Letter to My Friends on the Left

I know you are disappointed with Obama’s performance as president. “Disappointed” may be too weak a word: “disillusioned” or “disenchanted” or even “betrayed” may be more accurate. At the root of, well let’s settle for, disillusionment is a belief that Obama has broken the promises he made when he ran for president. He has not realized the left liberal agenda. It is not that he tried and failed because of Republican intransigence, it is that he has not really tried. Perhaps he lacks the forcefulness and persuasiveness necessary to succeed, or perhaps, and this is the deeper reason for unhappiness with him, he does not share the convictions of the base. Each of the explanations may be in equal measure true. The lack of force as a communicator should not be a surprise: if we discount his eloquence in scripted speeches, his real talent lies in his professorial capacity, not as lecturer and explainer, but as seminar leader whose ideas evolve in discussion as he listens and responds to the thoughtful ideas of others. This should be evident from accounts of the way he conducts cabinet meetings; it is the way he came across in his televised meetings with Republican members of Congress. (He seems now to be waking up to the fact that the political arena is not a seminar.) He believes in give and take; unfortunately, he seems to have given more than taken, or if we alter the meaning of the word, he has been taken more often than not. But this is only a partial explanation of what has disillusioned his erstwhile liberal admirers. It is not simply that he is seen to give in prematurely to the opposing side: he may even agree with policies put forth on the other side, for instance on the need for significant deficit and debt reductions. How else can one explain his proposal of a “grand bargain” on spending cuts and tax increases (the latter, to be sure, not a policy of the opposition)? It makes Obama enigmatic and unpredictable: What, you ask, does he stand for?

Here is another perspective: in our current polarized political culture, almost entirely the responsibility of an intransigent Republican Congress, Obama has been blocked at every turn in his efforts to stimulate the economy and decrease unemployment. The intellectual and moral poverty of the radical Right is a national scandal. When even conservative economists speak of the risks of cutting government spending at a time when economic growth is slow and unemployment high, Republican politicians adamantly resist any effort of the government to invest in the economy. The Congress, effectively dominated in both Houses by Republicans, has historically low support from the electorate, and yet the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and minority in the Senate seem to have their way when they act or refuse to act. What’s more, the prospect is strong that the Republican ascendancy in the Congress will continue after 2012. Why? The conventional wisdom, which you share, is that the fault lies with Obama and his Administration. The Republicans have capitalized on his all too eager willingness to compromise, a fair criticism. It also true that in advocating his policies, he has been lacking forcefulness and persuasiveness. His adoption of a fiery uncompromising stand may be too late for him to regain the advantage. If only he could have spoken with the voice of Paul Krugman and acted on his advice…

Missing in this view, however, is an appreciation of the complexity of political and economic reality. The 800 billion dollar stimulus package that Obama barely got through the Congress preserved and created jobs and saved the country from depression but did not deliver on its promise to significantly reduce high unemployment. The effect was to discredit the very idea of stimulus spending, especially in the light of the alarms that the opposition set off about an out of control sovereign debt and the large deficits that have contributed to it. How much harder it is to the make the case for spending taxpayer’s money to stimulate the economy when its benefits are not immediately apparent or when the promise of its success is only partially fulfilled. Let us assume that Obama could have succeeded in having enacted the trillion plus stimulus package that Krugman, Stiglitz and others had proposed and that it would not have been diluted through slicing and dicing as Congress is wont to do. Can we be sure that it would have succeeded in producing the results that were promised, a dramatic reduction in the unemployment figures?

In a recent article in Dissent, “Keynesian Stimulus Isn’t Enough: The Great Recession and the Trade Deficit,” the historian Judith Stein argues that though the 800 billion dollar stimulus package was not sufficient, the remedy for what ails the economy is not a 2 trillion dollar package targeted on propping up our consumer economy. What is needed, in her view, is public investment in the productive sectors of the economy. The economically successful nations, China, Germany and Brazil are not based on large domestic consumption, but rather on exporting what they produce. If she is right (note the “if”), then the question is: how does our political system make it possible for us to convert our consumption based economy to one based on production. (70% of our economy depends on domestic consumption? Many economists argue that it is unsustainable.) Then there are the matters of low wage competition from abroad and technological development that make much human intensive work obsolete. How are they to be addressed? Which is not to gainsay the need for a stimulus package even greater than the one that Obama has proposed. This is not the time for austerity.

