Saturday, July 23, 2011

Obama's Debt Ceiling Presser Cont.

President Obama pleads:
So when Norah asked or somebody else asked why was I willing to go along with a deal that wasn’t optimal from my perspective, it was because even if I didn’t think the deal was perfect, at least it would show that this place is serious, that we’re willing to take on our responsibilities even when it’s tough, that we’re willing to step up even when the folks who helped get us elected may disagree. And at some point, I think if you want to be a leader, then you got to lead. (bold mine - JMG)

Quite right, if you ask me.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Constitutional Weakness of the Presidency

Responses from a prior post:

A reader writes:

"constitutionally structured weakness of the presidency". Eh, Johnson and Nixon were no stronger constitutionally.

and another:

"constitutionally structured weakness of the presidency" and Obama's relative unwillingness to abuse his power? I don't actually know details here, I'm just speculating... or maybe congress was just more compliant with earlier presidents.

First, I'd like to qualify my comment a little bit. The presidency is constitutionally weak in the legislative context because the President has no formal influence on the legislative process. Article II of the Constitution is tellingly short, spending more time outlining qualifications and the process of selection than it does on the actual duties of the chief executive. Under the original conception of the Constitution, the Presidency was designed to execute the laws passed by Congress (hence, Executive Branch). As to what those laws should be or how the President could influence their creation, the document is silent.

So, the President cannot force legislative outcomes but he can influence them, through techniques like presidential persuasion and agenda setting. (The question of “what constitutes as part of the Presidents informal legislative influence” is a serious one, which many talented political scientists have spent years of research trying to answer.) There are numerous factors that have made the Oval Office more and more influential on how Congress acts. Examples off the top of my head include the President's foreign policy control leeching over to domestic policy, Congresses' increasing willingness to cede policy responsibility, and the advent of television. Now, all of these examples illustrate ways that the Presidency has changed since the Constitution, yet the formal powers themselves have changed very little.

So I'll repeat, while the President does posses numerous unofficial tools to influence the legislature, and numerous executives have taken advantage of them to help produce specific legislative outcomes. But, our Chief Executive does not posses a Green Lantern Ring to create policy by fiat. The structure of our government's institutions creates real and binding constraints about what individuals within government can and cannot do. Any analysis of President Obama's action, or inaction on preferred policies needs to understand that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Supply, meet Demand.

Ventura County authorities recently "eradicated the largest plantation of marijuana in the history of the county, pulling up more than 68,000 plants in Los Padres National Forest, north of the city of Ojai," according to an LA Times report. This is being touted as a major victory in the War on Drugs.

Conor Friedsodorf seems to understand supply and demand basics, where our the California law enforcement does not.
But let's imagine that it has the intended effect: that after this raid, it is harder to grow marijuana in the United States, that the overall supply of domestically grown pot is smaller, and that the price of the drug is higher.

If that is the best case scenario, is it really a victory?
Theoretically, if we raided every single marijuana plant, there would be no supply left to sell. But raiding every single plant strikes me as an unlikely proposition, as it would require near constant surveillance of every private backyard, closet and windowsill. Now the adjective can get particularly hyperbolic, but such a monitoring program strikes me as textbook Orwellian.

So, as long as there is a demand for marijuana, there's going to be a supply. That's how the free market works. This is something War on Drugs advocates either don't seem to understand, or simply choose to ignore.

Monday, July 18, 2011

From the Dept of Terrible Excuses: Liberal Malaise Edition

Dave Weigel reports from MoveOn's progressive grassroots reboot:
Diaz has asked the question plaguing liberals since February 2009, when the first impromptu, blog-organized protests against the stimulus plan broke out in Seattle and Tampa. What the hell happened to liberal protests? How could the same mall that filled front to back for Barack Obama's inauguration be conquered nine months later by Tea Party activists? Why were members of Congress shouted down at town halls when they talked about health care, when every liberal could Google polls that proved the public option was popular?

Liberals can come up with two answers. They can say that their movement sputtered because Obama didn't govern from the left, didn't nail Wall Street, and proved every Republican argument right by conceding it. Or they can blame themselves for electing Obama, buying the commemorative Shepard Fairey "Yes We Did" poster, and then sitting back and laughing as the Tea Party out-organized them. (emphasis mine - JG)

If you ever meet a progressive attempting to traffic argument number one, I would say you would be justified in smacking them.

Personally, I'd like to offer explanation number three: there are a variety of structural impediments to enacting progressive policies, including but not limited to; the unintuitive and politically unpopular aspects of Keynesian economics, the constitutionally structured weakness of the presidency and unprecedented deployment of the filibuster by senate Republicans.

