Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Florida Boys Flounder

In the grey morning hours before tonight’s Republican debate, it is becoming more and more apparent that it is an awful time to be an establishment Republican.  The brass ring is right there, complete dominance of Washington just 15 months away, so close it’s like a perfect full moon rising over the Rockies on a crystal clear night—reach out your hand, and you can touch it. 

Back in April, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, one of most respected non-partisan analysts, had, in his First Tier, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio.  Those three stayed there through the summer, even when Trump entered the race (he was the “un-nominateable frontrunner”) until September, when Walker’s candidacy collapsed in a matter of a few weeks. 

And, now, where are we?  Trump, despite every prediction to the contrary, is still there, although he now trails Ben Carson in the most recent national polls. The two are still sucking up half the support.  Both seem to have remarkable Teflon attached to them—they can say nearly anything, and their supporters seem to love them even more passionately.  Walker’s early exit might have been predicted—despite his early wowing conservatives in Iowa, the national stage exposed him as an unprepared, unpleasant empty suit cravenly beholden to his campaign contributors. 

But Jeb and Marco—what is going on there is something very hard to get a grip on.   Jeb might be a few weeks away from dropping out entirely. People have compared him to Mitt Romney, but the similarities are deceiving.  Romney was also rich and connected (and a little disconnected from the issues ordinary people face) but Romney was a high-energy hard worker.  Mitt knew his stuff—he had the same Governor’s experience as Jeb, but was far more of a policy wonk, far more sophisticated in his thinking.  Trump has been particularly harsh in his criticism of Jeb—verging on bullying, but, that, too, seems to hurt Jeb more than it does Trump.  Jeb looks passive, weak, unmotivated, and rusty.  When he’s tried to push back, he seems to be flailing more than landing anything with impact.  His polling numbers have dropped accordingly—he was in the low twenties in the spring, now he’s closer to 7-8%.

Last week, Jeb returned to the greater Bush clan for a group hug with family and long-time associates.  He also announced a major shakeup in his campaign organization, staff cuts, salary reductions, and structural changes.   But the problem isn’t with the deepness of the pockets of his contributors, or the depth of family connections, or even just a bloated campaign.  It is with Jeb himself. He really does seem to be out of his element here. 

Why that is must be a little confounding to his family and supporters. Of the seven present or former Governors who launched—Bush, Walker, Jindal, Christie, Huck, Kasich, and Perry (common decency keeps me from putting Pataki and Gilmore in the “launch” category) Jeb seemed to offer what he claimed to offer—a solid conservative (unlike Christie) popular in his home state (unlike Jindal), not alienating (unlike Walker) with gravitas (unlike Huck and Perry) and not an outsider (unlike Kasich).  And, Bush had something else that was especially appealing to a party desperate to reclaim the White House—he was willing to lose a primary in order to win the general election.   The one thing Reince Priebus, the rational media types like Rupert Murdoch (that’s Murdoch, not necessarily Fox) and the GOP donor base did not want is a lot of angry, divisive, obnoxious, and personally insulting rhetoric.  Jeb was calm, he was solid, he was reliable—he was the physical embodiment of the bank president in a small town.  What a Jeb Administration promised was a return to the Eisenhower Era. 

If we were looking for the head of the local Rotary Club, maybe the GOP race would have winnowed down to what many people thought it would—there would be a process similar to Romney’s in 2012, where, one by one, the early promise of the fringier or single-issue candidates would fade, and the rest would be auditioning for Vice-President and a media gig.  Alas, for Jeb, that was very 2012.  If Obama’s first term made conservatives blood boil, his second one helped create an entirely new and paradoxical reality: Washington was completely dysfunctional, nothing could get done, Congress was worthless, power should be devolved to the states where conservative Governors and State Legislatures could do things the conservative way.  There were two ways to fix this.  Either hire an outsider egg-breaker like Trump, or, more to the Cruz/Freedom Caucus preference, a hard-right President who would simply impose, like Sam Brownback did in Kansas, a top-down, all encompassing conservative agenda.

Jeb is neither.  He is certainly conservative, but he lacks the punch that underlies both preferences, and he can’t credibly run as anti-establishment.  There are plenty of dissections of what Jeb has done wrong so far, and what he must do to redeem himself tonight.  I think they are all accurate, but I just don’t see how Jeb breaks through the noise in Colorado.  He is what he is.  If I were Bush’s handlers, I think I would tell him to go back to first principles, stay within himself, and maintain his position.  There are no knockout punches to be thrown in this field—especially from someone who is basically unsuited to slug it out.  Clinch, live to fight another day and don't do anything stupid. 