I am with Ezra Klein, the savvy liberal journalist, who tried to imagine what Obama could have done to have significantly altered the political scenario in which we find ourselves, and all he could come up with are marginal differences. Cass Sunstein has argued persuasively that a certain consensus across the political spectrum is required to achieve fundamental political change. LBJ knew this when he refused to go forward with Civil Rights unless he had received Republican support, which he finally got. (As David Brooks pointed out in a rare moment of candor about the party he supports, the current Republican Party has ceased to be normal party.) Look at the price Obama has paid for having the courage or foolhardiness to persist on Health Care Reform without a single Republican vote. In hindsight, a number of you on the Left who had originally supported his efforts on Health Care turned critic because you viewed it as a diversion from the more urgent problem of high unemployment. The Health Reform bill that passed proved to be unpopular as a totality and contributed to the Republican victory in the House of Representatives in 2010 as well as high unemployment. It was not Obama’s compromising spirit that lost him the House, as many of you believe, but his perceived radicalism. His own party was divided, for instance when he could not get united support from the Democratic caucus in both houses for the public option in Health care. Here is a division within the left of the party for which there is no easy solution. The proposal to build a pipeline carrying oil from Canada to a refinery in Texas that would create 20,000 new jobs has the support of the trade unions and opposition from environmentalists. Whatever decision Obama makes, that is, whether to allow or not allow the construction of the pipeline, will alienate one or the other side of his constituency. Should the losing side in the conflict accuse him of betrayal or should they make allowance for a predicament of leadership?

The problems that face us are much harder and more complicated than the sound bytes that the Right so successfully exploits. They are harder than even the serious solutions proposed by the left suggest. Even in the unlikely event that Republican intransigent resistance to every liberal proposal ceased we would still have conflict and uncertainty about what should be done. Economics is the most scientific of the social sciences, but it is not a natural or physical science. There is no laboratory comparable to one in chemistry or physics that can test its models. Controversies in economics inescapably have a political inflection. It is no accident that a field is called political economy. It is undoubtedly too much to expect the non-economist citizen to have the technical knowledge economists possess, but it’s not too much to expect the educated citizen to be aware that there are serious views that differ from those to which he has given his allegiance. It should be possible for the generally educated citizen to question, if not challenge, assertions by economists in their non-technical formulations for the press. For instance, on the matter of how to address the apparently conflicting problems of high unemployment and high sovereign debt, the Keynesian solution is short-term stimulus for the economy and fiscal discipline (cutting spending) in the long term. The following questions are rarely asked or addressed: How short is the short-term stimulus? What happens if unemployment lasts longer than expected? As Keynes warned, the economic future is always uncertain. At what point does fiscal discipline kick in? What if high unemployment turns out to be long term, how long can fiscal discipline be delayed?

What if, as the Harvard economist Ken Rogoff has argued, the large “debt overhang” has an immediate deleterious effect on the economy? Shouldn’t the debt be addressed immediately—not by cutting government spending now, but by planning for cuts in “the out years?” In proposing his “grand bargain” of spending cuts and tax increases, Obama has apparently taken this question seriously. The question provokes a reflexive response: its source must be someone on the Right and therefore not to be taken seriously. It diverts us from what should be the exclusive focus: a stimulus package to “grow the economy” and reduce unemployment. But again what if the large and increasing debt is an immediate threat to economic growth and therefore to increasing unemployment? These are questions that the thoughtful Left should be able to reflect upon without fearing what the answer may be.

So long as market capitalism is the prevailing system it is doubtful that any theory and set of practical applications will be able to rationalize and control its countless and changing variables. What Tony Judt said years ago of the capitalist welfare system still holds, “we don’t know what degree of regulation, public ownership or distributive monopoly is appropriate across the board, only what works and is required in each case.” One might add, we are never certain “of what works or is required in each case.” We may be able to reduce uncertainty by achieving greater understanding of how the economy works. Unfortunately, our polarized political culture does not encourage the disinterested pursuit of such understanding or the action that would follow from it. The radical right has simply closed its ears to any idea proposed by liberal economists. Those on the liberal side should counter by showing their openness to serious ideas coming from the other side, for instance, an interesting proposal by Martin Feldstein, chief economic advisor to Ronald Regan, to solve the housing crisis by an across the board reduction of mortgage debt.

