Free Markets, Free People

Daily Archives: March 11, 2009

Easy come, easy go

Today, Rep. Mike Pence and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Chair and Vice Chair of the House Republican Conference, led a blogger conference call. The representatives stayed on point throughout the call:

  • On the economy generally and on the Democrats’ budget proposal specifically, they repeatedly said the Democrats are spending, borrowing and taxing too much.
  • They hammered on the Democrats’ proposal as bad for families and small businesses, including family farms.  They emphasized the role of small businesses in job creation.
  • They said they believed in free markets, fiscal restraint and tax relief as the keys to growth.
  • To that effect, they said Senate and House Republicans would be cooperating closely to promote those messages over the next several weeks and then unveil an alternative budget proposal of their own, which they promise will be a bold, clear contrast with that of the Democrats.

I expected something along these lines, and I don’t object to the sentiment or disagree with their diagnosis of the Democrats’ budget. They’ve identified what’s wrong with the Democrats’ plan, they’ve developed a strategy for responding with their own alternative, and they want to get everyone on record as either supporting the Democrats’ messy bill or the ideal Republican vision.

The first question went to Quin Hillyer over at AmSpec, who asked how unified we can expect the GOP response to be if a Republican leader like Lamar Alexander broke to vote for the omnibus spending bill. Pence acknowledged that he and Sen. Alexander had a difference of opinion on that one, but hastened to add that Sen. Alexander had voted for all the limiting amendments and had voted against the stimulus, etc.

For my part, I asked the representatives why, in light of Republicans’ so-far unsuccessful attempts to bring “clean” Republican versions of bills to the floor for debate, their alternative budget would be different.

Rep. Pence answered that Republicans would be given the opportunity on this one. The Republican House leadership is working closely with the budget committee, and specifically with Rep. Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on that committee. There are some limitations on how quickly they can move their alternative and get a CBO estimate done on it, but they’re going to use the interim to expose problems with the Democrats’ budget before unveiling their alternative.

Rep. Morris Rodgers said that it was important that it goes to the House floor for debate, and that they wanted the difference in approach to be clear to the American people, too.

As I said earlier, this is about what I expected – when your party is some 70 seats down in the House and retains only the most meager leverage in the Senate, having lost all credibility, you need to remind people that you at least remember what a conservative is supposed to want.

I just hope that’s not all they have in their playbook. It’s much easier to present a principled image when you’re out of power and have no sway over whether a given bill will pass.

Assurances that the GOP will remain so principled when they regain a measure of power won’t carry a lot of weight without some kind of binding commitments – changing the structure and practices of the party rather than the short-term tactics. After all, misbehavior that receded smoothly when the majority last changed hands can come back just as readily. Easy come, easy go.

* Cross-posted from The Next Right

Hayek, Greenspan And The Designs Of Men

Alan Greenspan has a piece in the Wall Street Journal today which essentially casts him as the Pontius Pilate of the financial crisis.  Or, to sum it up rather sucinctly, “it wasn’t my fault”.  You’re welcome to read through it and agree or disagree.  However, the imporant point I think that should be taken from the Greenspan piece are the last two paragraphs:

Any new regulations should improve the ability of financial institutions to effectively direct a nation’s savings into the most productive capital investments. Much regulation fails that test, and is often costly and counterproductive. Adequate capital and collateral requirements can address the weaknesses that the crisis has unearthed. Such requirements will not be overly intrusive, and thus will not interfere unduly in private-sector business decisions. 

If we are to retain a dynamic world economy capable of producing prosperity and future sustainable growth, we cannot rely on governments to intermediate saving and investment flows. Our challenge in the months ahead will be to install a regulatory regime that will ensure responsible risk management on the part of financial institutions, while encouraging them to continue taking the risks necessary and inherent in any successful market economy.

Those words reminded me of the quote I saw in business columnist Tom Oliver’s piece today in the Atlanta Journal Constitution: 

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” — F.A. Hayek

Any columnist who starts with a Hayek quote is guaranteed to get my attention. And I’ve come to enjoy Oliver’s columns. However, reviewing Greenspan’s advice and admonitions in those two paragraphs, juxtaposed against the simple and elegant truth of Hayek’s statement you find yourself back in the outback watching that big red kangaroo headed for a collision with the car. It is inevitable, there’s nothing you can do about it, they can’t or won’t hear your warnings and all you can do is watch – and cringe.

Frankly, as we watch the machinations of government and listen to their declarations, we have begun to understand that for the most part, those in charge of all of this haven’t a clue. As Oliver states:

Far from demonstrating the demise of free enterprise, this long-running, deepening recession is revealing the limitations of government.