Which brings me to Marco Rubio, who may have done one of the most ill advised things since Rick Perry went “oops”.  Marco hasn’t been showing up much for his day job—the “Senate” part of “Senator.”  There is always a fundraiser, a speech, or a corn-dog festival that needs his attention.  His attendance record is abysmal—even on substantive votes, and particularly in committee (he’s missed key briefings on the Foreign Affairs and Select Intelligence Committees).  OK, everyone knows that’s what politicians do when they are running for higher office (many do it even when they aren’t running) so what’s the beef?   We can’t expect a modern politician to be like Bob Dole, who resigned so he could focus on running for President. 

The problem is two-fold.  First, Rubio seems to be setting records for truancy.  Second, Marco’s camp has made it clear he “hates” the Senate—he is unhappy with the process there—all those silly rules, all that delay, all that need for cloture (when legislation he supports is being blocked) and the requirement of 51 votes (and a Presidential signature) when it does get voted on.  Marco is a man of action, and if his record of legislative accomplishments is particularly thin, it’s not his fault.  In short, Marco really gets the unhappiness that people like Trump (and the Freedom Gang) are tapping into, and his response is….to boldly walk away.  

Rubio is an attractive, smart, personable guy with a real gift for speaking.  He’s shown himself as good debater, he has ticked up a bit in the polls recently, and a lot of handicappers think he has a decent chance at taking the nomination.  But tonight, if he doesn’t get asked a question that starts with “in a recent editorial, the Orlando Sun Sentinel called for you to resign if you don’t do your job” I would be absolutely shocked.  Rubio is too intelligent a man not to be prepared for it.  But, if he answers “liberal media trying to take me down, Barack Obama missed votes and plays golf, blah blah” I think he is doomed.  The conservative base may cheer, but the broader electorate won’t.  The rest of us have to work for a living.  

So, what will the Florida Boys do tonight?  I don’t know—but they both know there will always be a home, back home.  I hear the place is filled with retirees. 
October 28th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Harry Frankfurt's Hand Grenade

Harry Frankfurt’s Hand Grenade

I failed my test in Macroeconomics yesterday.  I blame the instructors.

I was sitting with an economist discussing, among other things, Harry Frankfurt’s new monograph, “On Inequality”.  While veering among the hieroglyphics he wrote on a white board, diminishing marginal utility, dollar stores in poor neighborhoods, regulation of banks, values-based investing, and tax simplification while maintaining progressivity, I asked what I thought was a reasonable question “If you were King, what would you do?”  He didn’t like it, and he effectively turned it around on me.  What would I do, if I were in charge?  The answer I gave was logical, in light of my rather sparse understanding of how the economy actually works, but it was dead wrong.  I said I would hire smart people. 

Suffice to say, I will not be called to Stockholm next year.  The reason why that answer is so poor is because it turns its back on something I do know a fair amount about—politics.  In a democracy, voters make the threshold decision—they choose the direction of economic policy by electing the people to enact it.  The “smart people” merely refine and implement it.  By metaphorically throwing my hands up in the air, and essentially telling my friend “you know better than I do, I trust you” I was not just admitting my lack of knowledge, I was abrogating my basic responsibility to gain that knowledge.  That was my failure. 

Like any good student, I feel blame properly rests on the shoulders of those who taught me—in this case, the politicians.  And, if you will excuse the bad analogy, politicians are clearly not economists. 

What ambitious office-seekers (and office-holders) tend to be is tacticians and not theoreticians. Nuance doesn’t sell, nor does a carefully crafted, specific set of policy suggestions.  So they grasp a handful of certitudes, push them out there, mix in some hormones, and the battle is half won.

On the angry social issues—things like immigration, guns, privacy, gays, reproductive rights, race and religion—this works brilliantly.  It is altogether possible to get a voter who has an emotional attachment to a particular topic to completely ignore his own self-interest on other things.  When the gut kicks in, the brain detaches itself. 

You cannot apply that approach to the economic challenges we face.  Right now, we have multi-decade arc of a stalled middle and working class, just at the very time the full weight of the Baby Boomer Generation lands on our two most important entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare.   And we have two political parties who are still locked into mid-20th Century binary thinking.

Look at the debates.  Watching Bernie Sanders gave me flashbacks to my childhood.  He was like a favorite family member who was a “hi-fi” enthusiast.  He’d wave his arms around, say, “listen to this Grundig—from my bedroom I can hear the entire world—clear as a bell—who needs those tinny transistors?”

But, what’s the difference between Sanders and, say Jeb Bush or any of the other Republican candidates?  Different pitch, of course, but substantively, Jeb is selling the same Grundig—just with different music coming out. Dress them in period clothes (I don't think Bernie would need a new wardrobe) and film in black and white and, without a scorecard, you would think you were back in the Eisenhower Era.  Both sides take the same basic approach--stale ideas without innovation, wrapped in a proto-morality to give it heft.  It’s either greedy plutocrats getting ever wealthier through favoritism, exploitation, and extraction, or “takers” who are wooed with “free stuff.”  That is the limit of their vocabularies.

