Balkinization  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Structural problems need structural solutions"

Sandy Levinson

This is Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Arian, quoted by Tom Friedman in this morning's column in the Times. I will forego any extended comment, other than to make the entirely predictable (for me) point that Friedman (and almost everyone else) almost wilfully ignores the extent to which the US Constitution is one of the most formidable "structural problems" that face us today. Thus he concludes his column with what can only be described as the sheer fantasy of "the presidentn tak[ing] America's labor, business, and Congressional leadership up to Camp David and not com[ing] down until a grand bargain for taxes, trade promotion, energy, stimulus, and budget cutting that offers the market some certainty that we are moving together--not just on a bailout but on an economic rebirth for the 21st century. 'Far chance,' you say [indeed!!]. When then I say get ready for a long phase of stubborn unemployment and anemic growth." So the question is this: Why is Friedman, a very smart guy, willing to make a fool of himself by offering such a ludicrously fanciful suggestion (which, among other things, simply wishes away the existence of political parties and the rational calculations that party leaders make about what best serves their own interests--which, for Republicans, is sure as hell not giving President Obama the kind of political victory that Friedman is suggesting) even as he utterly fails, week after week and month after month, even to hint that something is grievously wrong with our basic constitutional framework. EJ Dionne is willing to call for the abolition of the Senate (something I don't actually favor, though I'd prefer it to continuing the present Senate). Tom Friedman, along with the rest of the Times crew, including the Nobelist Paul Krugman, would never find the purloined letter because it is right in front of them (and, of course, it's so unlikely, as even I recognize, that anything can be done about that particular 800-pound gorilla).

Comments:

Dean Baker eviscerates Friedman's column here.

Low bar, yada yada yada.
 

Sandy, if a grand bargain on the economy is "fanciful," what makes fundamental reform of the entire government structure less fanciful given current cosntraints? So if you think Friedman is wasting his breath, aren't you, too?
 

Of course I'm probably wasting my breath. But at least I recognize a real problem, which Friedman is unable or unwilling to do as he puts forth his own entirely fanciful "solution."
 

I was going to ask the same question as tjchiang . . . But even assuming that you could wave a magic wand and make any structural reform you wanted, what reform would you make and how is it that such reform would facilitate the "grand bargain" that Friedman wants?
 

Q: Why is Friedman, a very smart guy, willing to make a fool of himself by offering such a ludicrously fanciful suggestion?

A: From his wiki entry:

The July 2006 issue of Washingtonian reported that they own "a palatial 11,400-square-foot house, currently valued at $9.3 million, on a 7½-acre parcel ... Friedman is paid $50,000 per speaking engagement.

Surely "a [super] smart guy" like you has noticed that many media (and political) people have discovered the huge (and apparently rapidly expanding) market for ignorant blather. Friedman has a very easy and appealing style which fools people who don't know much about whatever he spouts off about (I can speak authoritatively on that - my wife and I were big fans before we savvied up a bit).

Recall the old joke that ends "we've established that, now we're just negotiating price". There's a reason for the term "media whores".
 

I'm thinking that we should consider a parliamentary system for this Country. Our own has developed into a plutocratic paralysis, which is killing progress because of the current crop of shameless and gleeful rightwing obstructionists
 

Thus he concludes his column with what can only be described as the sheer fantasy of "the presidentn tak[ing] America's labor, business, and Congressional leadership up to Camp David and not com[ing] down until a grand bargain for taxes, trade promotion, energy, stimulus, and budget cutting that offers the market some certainty that we are moving together--not just on a bailout but on an economic rebirth for the 21st century. 'Far chance,' you say [indeed!!]. When then I say get ready for a long phase of stubborn unemployment and anemic growth."

Two false premises here:

1) That the government in general or this grand economic summit in particular has any power to create GDP growth or productive employment. Only businesses create create growth and productive employment.

2) That such a grand economic economic summit represents the will of the people to enter into a "grand compromise." This suggestion is corporatism.

In any case, let us assume for the sake of the subject of this thread that the suggested grand economic economic summit was actually beneficial.

Sandy, how does the constitutional structure of our government in any way prevent establishing a consensus for government action through a summit?

Perhaps you are referring to the structural obstacles to enacting a consensus for government action. However, if there is a genuine majority popular consensus for government action we still do not have a problem. I am unaware of any instance in American History when a specific government policy (not some pie in the sky generality like free medical care for all) supported by a popular majority of the People was ever stopped by constitutional checks and balances from being enacted.
 

Dear Bart makes his usual bold assertions which merit critical examination.

Anyone familiar with the history of post-war France will be aware of the role the successive national economic plans developed by the Commissariat General du Plan played in the development of the economy and infrastructure France enjoys today. French dirigisme provided the impetus for key infrastructure developments such as:-

- the electricity grid and the switch to nuclear – which gives France some of the lowest electricity unit costs in Europe and makes it an electric power exporter;
- one of the best rail networks in Europe (the TGV for example);
- a modern superhighway system;
- the development of world class industrial giants – often in the teeth of US opposition – think of the US efforts to deny nuclear technology to the French or to prevent the rise of Airbus as a European planemaker to rival Boeing (BTW that last particular effort is ongoing).

Something similar happened in the USA with the road network – and ought to happen PDQ with respect to rail.

Then consider the economic spin-offs from defence procurement.

Then consider how government regulation can promote change and the development of new technologies. For example, the setting of emissions and fuel economy standards impact on the automobile industry and can be used to force technological change.