Government, in its various yet powerful incarnations, has been offering one fix after another since August 2007.

The more the Fed and Treasury have tried, the less sure they seem and the more nervous the money makers have become.

It’s understandable that folks would look to the new administration for new ideas. So it’s harder than usual to acknowledge that the ideas are in fact pretty old and, having been tried, found wanting.

Whatever one may think about the so-called stimulus, it’s too easily deconstructed as pork and policy initiatives.

And if it’s still debatable whether to nationalize the financial industry, the move to nationalize health care, education and energy can hardly be disguised as economic recovery programs.

It is understandable that those who derive their power from government would use this recession as an excuse to further government’s reach. But they act as if government has been absent — as if they’ve been absent — from the role of regulator and legislator.

He’s precisely right – it wasn’t a problem with lack of regulation or lack of legislation. It was a lack of proper regulatory oversight and a willful decision by legislators to ignore the building crisis coupled with government distorting the market and actually incentivizing risk taking far beyond that which is prudent that led us here. And now that they have us in this position, all of them, Greenspan included, are engaged in a flurry of finger-pointing and name calling at every one but the right ones. This wasn’t a crisis which happened in just the last 6 months or 8 years. This one has been building for a while.

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” — F.A. Hayek

We had Democrats in charge and then we had Republicans. Again and again.

Both endorsed and encouraged the subprime sleight-of-hand. Both appointed heads of the regulatory agencies that could’ve stopped the poison seeping through our banks’ balance sheets. Both allowed gamblers to hedge and swap derivatives on top of derivatives that no one can explain and that are proving far more debilitating than the debacle they were insuring against.

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae became toxic assets of the government while doing the bidding of congressmen who now act like the piano players in a brothel.

The Federal Reserve proved to be anything but reserved, instead stoking a fire that burned us all.

These were not the result of idle hands of government, but rather deliberate deeds that created false markets with inflated credit while turning a blind eye to those who finance election results.

Oliver’s characterizations are dead on – and he’s nailed both the fed and the Congress. The most irritating thing to me about this whole mess, other than the obvious huge loss of wealth, is the success those who were responsible for writing the rules, laying out the playing field and calling the game are escaping both blame and punishment for what they’ve brought about. That toad Barney Frank having the chutzpa to talk about prosecuting those who were guilty of getting us in this mess still astounds me. If anyone should be undergoing such prosecution right now, it is he and numerous other congressmen and women, both past and present.

Oliver concludes as follows and I can’t help but say a hearty “amen” to what he has to say:

We periodically recoil in horror at government’s failure to protect foster children or care for veterans or the mentally ill. But then we turn around and assume government will perform better in areas more complicated.

Why does the failure of government so often lead so many to believe we need more government?

Like the hair of the dog for the alcoholic, it may calm the trembling hands for a moment but it inevitably leads to another spree and another hangover.

Or worse.

We’re headed into a “or worse” moment. No one in government is going to listen to Alan Greenspan’s admonitions or believe Tom Oliver’s brief accounting of the history of this crisis. Instead we’re going to see precisely the opposite happen – more regulation, more strings, more intrusion, more control. And, as Hayek said, we’ll again see “how little [men] really know about what they imagine they can design.”

~McQ

How Do You Spell “Chutzpa” in Korean?

Because the Secretary General has it – and demonstrates again why we ought to let the Third World Debating Club on the Hudson find a new home:

A day after his White House meeting with President Barack Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the United States a “deadbeat” donor to the world body while making the made the rounds on Capitol Hill.

[...]

“He used the word ‘deadbeat’ when it came to characterizing the United States. I take great umbrage (over) that,” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the panel’s senior Republican, said after an hour-long, closed-door meeting. “We certainly contribute a whole lot of U.S. taxpayer dollars to that organization. We do not deserve such a phrase.

Interviewed after the session, Ban said he had wanted to draw attention to the fact that the U.S. agrees to pay 22 percent of the U.N.’s $4.86 billion operating budget, but is perennially late with its dues — and now is about $1 billion behind on its payments.
That figure is “soon to be $1.6 billion,” Ban emphasized. Asked if he’d used the word ‘deadbeat’ during the meeting, he replied, “Yes, I did — I did,” then laughed mischievously.

The ultimate deadbeat institution which can, unsurprisingly, find more ways to waste money than the US government, calls the country that pays 22% of its cost and host to the parasites that represent their backwater potentates the “deadbeat” ?

Ban certainly demonstrates a lot of respect for the country and the new administration doesn’t he?  So far this new relationship with the world is going swimmingly, as the UK can attest.

