also approve of this suggestion:
I'd rather see an amendment limiting the outgoing President to a caretaker status, all his appointments being officially temporary in nature, and any bills signed or vetoed only being provisional in nature, until the incoming President confirms or reverses the decisions. Including pardons, of course.

I don't know, of course, but I do not think the framers/founders envisioned the pardon as a way for official malefactors to exculpate themselves or their satraps and lickspittles...
 

My point, Mark, is that we're not really discussing George Bush's "lame duckitude", because,

1. George Bush will be history before any reform takes effect.

and,

2. The reform will apply to all cases of lame duckitude, including those cases, (Approximately half, one assumes.) where the lame duck is better than the incoming President elect.

So, it's really irrelevant whether Obama getting quicker policy control would improve the present situation.

Which I, by the way, doubt. Prompt correct action will, one assumes, cause the recovery to occur a little earlier, but the assumption that Mr. "Present!", who was raking in the bucks from Fannie Mae not so long ago, is going to implement that correct action, and would do so promptly if given power ahead of schedule, is a dubious assumption.

We didn't get this deep in the hole thanks to George Bush alone. (As demonstrated by the world-wide nature of the crisis.) Maybe not even thanks to him at all, or any more than thanks to Obama.
 

My point, Mark, is that we're not really discussing George Bush's "lame duckitude", because,

1. George Bush will be history before any reform takes effect.


Agreed. I meant my point to be general in nature, not limited to this case.

While you're right that we should expect the issue to affect the good as well as the bad, there are two factors which limit this in my view:

1. A new president comes in with an electoral victory that the outgoing president lacks. As a matter of what the electorate wants at that point in time, the new one better represents the voters.

2. The proposed change wouldn't affect the total amount of time spent in office. That is, no president would have fewer days, they'd just be distributed differently. That different distribution seems important to me, because the net effect is to add those days in at a time when the electorate wants the president, and reduce the days at a time when it does not.

We didn't get this deep in the hole thanks to George Bush alone.

Agreed. Some of the problems began under Clinton, at least. Bush is going to get lots of blame, though, because (1) his failures were severe; and (2) he had the opportunity to correct problems and didn't.

While the problem is world-wide, the current evidence is that it began here in the US (unlike, say, the Panic of 1873, which everyone now agrees began in Europe, with Grant as an essentially innocent victim). But we won't know for certain for quite a while. That's one reason I resist the "worse president ever" label for Bush -- historical judgments take a good 30 years or so to become solid.

But Bush certainly has a chance.
 

A few observations (re your series of posts). First, while I agree that the proposal to turn the presidency over to Nancy Pelosi is ridiculous, I don’t think that the incompatible offices clause would be an insuperable barrier. She would have to resign her seat in the current Congress in order to become President, but this would not affect her right to take her seat in the next Congress. There would be an issue as to her status when Congress meets in January, but I would imagine that the House would rule, under the extraordinary circumstances hypothesized, that she could defer taking the oath until January 20.

Second, if the issue is simply a desire to shorten transitions generally, it would seem that no constitutional change is needed, since the Congress can move the date of the election. Presumably, there is some limit to how short the transition period could be, but it could be made considerably shorter than it is now. I am not sure, however, whether this would really solve the problem of lameduckitude (a word not recognized by my spellchecker despite the fact that Mark Field invented it several hours ago), at least in circumstances where the incumbent president is not standing for re-election. Once it gets to be within a few months of the end of the outgoing president’s term, it will be increasingly difficult for him to make decisions that might be altered by his successor, even if that successor has not yet been chosen.

Third, with regard to the particular circumstances of this transition (which, as others have noted, should not be conflated with all transitions), I do not think that you have responded adequately to Professor Balkin’s main point, which is that it is largely political considerations that are keeping Obama from taking a more forceful role during the transition period. If Obama were interested in being more involved in policymaking, he could certainly use his political clout (not to mention his Senate seat, if he had not relinquished it) to do so. Moreover, I suspect that Bush would be more than happy to share the “credit” for responding to the economic crisis if Obama were so inclined. Ornstein’s suggestion that Geithner be appointed immediately as Treasury Secretary strikes me as a sensible one, and I think it is even possible that Bush would cooperate with such a plan.
 

I don't know, of course, but I do not think the framers/founders envisioned the pardon as a way for official malefactors to exculpate themselves or their satraps and lickspittles...

I don’t believe that the framers/founders envisioned that an actual criminal would be in charge of the Presidency without Congress removing him.

The Constitutional checks and balances work only if everyone does their job.
 

Ultimately I guess what will determine Bush's reputation is how long this downturn lasts. If it's huge, he's the guy who was present at the creation; if not, people will just look back and say he was a President who made some foreign policy mistakes, but was faced with, you know, some pretty tough calls. And I just saw Michelle Rhee come lecture here and she said she was a "huge fan" of NCLB, so, hey, if that was actually a good idea, points for Bush.
 

But perhaps Bush will do what Nixon merely contemplated . . . and pardon himself!

And, I suppose, Cheney for good measure.

Why would he not? Because (1) it would be admitting criminal policy actions (and not merely acts, such as in Watergate), and (2) Obama does not seem to be the type to eviscerate a defeated opponent (unlike the Clintons).

But we really do need an investigation into the criminal doings of this admin, not for retribution, not for rectification of past wrongs, not for political purposes, but for education. If the crimes are made headlines, it will reduce the chance of it happing again.
 