What the liberal cause has been missing is a counterweight to the Tea Party populism that has captured the Republican Party. The Tea Partiers did not simply complain about their unhappiness with the Republican Establishment, they organized, demonstrated, applied pressure, put forward candidates. They possessed and apparently still possess the populist energy and conviction to change the direction of our politics and they have certainly determined the direction of Republican politics. The disillusioned Left (or a portion of it) has finally organized itself in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Flaunting the slogan of 99% against 1%, the have-nots against the haves, it offers no program of how the gross economic inequality against which it rightly protests can be overcome. The reason may be, as some participants have said, that putting out a specific program would fracture the unity they have achieved. They have conflicting ideas or they may not know specifically what needs to be done. The Tea Partiers have a political advantage, convictions easily reducible to resonant sound bytes: “cut taxes and spending, deregulate businesses, eliminate gun control” etc. Their anger-saturated convictions about the role of government in the economy, global warming and evolutionary theory are shot through with ignorance and bad faith. House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor condemned the Occupy Wall Street movement as a mob, but failed to condemn the venomous racism of the Tea Partier who spit on Congressman John Lewis as he entered the House of Representatives or the posters that identified Obama with Hitler. Nothing in the counter cultural and civil disobedient behavior of Occupy Wall Street resembles a mob. It is nevertheless true, lamentably true, that the Tea Party has been politically effective. What one hears in the speech of Occupy Wall Street is a disconcerting combination of strong conviction about what is wrong with our society and a lack of clarity about policies to effect positive change. The movement, of course, is in an early stage, and it knows it has to evolve from a purely oppositional force to an organization with policies and programs. In doing so, however, it will probably have to abandon its model of participatory democracy, in which the diversity of views expressed is hardly ever resolved in decisive positive action.

It is too early to judge how Occupy Wall Street will evolve, but there are already indications of a direction it might take. On an NPR program devoted to the subject, a young articulate spokesman for the leaderless movement was asked whether he planned to support Obama’s candidacy for reelection, his answer (qualified by the statement that he was not speaking for everyone in the movement) was “no.” Both the Democratic and Republican Parties had been captured by the corporate 1%. What was needed, he said, was a new workers party, and it would take time for such a party to emerge. When Todd Gitlin, one time president of SDS, invoked the name of Ralph Nader as a caution, the response was that he was willing to endure a Romney presidency, apparently unwilling to consider the successful strategy adopted by the Tea Party of applying pressure on the Party closest to what it wants. He and his cohort will settle for nothing less than a radical reformation of our system, though it has as yet no set of coherent ideas of what the new system will look like and how it can be achieved. It is ironic that at a time that when there is general agreement that the immediate problem confronting us is high unemployment, a spokesman for the movement seems willing to risk four years of even higher unemployment under a do nothing Republican Administration while it dreams of a new radical party that will transform the country. Al Gore has recently come out in support of Occupy Wall Street. Let’s hope he reminds them of the role that Nadir (misspelling intended!) played in his defeat. Let’s also hope that the country listens and takes to heart what the movement has to say about the state of the nation.
Postscript: I have defended Obama with an increasing awareness of his shortcomings but without the disillusionment that my friends on the Left have experienced. And will continue to support him. I did not, however, expect the shock of seeing the other night “Lost in Detention,” a Frontline film documenting the apparent indifference of the Obama Administration to inhumane roundups of Latino immigrants. Tasked with arresting, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes such as murder and rape, ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) has indiscriminately arrested and detained persons for such minor violations as unpaid parking or speeding tickets. Mothers have been deported, leaving their children behind, a tragically ironic situation given Obama’s advocacy of a Dream Act, which would offer children of undocumented immigrants the opportunity to educate themselves and enter the mainstream of American life. Those arrested have often spent long periods incarcerated in detention centers before trial. Detainees have been the object of sexual abuse and brutality by guards. The spokesman for the Administration in bureaucratic style spoke of the inevitability of collateral damage. ICE has a quota: the deportation of 400,000 illegal immigrants a year. Which means that the arresting officers may have to supplement their arrests with those who have committed minor violations or perhaps no violation except for illegal entry into the country. The Department of Homeland Security takes pride in having exceeded the numbers credited to the Bush Administration. It is painful to hear Obama say in a speech that he has gone beyond what the Republicans want in enforcing the law in the hope of extracting from them, what he admits he has failed to do, support for humane immigration reform. (What’s more they insist that he hasn’t gone far enough and will continue to find him wanting whatever he does.) The Frontline documentary does not explain how Secure Communities, the program operated by ICE, came into being or what is required of the Administration in enforcing the law, nor did it point out the Administration’s opposition to the draconian immigration laws of Arizona and Alabama. But the documentary is powerful and persuasive. Intense pressure needs to be applied to the Administration to guarantee that only those who have committed serious crimes are detained. In an online piece on the documentary, Meredith Blake, impressed by the gravity of the situation, nevertheless faults the documentary for ending on a self-defeating note in warning that Obama risks losing the Latino vote. “For those of us who shudder at the thought of President Romney (let’s not even entertain the thought of President Perry, shall we?) it’s certainly a wakeup call, the stakes are already much, much higher. Why focus on the potential electoral impact of Obama’s policies, when the human toll has already been so dire.” Amen.

From October, 2011