But there’s a glimmer of hope apparently. Ban has given Obama some budget advice:

Obama seeks a 9.5 percent increase in international affairs spending, which Yeo said would be enough to cover not only next year’s U.S. dues to the U.N., but also $1 billion in arrears.

Amazing. And we’ll end up handing it all over, just watch.

~McQ

Looking At The First 50 Days – A Lack Of Leadership (UPDATE)

Both Camille Paglia and Howard Fineman give an assessement (although not presented as a 50 day assessment).

Paglia says, “free Obama from his advisors“:

Yes, free the president from his flacks, fixers and goons — his posse of smirky smart alecks and provincial rubes, who were shrewd enough to beat the slow, pompous Clintons in the mano-a-mano primaries but who seem like dazed lost lambs in the brave new world of federal legislation and global statesmanship.

Heads should be rolling at the White House for the embarrassing series of flubs that have overshadowed President Obama’s first seven weeks in office and given the scattered, demoralized Republicans a huge boost toward regrouping and resurrection.

The advice he has received certainly hasn’t been the best, and Paglia makes the point eloquently. She primarily goes off on two things that have hurt the administration’s reputation – the “stimulus” bill and the mishandling of the Gordon Brown visit. Both poorly done. And she’s not at all impressed with, nor does she think anyone else has confidence in what she calls “a shrill duo of slick geeks (Timothy Geithner and Peter Orszag) as the administration’s weirdly adolescent spokesmen on economics” .

President Obama — in whom I still have great hope and confidence — has been ill-served by his advisors and staff. Yes, they have all been blindsided and overwhelmed by the crushing demands of the presidency. But I continue to believe in citizen presidents, who must learn by doing, even in a perilous age of terrorism. Though every novice administration makes blunders and bloopers, its modus operandi should not be a conspiratorial reflex cynicism.

Notice another assessment that uses “overwhelmed”. Paglia charitably tries to write it off as something “every novice administrations” goes though. But is it really?

Paglia interestingly uses the Limbaugh kerfuffle as the ultimate case in point of how his staff has let him down. But she notes he wasn’t particularly smart about it either:

This entire fracas was set off by the president himself, who lowered his office by targeting a private citizen by name. Limbaugh had every right to counterattack, which he did with gusto. Why have so many Democrats abandoned the hallowed principle of free speech? Limbaugh, like our own liberal culture hero Lenny Bruce, is a professional commentator who can be as rude and crude as he wants.

Another bit of grumbling is being heard from Howard Fineman.  In an article entitled “The Turning Tide“, Fineman notes “Obama still has the approval of the people, but the establishment is beginning to mumble that the president may not have what it takes.”

Not just the establishment -many in the big mushy middle who became enthralled with the cult of Obama without understanding the Obama agenda are now displaying a little buyer’s remorse.

But Fineman’s critique has to do with how the “establishment”, which he contends still holds enormous power, views the Obama presidency to this point. As with most of the elite media, he waves off the popular sentiment which is, for the most part favorable, and essentially claims it is the “establishment” which will make or break this president. By that, of course, he means the elite media, the money men and politicos. However, that said, his assessment is interesting:

They have some reasons to be concerned. I trace them to a central trait of the president’s character: he’s not really an in-your-face guy. By recent standards—and that includes Bill Clinton as well as George Bush—Obama for the most part is seeking to govern from the left, looking to solidify and rely on his own party more than woo Republicans. And yet he is by temperament judicious, even judicial. He’d have made a fine judge. But we don’t need a judge. We need a blunt-spoken coach.

For all his rhetorical skill, that’s something Obama can’t pull off. He comes off as preachy, and with his lack of experience, no one with any sense would accept him as a coach who’s been there, done that and is now helping the rest of us achieve certain results. He just doesn’t have the authority of experience to sell that. And what is going on around him, such as the poorly handled nomination process, makes any attempt by him to assume that role even less authoritative. Even those he does have on board, such as the “shrill duo of slick geeks” as Paglia calls them, do more to hurt his image than help it.

Fineman goes on implicitly giving credibility to the belief that Obama may not be up to the job:

Obama may be mistaking motion for progress, calling signals for a game plan. A busy, industrious overachiever, he likes to check off boxes on a long to-do list. A genial, amenable guy, he likes to appeal to every constituency, or at least not write off any. A beau ideal of Harvard Law, he can’t wait to tackle extra-credit answers on the exam.