The ability of business to lobby against such regulation can actually lead to the demise of industrial progress and the US automobile industry is a good example.

A cosy cartel selling a “must have” product resisted innovation and nearly went under.

So Bart to assert that government has no wealth creation power is nonsense. Further, as the banker of last resort, government can ensure the provision of needed capital to growth industries and to force innovation in existing industries which need a rescue.
 

Mourad:

At best, infrastructure can facilitate private GDP and employment growth at a rate somewhat more than than the taxes and debt used to finance infrastructure destroys it.

American private industry does not require taxpayer subsidy to build nuclear power plants, just government regulators to get the hell out of the way and allow them to be built cost effectively.

French nuclear power is a great example of where government industrial planning destroys more than it creates. Your gushing over cheap French nuclear power is compared to EU power alternatives made artificially expensive by massive EU tax and carbon cap regimes. The cost of a KWh in Colorado Springs is a little over a nickel. In France, it is around .14 EU or over three times what we pay. http://www.energy.eu/
 

Bart writes:-

American private industry does not require taxpayer subsidy to build nuclear power plants, just government regulators to get the hell out of the way and allow them to be built cost effectively."

Inadequate regulation = Three Misle Island - 'Nuff said.
 

Bart forgets that Colorado gets nearly all its energy from dirty old coal. Around 30m megawatt hours out of 34m. No wonder he does not want to see anything done to prevent global warming.
 

Mourad:

To apply our sidetrack to the subject of Sandy's post, our government's checks and balances were key in blocking our present government's desire to establish an AGW state religion and impose a cap and tax regime against the will of the American people.

Score one for the Constitution.
 

Bart writes:-

"To apply our sidetrack to the subject of Sandy's post, our government's checks and balances were key in blocking our present government's desire to establish an AGW state religion and impose a cap and tax regime against the will of the American people.

Score one for the Constitution."


If by "AGW state religion" dear Bart is referring to "measures to reduce global warming" then I would not say that this is any positive score for either the US Constitution or the American people.

It is on the contrary a victory for the current unholy alliance of various obscurantists who have for the moment captured the GOP and essentially made it a party unfit to participate in government.

The checks and balances built into the US constitution have the result that if one of the parties stops putting forward candidates who are fit to act as enlightened representatives of the people in an enlightened representative democracy the result is paralysis instead of progress.

What with the creationists, the rapture ready, the anti-science, the anti Islam, the closet racists, the not so closet racists, the originalists, the economic netherandals, and above all, the "I'm alright Jack, F**k you" soak the poor advocates, the GOP is not the party it was.

The problem is that as long as the GOP has the backing of the likes of Rupert Murdoch (whom I'm delighted to say has become less of a UK problem since he got his US passport), not to mention other far right sources of finance, it can advertise its way into power.

The Barbarians are truly at the gates - indeed within them!
 

In relation to the mid-term campaigns, an aphorism of Adlai Stevenson springs to mind:-

"If the Republicans will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them."
 

Mourad:

The checks and balances built into the US constitution have the result that if one of the parties stops putting forward candidates who are fit to act as enlightened representatives of the people in an enlightened representative democracy the result is paralysis instead of progress.


Ours is not a parliamentary system where parties put forward slates of candidates. Indeed, with the advent of primary elections, parties have lost a great deal of their power to choose their own candidates.

Our Constitution's checks and balances are to prevent transient electoral majorities from imposing government power on the citizenry. Instead, governments need to create a general consensus among voters to impose government power.
 

Repeal the 17th Amendment and fix districting to the census data only.

There, I fixed it.
 

Don't see how that fixes it. The 17A bit really doesn't do anything too useful.
 

While I think the 17th amendment was, on the whole, a bad idea, repealing it will accomplish nothing. (Besides being a fantasy.) Even before the amendment was ratified, essentially all states were voluntarily implementing direct election of Senators. Think they'd stop? Not likely...

Now, there' IS a movement on the part of some states to deliberately select electors in Presidential elections who run contrary to the votes of their own citizens. (Yes, I know, that's not how it's usually described, but a compact to assign a state's electors to the winner of the popular vote means nothing unless your state's voters had voted for the loser.)

So, maybe you could sell the idea, with the right packaging.
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

I appreciate Brett sees the pointless nature of repeal 17A movements, but still don't understand how the 17A was problematic in the first place, even putting aside that states already were going that route on their own.

Now, there' IS a movement on the part of some states to deliberately select electors in Presidential elections who run contrary to the votes of their own citizens. (Yes, I know, that's not how it's usually described, but a compact to assign a state's electors to the winner of the popular vote means nothing unless your state's voters had voted for the loser.)

The current system "runs contrary to the votes of their own citizens" given that the popular vote is not the determining factor.

NY voted for the popular vote winner in '00, but the electoral system (with help) "ran contrary to the votes" of the citizens there. If the new system results in their votes meaning more, the citizens of the state wins out. Other members of the new coalition might in various cases lose out, but this is true in any system. Defining who the "loser" is depends on how you define the terms. Gore was a "loser" in '00 in only some ways.

And, the "votes of their own citizens" is not being treated "contrary" at any rate. They consent to the new system in which they are part of a larger coalition, just as voters consented to the House of Representatives, which resulted in different consequences than the old system.
 

A structural reform as fundamental as you suggest would be a revolution. But if we are at an historical point where revolution is possible, why would you suppose things to go as you hope, in such a constructive, positive direction, given that much of the revolutionary zeal in the country at present is on the side of blatant racists, fascists, and people who basically think that the South was right in 1860.
 

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