Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Conflicted, I guess

As many of my college friends could tell you, I had a bit of a creative infatuation with the work of Aaron Sorkin -- particularly Sports Night.  I was at my most prolific as a writer then and at the time, it and the West Wing seemed like the epitome of pop writing and I never thought I had the talent to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I at least thought I could be an Engineer by day and a reasonably  pop writer of some sort by night.  I did that for a while with a weekly in the last place I lived, and sometimes I think I'd like to do it again.

I am watching the season finale of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin's latest project on HBO, and the technique is similar, but the tone is decidedly less pop.  The Newsroom features a main character, Will McAvoy, who is a disappointed Republican in the state of American politics.  Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, is not a Republican of any sort, so writing a disillusioned one requires a sort of confidence I just don't understand.

I also don't understand how all of the positions are couched in such a way that the disillusioned Republican only targets the Tea Party and the failings of his own party, rather a more holistic criticism of the situation -- including failings of the administration.

Don't get me wrong, I suppose I am somewhat of a disillusioned Republican myself and there are certainly things about the conduct of the party I dislike, although I don't really feel much loyalty to the "team.".  (I consider myself more of a classical liberal, where I feel that the role of national government is to do the things that the private sector cannot profitably, and not much more than that.)  I don't like the win at all costs attitude of either party, I don't like how much of a dependence there is on the false moral equivalence (both sides have this problem -- and that I said "both" is tragic, because this should not be a binary problem) and I don't like the cowardice to go after lazy arguments rather than attacking the heart of the failings of American liberalism and progressivism.

I think that the current administration is a critically flawed one.  I think that, like 2004, there is a tremendous opportunity that is likely to be squandered by lining up behind the wrong guy because it is really hard to unseat an incumbent president.  I want to describe what I think the biggest flaws are how I wish the Republican Party -- or anybody, really, -- were challenging them.

  1. Distaste for the law when it restricts executive power -- The two biggest examples are the GM and Chrysler bailouts and the intervention in Libya.  Without regard to policy (which I strenuously disagree with), the bailouts was of questionably legality, if not outright illegal.  In a guided bankruptcy, pensioners were given priority over bondholders, which is contrary to the way that bankruptcy proceedings go, because they were political allies.  (Links are here and here discussing this.)  During the NATO led intervention in Libya, which went from April 23 to October 31 (192 days) President Obama asserted that his administration was not in violation of the War Powers Act, which requires Congressional approval for military action exceeding 90 days, because the Libyan intervention wasn't actually a military conflict, since the bad guys weren't able to return fire against our superior forces.  That is, to put it nicely, an absurd explanation.  Libya was an illegal war.  There are other potential examples -- Fast and Furious, the way that the Bank of America president was treated -- but I don't have enough detail to document and defend it.
  2. Lack of accountability for economic assertions -- During the preparations and sale of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to the American people, the Administration sold it as necessary to pass in order to keep the unemployment rate below 8%.  That was a mistake, both factually and politically. The explanation from the Vice President was that "everybody guessed wrong."  That is tantamount to admitting incompetence and not an endearing answer. The current unemployment rate is 8.3%, which is the lowest it's been in three years, and higher than promised by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.  The ARRA was passed in early 2009, so the net increase is about 900,000 jobs for a $787 billion package amounts to about  $874,000 per job.  Not exactly a measure of efficiency.  (To be fair, that's an empirical rather than theoretical measure of efficiency -- let's say it saved 2 million jobs, as President Obama says, that's still $393,500 per job, which is not exactly a bargain either.)  Now, I do concede that Keynesian style stimulus can raise the GDP (since it's in the definition), I just don't think that there is sufficient discipline in the government to repay the debt when times are good, so I don't think it's effective policy.  Another of questionable value is "we ask everyone to pay their fair share."  What does that mean?  How much is enough?  Who decides what is fair?  The president is also quoted in that interview with saying, "we can't cut our way out of this hole."  Why not?  And how do we know when we're out of the hole?  Nobody has really said what victory looks like.  (To be fair, this isn't strictly a criticism of the president.)
  3. Insistence on government solutions over individual ones -- We've all heard "You didn't build that" by now (the whole transcript can be read here).  The defense is that the president was not referring to business with "that" but rather the infrastructure he described prior -- but on full reading, I don't think it matters.  The tone of the speech is definitely one that you shouldn't take credit for your work, because there were a lot more hands in it than you appreciate.  The issue, though, is that every American has access to that same infrastructure and we're not all Michael Dell or Steve Jobs or Barack Obama.  Individual effort is a pretty big deal, and "you didn't build that" isn't the way the president should be talking about it.  Compare the tone of that speech to this one and see if you can tell the difference.  The heavy-handed paternalism celebrated in The Life of Julia is rather troubling.  It implies that people in general and women in particular can't manage themselves without a government caretaker.  My wife will make more than I do over the course of her career and it won't even close, regardless of who is president.
Like Will McAvoy, I wish the Republican candidate was stronger.  I think the principles of liberty and economic responsibility and government closest to the people are all messages that can win.  I don't think that the current Republican campaign is communicating that message, and they are playing to the bases elements of politics (both sides are, really, which makes the false equivalence rear its head).  The welfare ad is only of questionable veracity, if that.  Paul Ryan's weird marathon fib doesn't help, and this ad was deplorable.  At the end of the day, there are enough flaws with this president that opponents shouldn't need to resort to dishonest tactics to score points.  I hope they go after the heart of the man and make this really about choices and not about trivia, but I won't hold my breath.