In the meantime events pop up and multiply, issues expand and reality barrels on. And the “establishment” is getting antsy. Because what the establishment isn’t seeing from their chosen son is something he’s never had reason or cause to display – leadership. What Fineman dances around with this “beau ideal of Harvard Law” and “blunt coach” characterizations is Obama doesn’t seem to understand the basic tenets of leadership. It has nothing to do with jetting around the country on the perpetual campaign, or excellent but basically empty speeches. It means taking charge of the process and spending less time in Columbus, OH and more time leading Congress and his cabinet heads in the direction he wants to see things go.

Instead he’s essentially turned foreign policy over to Hillary Clinton and his domestic agenda over to a Congress which simply cannot control itself while he and his staff pick rhetorical fights with talk-show hosts.

Fineman lays out a list of things to this point which aren’t playing particularly well among the “establishment”. Again, these are Fineman’s list:

-The $787 billion stimulus, gargantuan as it was, was in fact too small and not aimed clearly enough at only immediate job-creation.
-The $275 billion home-mortgage-refinancing plan, assembled by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, is too complex and indirect.
-The president gave up the moral high ground on spending not so much with the “stim” but with the $400 billion supplemental spending bill, larded as it was with 9,000 earmarks.
-The administration is throwing good money after bad in at least two cases—the sinkhole that is Citigroup (there are many healthy banks) and General Motors (they deserve what they get).
-The failure to call for genuine sacrifice on the part of all Americans, despite the rhetorical claim that everyone would have to “give up” something.
-A willingness to give too much leeway to Congress to handle crucial details, from the stim to the vague promise to “reform” medical care without stating what costs could be cut.
-A 2010 budget that tries to do far too much, with way too rosy predictions on future revenues and growth of the economy. This led those who fear we are about to go over Niagara Falls to deride Obama as a paddler who’d rather redesign the canoe.
-A treasury secretary who has been ridiculed on “Saturday Night Live” and compared to Doogie Howser, Barney Fife and Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone”—and those are the nice ones.
-A seeming paralysis in the face of the banking crisis: unwilling to nationalize banks, yet unable to figure out how to handle toxic assets in another way—by, say, setting up a “bad bank” catch basin.
-A seeming reluctance to seek punishing prosecutions of the malefactors of the last 15 years—and even considering a plea bargain for Bernie Madoff, the poster thief who stole from charities and Nobel laureates and all the grandparents of Boca. Yes, prosecutors are in charge, but the president is entitled—some would say required—to demand harsh justice.
-The president, known for his eloquence and attention to detail, seemingly unwilling or unable to patiently, carefully explain how the world works—or more important, how it failed. Using FDR’s fireside chats as a model, Obama needs to explain the banking system in laymen’s terms. An ongoing seminar would be great.
-Obama is no socialist, but critics argue that now is not the time for costly, upfront spending on social engineering in health care, energy or education.

Of course on the other side of these points are those that argue that the stimulus bill was poorly designed and will do nothing to stimulate the economy while ballooning the debt and inviting hyper-inflation as a result. They’d also argue that $275 home-mortgage-bailout rewards bad behavior and that when Obama claimed the pork laden, 9,000 earmark omnibus spending bill was the “last administration’s business” he gave up any hope of being in the same county as the “moral high ground”. Etc., etc.

In essence, the first fifty days can be summed up fairly easily in three words: lack of leadership. And leadership ability isn’t something the tooth fairy delivers one night along with the quarter for your tooth. That is what has the “establishment” mumbling in their martinis.

I had to laugh, however, at how Fineman ended his piece:

Other than all that, in the eyes of the big shots, he is doing fine. The American people remain on his side, but he has to be careful that the gathering judgment of the Bigs doesn’t trickle down to the rest of us.

Talk about “side-steppin’” and damning with faint praise.

But I have to wonder if Fineman’s title, “The Turning Tide” isn’t somewhat of a threat to the Obama administration if it doesn’t get its act together and do so quickly. As in-the-tank as the media was for Obama, they’re now realizing that it was their credibility they sold short if he isn’t successful. But there is only so much, in this era of the new media, they can do to spin what is happening positively. Fineman is issuing a warning of sorts – we can do this for a little while longer, but at some point it is going to turn, and it won’t be pretty.

The narrative that is now building is one of an administration overwhelmed, still in a campaign mode and rudderless. It began with the UK’s Telegraph last week and it seems to be gaining momentum.  Unless Obama and the administration can do some pretty fancy work over the next 50 days, he may emerge from his first 100 days with that being the conventional wisdom.  If so, he’s going to have a long 4 years ahead of him.

UPDATE: Interesting Gallup Poll – totally average:

securedownload

 

~McQ