I'm curious what people think about repealing the Presidential term limit? Repealing the term limit would, I think, strengthen the argument about responsiveness to the electorate. What that argument fails to account for is that Bush didn't lose the 2008 election. John McCain and the Republican party did. No matter how much one wants to paint McCain and Bush as essentially the same, they just aren't, in fact, identical. Granted, the President is seen as the leader of his party. So repudiation of the President's party can be read as a repudiation of the sitting President. But the voters were not, in fact, rejecting Bush. They were rejecting John McCain and the Republican party, with Bush almost the ex officio head of party, but not really. If Bush had run for a third term, no doubt he would have been crushed by Obama. But then it would make no sense whatsoever to allow Bush to remain in office for so long after the election. Granted, I tend to side with Prof. Levinson, so I don't think it makes much sense to leave the President in office for so long as it is. Nevertheless, I think the responsiveness to the electorate in the present moment argument would be greatly strengthened by repealing term limits on the presidency.
 

We can examine, weigh and postulate what has, what can, what might happen between election day results and Inauguration Day in an effort to come up with a solution for shortening the changeover by means of a Constitutional amendment. But in doing so, we would also have to postulate what might happen, including unanticipated events, if there were such a change that might create serious problems. Whatever may be done should not be based solely on the current situation. Keep in mind what brought about Presidential term limits. After all, this would be a Constitution we would be amending.
 

These threads whining about the dastardly Constitution preventing The One from immediately assuming power to work on the economy are all notable for the lack of any suggestion of what The One will actually do to that end and whether such a plan is likely to work.

That would be a far more interesting topic than Bush bashing.

You folks are in power now. What are you going to do with it?
 

Bart DePalma said:

These threads whining about the dastardly Constitution preventing The One from immediately assuming power to work on the economy are all notable for the lack of any suggestion of what The One will actually do to that end and whether such a plan is likely to work.

There’s an article on the front page of the Washington Post that says Congressional Democrats are hoping to have a massive stimulus bill ready for Obama’s signature on January 20. It would probably have a better chance of working if it were implemented immediately.

That would be a far more interesting topic than Bush bashing.

There’s a lot more information available for Bush bashing. I’m sure you would like to pretend that the Bush years never happened, but that is not going to work. If you think it’s bad now, wait until after 1/20 and all of the departments are not stonewalling every attempt of Congress to exercise oversight. When we know the extent of what really went on, even you might be appalled.

You folks are in power now. What are you going to do with it?

Well, no, they are not. See your paragraph one.
 

That would be a far more interesting topic than Bush bashing.

You should prepare yourself for many, many, many years of Bush bashing. It will probably be Carter x 10.
 

So would a potential solution (to late to save us in our present situation) be amendment of the Constitution to allow Congress, by a 2/3 vote, to move up Inauguration Day whenever, in its collective opinion, "the national interest requires it." (Obviously, Congress would also have to change the date on which the EC meets, assuming that we just didn't get rid of the damn thing.) This would provide some flexibility with regard to balancing the interests involved in speeding up the transition.

As I wrote in my book, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the 22nd Amendment. On balance, I support it, but only because of the power of the modern president to dominate the news and whip up fears that counsel keeping him (or in the future her) in power.
 

So would a potential solution (to late to save us in our present situation) be amendment of the Constitution to allow Congress, by a 2/3 vote, to move up Inauguration Day whenever, in its collective opinion, "the national interest requires it." (Obviously, Congress would also have to change the date on which the EC meets, assuming that we just didn't get rid of the damn thing.) This would provide some flexibility with regard to balancing the interests involved in speeding up the transition.

Another alternative is to change the election date, which is set by statute (3 USC Sec. 1). The existing date was set because of concerns about weather, but that's not a problem if we go to a nationwide vote-by-mail system.
 

Just to add: a later election date would cut down the transition time, but wouldn't shorten the term of the incumbent. Since moving back the inauguration date would affect at least one incumbent, it may be politically easier to shift the election.
 

Speaking of incompetence, does anyone think that we ought to ask Tommy Boy if he'll resign?

Cheers,
 

Hank Gillette said...

Bart DePalma said: These threads whining about the dastardly Constitution preventing The One from immediately assuming power to work on the economy are all notable for the lack of any suggestion of what The One will actually do to that end and whether such a plan is likely to work.

There’s an article on the front page of the Washington Post that says Congressional Democrats are hoping to have a massive stimulus bill ready for Obama’s signature on January 20. It would probably have a better chance of working if it were implemented immediately.


And of what will this "stimulus plan" consist and how will it allegedly increase economic growth?

Before you begin, recall that the government removing capital from one end of the economy and deciding that it belongs someplace else is socialist industrial planning and has never worked.
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

Before you begin, recall that the government removing capital from one end of the economy and deciding that it belongs someplace else is socialist industrial planning and has never worked.

# posted by Bart DePalma : 2:48 PM


What do you call it when that capital is pissed into the sands of Iraq?
 

Before you begin, recall that the government removing capital from one end of the economy and deciding that it belongs someplace else is socialist industrial planning and has never worked.


Does this mean we should let our roads, bridges and railways crumble, because it would be "socialist" to fix them?
 

It is interesting that Tom Friedman is all upset that consumers are purchasing goods and services rather than living within what Friedman considers their means, but is equally upset that Mr. Obama cannot immediately start the task of saving the economy by having the government live well over a trillion dollars beyond its means in 2009.
 

It is interesting that Tom Friedman is all upset that consumers are purchasing goods and services rather than living within what Friedman considers their means, but is equally upset that Mr. Obama cannot immediately start the task of saving the economy by having the government live well over a trillion dollars beyond its means in 2009.

# posted by Bart DePalma : 4:15 PM


It is interesting that you never had a problem with the government going deep into debt to "pay" for the Iraq disaster.
 

Before you begin, recall that the government removing capital from one end of the economy and deciding that it belongs someplace else is socialist industrial planning and has never worked.

So I guess that's why massive gov't spending during WWII failed to pull us out of the Great Depression.

And thank you, Mr. Chucklehead.
 

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