That is why Frankfurt’s little book, and his work, is so important.  He is not an economist, and his grasp of economic concepts can be tenuous. He doesn’t offer specific solutions, which can be maddening. What he does is some ways far more useful.  By blasting away (that’s the correct phrase) at some comfortable, reflexive frameworks, he provides us with a workable vocabulary for discussion.  

Frankfurt does not believe in equality for equality’s sake.  He rejects, rather ruthlessly, any claim to moral superiority that a comfortable liberal might have in talking about universal brotherhood, egalitarianism, etc.  Economic equality is not, in its own right, a morally compelling social value—in fact, to the extent that the focus is on righting the perceived wrong of inequity it may draw away attention from more fundamentally important questions.  Even other types of “equalities” such as opportunity, respect, rights, consideration, concern, are dismissed by him, “My view is that none of these modes of equality is intrinsically valuable…none has any underived moral wealth.”  

It’s a scalding evaluation, so harsh that George Will happily quotes him.  But, you have to be careful here not to overreact to what, at first blush, seems to be an apologia for not merely the pursuit of unbridled wealth, but unbridled wealth that buys unequal treatment.  Because the other side of the equation is equally unsparing.  Frankfurt, while rejecting egalitarianism, also says, “To focus on inequality, which is not in itself morally objectionable, is to misconstrue the challenge we actually face.  Our basic focus should be on reducing both poverty and excessive affluence.”  What Frankfurt wants is what he calls the “doctrine of sufficiency”—that is, that everyone should have enough. As long as that is true, it is irrelevant that others have more.

And with those few words, Frankfurt demolishes the thinking of every conventional politician out there.  Massive income redistribution as a way of promoting economic equality has no moral basis. Economic equality, on its own, is not virtuous unless it arises through an impossible combination of equal talent, effort, and opportunity.  But “insufficiency” when we have the means to do better, is a moral problem.  Solving that problem is the task.  Not to make every person rich, but that as many as possible can have enough as “needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself”.

Which brings back to point I started at—how I failed my economics exam.  I failed it because I was unwilling to choose either the Democratic or Republican approach.  Both seem to me demonstrably wrong.  80 years of social programs and 50 years of the Great Society have helped ameliorate the hardest edge of poverty, but they have not produced a sufficiently vibrant economy so that we could do without them. And 35 years of trickle-down, coupled with globalization, have wildly enriched a comparative few, while leaving the rest to muddle along as best they can.

In short, neither approach has fostered what the Nobelist Edmund Phelps called the “Good Economy”—one that has dynamism, a free flow of capital for those willing to take productive risk, rewards for innovation, ease of entry to participate at a level befitting your energy and talents, and as its bedrock, the opportunity for meaningful, satisfying work. 

Isn’t that what we all want?  A society that is more just because it strives not to make us equal, but rather to provide  the opportunity for sufficiency for as many as possible, and a fair chance to choose our own path, and make our own priorities?

We don't need our politicians picking winners and losers.  What we need are policy choices that make the goal of sufficiency more attainable.  

In the meantime, I have to call my economist friend and see if he gives make-up exams.  Next time I will bring Harry Frankfurt's Hand Grenade.

October 20th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Freedom Forty Ride!

Tonight, we turn our lonely eyes to the first Democratic debate.  But before that, there is a brief opportunity to consider just what will occur when Congress returns from a break, and John Boehner leads his fractious army back to Washington. 

First order of business, we need a new Speaker.  We don’t have one because a) Boehner was sick and tired of being sick and tired, and b) his first choice, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, has withdrawn because of an acute case of foot in mouth disease, a hint of personal scandal, and c) a new skunk at the party—the House Freedom Caucus, a determined band of roughly 40 Members who expect to be the new Politburo come this November.

Who and what is the House Freedom Caucus?  Why haven’t we heard more about them? They are newly formed (January) and they are committed to a mission: “The House Freedom Caucus gives a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety, and prosperity of all Americans.”

Rather noble sounding—so noble that not everyone will admit to being a member, and two have just resigned, so when I say “roughly forty” I mean, “roughly.”  But these are, after all is said and done, the conservative conservatives—so conservative that they had to split off from the House Republican Study Group, which is the more conservative group of Republicans in the House. 

What do they want? The short answer is the power to pick the next Speaker, and set the nation’s agenda.  These are not people with modest ambitions—they truly believe their mission statement about the countless unrepresented they speak for. 