Evidence, Ideology and Partisanship

George Packer has written an excellent column in the New Yorker about the debt limit debate and I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading some good commentary on the general dysfunctional contours of our parties incentives. I must confess that I was nodding my head in agreement with Mr. Packer right up until the very end, when he wrote this:
More important, [President Obama] no longer uses his office’s most powerful tool, rhetorical suasion, to keep the country focussed on the continued need for government activism. His opponents’ approach to job creation is that of a cargo cult—just keep repeating “tax cuts”—even though the economic evidence of the past three decades refutes such magical thinking.
Now, on the substance of Mr. Packer's point we are very much in agreement: the endless drumbeat for tax cuts irrespective of the economic context is financially damaging to our country. Serious economists and serious people in general have a tendency to understand that fiscal policy is poorly devised if those drafting it blithely ignore circumstances such as the Federal government's receipts versus its outlays, and what the current drivers of our budget deficit really are.

That being said, commentators like Mr. Packer continue write and act under what Jamelle Boiue termed "The Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power." Basically, if President Obama simply used his Green Lantern ring, took more time to explain why tax rates should be higher relative to current rates, that serious budget cutting would be harmful to our still fragile recovery, more average Americans would understand and demand a more progressive economic agenda.

What Mr. Packer, and other commentators like him keep eliding by, is the issue of how ideology shapes a person's conception of empirical evidence. As an economics professor once told my Economic Development class, "There is no view without a viewpoint." Partisanship is a filter that people use to categorize and interpret facts; and for better or worse, how those facts fit within their (partisan) worldview. So when Mr. Packer makes the case that President Obama simply needs to "use his office’s most powerful tool, rhetorical suasion," he is failing to account for the fact that ideology is a huge driver not only in how facts are processed, but which facts are integrated into a person's opinion. Simply put, the people who believe in their Voodoo Economics have their own graphs and their own economists telling them what they want to hear. No amount of Presidential oratory is going to change their minds.

Now, I'm open to the argument that if Obama made a more forceful case for more deficit spending, we could see some movement on the margins tilting toward a more robust Keynesian fiscal policy. But we're not in a legislative situation where some play around the margins is going to make a significant impact on how the House of Representatives will vote. The structure of government institutions has a significant and meaningful effect on the legislative process. We cannot ignore these facts simply because they are inconvenient to our preferred policy outcomes.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Debt Limit Showdown and Party Incentives

National Journal has an interesting piece up today about how the House Republican leadership is trying to warm it's freshman members to the (hopefully) eventual debt limit increase. Specifically,
"[John] Boehner has been "aggressive," in one aide's words, in articulating the need to reach a deal."

I would argue this is a reasonably optimistic development for what has been a very worrisome episode in American democracy.

Party incentives drive policy enactments, for the most part. Up until now, it seemed like the House GOP's incentives were being solely driven by the Tea Party, the ostensible drivers of their 2010 Midterm electoral success. The interest group consistently engages in a kind of economic "earth-is-flastism" by denying that a credit national default would have adverse effects. For example, the Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin told CNN that the issue was simple to solve by litteraly using the phrase: "It's that simple." This type of oversimplification of a complex and urgent issue is worrisome to the extent of the damage that a default would have on our nascent economic recovery. This all makes sense as s
tructurally, economic issues are hard to explain; and except in the case of the shortest of slogans, even harder to use as a tool of political motivational.

So, no one should be surprised that these type of statements play well with the median, non-engaged constituent, especially in the populist context of the Tea Party demographic.

What is surprising, is the fact that the Republican party's indulgence in this kind of rhetoric as their preferred economic policy, rather than just political sloganeering. To legitimately engage the notion of not raising the debt ceiling is to court an actual default of the US government. It's one thing for base activists to push for economic nonsense that jeopardizes our country. It's quite another thing for professional politicians and major party leadership do the same thing.

That's why this National Journal piece is significant. It's showing us that the basic framework of our incentive system hasn't been placed so out of wack the the House GOP would pursue the political advantage of a government default. The Tea Party may try an exert more pressure to prevent a debt limit increase, but they're only one pressure group out of thousands. As others make the (correct) point that a debt default would be bad both substantiatively as well as politically, Boehner, Cantor, McCarty and others in the House majority leadership begin to pressure their caucus members to step away from the brink.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Overheard on NPR

"Patriotism has a social component. And that social dimension is social justice."

It's an interesting idea that I don't quite agree with. The main problem I'm seeing is that the bright lines of past social justice movements are more obvious in hindsight. In 2011, it's fairly boilerplate to say that of course African-Americans and women are citizens who should enjoy the basic rights of every American. But it's hard to take up new ideas of social solidarity and integrate them into the country's legal framework, because that requires a huge social change movement. Which is exactly what we saw during the Women's Suffrage and Civil Rights campaigns!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Obama's Debt Ceiling Presser

Now, I understand as a young, fairly liberal economics baccalaureate, I probably represent a fairly small sliver of the potential voting population. But what I just heard from President Obama at his press conference was exactly what needed to be said, and the President continues to be exactly the person I thought I voted for.

When I get my hands on the transcript, I'll go into this with some more detail.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Problems and Solutions

We don't have a Medicare or a Medicaid problem. We have a healthcare cost problem.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Overheard on NPR

"Liberal criticisms of Obama don't seem to understand the importance of structural power and institutional structure."

Yes yes! A thousand times yes!