On transcendence, and on getting it done

Writing in Salon, Joan Walsh is worrying that Obama is more worried about staying above it all than in making substantive policy change:

In my worst moments, I wonder if what seemed like an unexpected gift to the Democratic Party – this charismatic, unifying, “transcendent” president – could wind up setting the party back, because the pragmatic, content-free, bipartisan Obama appeal has nothing to do with getting done what Democrats need to do. To an extent the folks around Obama are right: Many of us on the left believed Obama’s victory was a mandate for the liberal policies he (sometimes quietly) backed on the campaign trail: serious healthcare reform legislation, a climate change bill, tough new financial regulation. But a subsection of Obama voters (no one knows how large) backed the president not because of specific programs, but because he promised a new kind of politics that could break through the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington. The Obama team doesn’t know exactly what he has to do to keep those voters in 2010 and 2012, but they seem to believe it doesn’t involve pushing tough Democratic legislation or bashing Republicans for their intransigence.

It’s hard to really know, of course, how much the White House can push without sparking a huge backlash, and the emergence of the Tea Party (crazed fringe movement or massive popular uprising?) probably makes it exceptionally hard to predict the political future. If I had the President’s ear I’d be tempted to argue that an administration that can find the rationale to temporarily take over General Motors can certainly find the rationale to temporarily take over BP, but consistency’s not a valued quality in politics.

Cognitive regulatory capture--all the way to the top?

I’m generally a fan, if not a full-throated one, of the Obama administration. I admire and respect his dedication to the issues and his attempts to stay substantive at the center of the chattering pundit maelstrom that is contemporary Washington. I’m willing to give him lots of leeway because he 1) inherited a horribly broken country from his predecessor and 2) has to govern a country where a substantial minority of its citizens are insane, and loudly so. And I don’t agree with every policy direction coming from his White House, but I generally trust that it’s coming from a team of smart, passionate people who are doing their best at the hardest jobs in the world.

But I’m sorry, this interview is fucking horrifying:

Obama Doesn’t ‘Begrudge’ Bonuses for Blankfein, Dimon

The president, speaking in an interview, said in response to a question that while $17 million is “an extraordinary amount of money” for Main Street, “there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don’t get to the World Series either, so I’m shocked by that as well.”

“I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen,” Obama said in the interview yesterday in the Oval Office with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands Friday. “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system.”

If Obama actually believes those words, then we are really seriously fucked.

(Via naked capitalism)

"I forgot he was black tonight"

So apparently between Andrew Sullivan, James Fallows, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, I’m basically a full-on Atlantic fanboy now. TNC has a pretty great takedown of Chris Matthews saying that during the State of the Union, he forgot Obama was black. Does that say more about Obama, or about what Chris Matthews thinks it means to be black?

Around these parts, we’ve been known, from time to time, to chat about the NFL. We’ve also been known to chat about the intricacies of beer. If you hang around you’ll notice that there are no shortage of women in these discussions. Having read a particularly smart take on Brett Favre, or having received a good recommendations on a particular IPA, it would not be a compliment for me to say, “Wow, I forgot you were a woman.” Indeed, it would be pretty offensive.

The problems is three-fold. First, it takes my necessarily limited, and necessarily blinkered, experience with the fairer sex and builds it into a shibboleth of invented truth. Then it takes that invented truth as a fair standard by which I can measure one’s “woman-ness.” So if football and beer don’t fit into my standard, I stop seeing the person as a woman. Finally instead of admitting that my invented truth is the problem, I put the onus on the woman. Hence the claim “I forgot you were a woman,” as opposed to “I just realized my invented truth was wrong.”

Ditto for Chris Matthews. The “I forgot Obama was black” sentiment allows the speaker the comfort of accepting, even lauding, a black person without interrogating their invented truth.

Obama and the financial crisis

This morning the Obama administration officially announced Tim Geithner’s bailout plan. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I’m with Paul Krugman and Barry Ritholtz in opposing this, and insisting that the only solution will come when the government shuts down the bad banks and let new banks rise in their place. What’s particularly criminal is that the FDIC loan guarantees appear to be a backdoor subsidy, enacted through a mechanism that might be complex enough to confuse people while Wall Street slips its hand into the public purse one last time.

Why is this happening? My armchair analyst guess goes something like this:

I’d guess that Geithner isn’t trying to scam the public: He’s just deluding himself. The phrase I keep hearing on this is “cognitive regulatory capture”, a state in which the regulator of an industry starts to believe the worldview of those he or she is supposed to regulate. A lot of Geithner’s Wall Street associates lost tons of money betting that these assets were worth something, and they might still think that. The plan is certainly predicated on the belief that the market is treating these assets unfairly, and Geithner might honestly think the federal government won’t lose that much money by stepping into this market. It’s can be painful to have strong disagreements with your friends.

As for Geithner’s boss, Obama: He’s smart as hell, a phenomenally talented politician, and I was happy to vote for him. I’d vote for him again in a heartbeat. But he’s not an economics or finance nerd—those guys don’t do so well in electoral politics—so he has to listen to his appointed experts and go by his gut. His experts aren’t any good, and his gut reaction might be serving him poorly here.

Most of the time, Obama’s modus operandi seems to be something like this: First, he spends a lot of time listening to everybody in the room. Then, he figures out roughly where the middle ground is, and steers that middle ground towards his own personal proclivities, just a little. That way everybody gets a little of what they want, and trust is built up for future dealmaking. It’s a style that is probably extremely effective 99% of the time, because the right solution is usually represented by somebody in the room, and the consensus solution won’t deviate too much from that (unknown) right solution.

But what if this financial crisis is the other 1% of the time? What if the person who knows what’s happening isn’t anywhere in the room, but actually outside the building, across the street, standing on a soapbox and trying not to sound crazy? The economists who saw this problem coming—Nouriel Roubini is the most prominent example, but certainly not the only one—aren’t exactly loved by Wall Street bankers or by their friends in the Treasury Department. If voices like his are given no representation, then Obama’s conciliatory, consensus-first approach could fail, and fail hugely.

Obama has finite capital, both financially and politically. I’m getting very concerned that this issue is his perfect storm, and that as a result of this the rest of Presidency will not live up to its promise. I hope I’m wrong.

Obama wishes the Iranian people Happy New Year

Sometimes I still can’t believe we have an intellectual President. I keep expecting to wake up back in the Bush administration, with the threat level going up and down because of Dick Cheney’s mood, and instead I get online videos of Obama quoting Persian poets.

Wassup 2008