They think they have the numbers to do it.  Forty is not only more than 12, which is the number of Republicans who refused to vote for John Boehner in early 2013 (don’t faint, they didn’t choose Nancy Pelosi).  But more importantly, it leaves the GOP, currently with 247 Members, 12 votes short of the 218 needed to have a majority vote for Speaker.

In fairness to the Freedom Caucus, they are frustrated to distraction.  It’s been ten months since they were sworn in, and the GOP hasn’t accomplished all that much in turning back Obama’s agenda.  They have run into a surprisingly resilient wall—one created largely by the Founders, and reinforced with decades of procedure. 

You start with the peculiar dynamics of the Senate and its fundamental differences from the House.  The Senate is supposed to act with careful deliberation—in James Madison’s words “to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." Firebrands elected every two years might be radical, but George Washington told Jefferson “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it." 

Senate rules include unlimited debate (which can technically be limited by a cloture motion) unlimited amendments, and the Senatorial “hold” which allows even a single Senator to object to an appointment or piece of legislation. 

The structure is designed to force compromise, if people use it in good faith.  Ideology counts, but relationships matter.  One of the most unusual long-term friendships was between Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, and showed you how the Senate could work—rather than seeing each other as the enemy for all things, they cooperated on legislation they had common interests in and took opposite sides when they didn’t. 

There are other factors in the Senate that have a tendency to moderate legislation.  Roughly half the states have at least one Senatorial seat that could flip over a few election cycles.  Wrong year, wrong candidate, and even a safe seat (like Kennedy’s seat lost to Scott Brown or Indiana’s Richard Lugar’s seat lost to Joe Donnelly) can be at risk.  Lose a seat, and it’s gone for six years.  Just as in the House, where a successful politician is an acute counter of noses, in the Senate, you also have to know, and play to, your audience—and you can’t gerrymander a state.  This creates two opposing forces within the Senate.  In the hardline states (Utah, or Oklahoma) the same primary forces that seek purity send the Ted Cruz types into battle.  But elsewhere, Senators have to watch their backs, which is why you see Lisa Murkowski of Alaska occasionally voting with Democrats and Joe Manchin of West Virginia siding with Republicans.  And you see Senate leadership in both parties not asking them to take one for the team—the seats are far more important than any particular piece of legislation.

But the House is a different animal altogether.  The individual Member has essentially no power under the House rules to start or stop anything.  Procedurally, the authority is at the Committee and leadership level.   So, the Freedom Caucus wants a commitment from the incoming Speaker for “regular order” which, to their way of thinking, is a closer adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order—and which would allow any Member to able to introduce a Bill or Amendment, and get it called up rather than buried by leadership.  For Democratic-sponsored legislation, they expect the Hastert Rule to be applied.  And, they want far greater access to the Republican Steering Committee, which hands out committee assignments and chairmanships. 

The hard-liners in the House also see a different reality when it comes to actual voting on legislation. To their way of thinking, the respective size of the delegations is almost the only determiner, and discipline should be applied to achieve the maximum result.  In this, they are probably on the cutting edge.  The number of swing voting Members is declining as more sophisticated gerrymandering and the disproportionate impact of large private donations draw more Districts into ideological silos.  Get a solidly Republican District, and the greatest danger is losing the nomination, not losing the general election after you have the nomination.

That is the reality they see, not beyond it.  They don’t understand the practical—that there are two chambers in Congress and three branches of government.  Unlimited numbers of amendments in the House can kill bills that are already big wins for conservatives, by including additional provisions that make them anathema to anyone not hard right.  And forcing votes can be even worse, by putting everyone on record.  And, to what end, if you don’t have a President willing to go along or a veto-proof majority?

They scoff at this.  This logic is old man’s logic, the logic of the Establishment.  It doesn’t comport with the reality they think they see at home, doesn’t match up with the calls they are getting from their constituents and their contributors.  They see it all as possible, so long as there is the will to do it.  Why not be ultra-conservative, when you have the votes?  Why shouldn’t McConnell use his majority to deliver the votes on anything that passes out of the House, without Amendment or even discussion?  Finally, if Republicans just stick together, and refuse Mr. Obama everything, why shouldn’t he bow to the will of the people?  

Of course, this all starts with the Speaker.  Paul Ryan is demurring (for now, while I expect he quietly negotiates terms) and other eager conservatives have had their hands up, all ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of the country.  Newt said he had a “moral obligation” if asked. 

But, I find myself intrigued by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s suggestion—Dick Cheney.

Dick Cheney?  Ultra-conservative?  Check.  Ruthless?  Check? Experienced in being in line for the Presidency? Double-check.

Dick Cheney and the Freedom Forty.  Let it linger on the tongue like a fine vintage of castor oil. 

October 13th, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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