August 31, 2008


Prose watch: Obama acceptance speech (VICTORIA MCGRANE & HARRY SIEGEL | 8/30/08, Politico)

Here’s Politico’s past-due look at those points in Obama's speech where the poetry and prose diverge on closer examination. Of course, McCain will be coming in for the same treatment shortly. [...]

Health care

Now is the time to finally keep the promise of affordable, accessible health care for every single American. If you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums. If you don't, you'll be able to get the same kind of coverage that members of Congress give themselves. And as someone who watched my mother argue with insurance companies while she lay in bed dying of cancer, I will make certain those companies stop discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most.

Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their jobs and caring for a sick child or ailing parent.

The space here, as was revisited ad nauseam during the primary, is between “affordable [and] accessible” and “universal.”

The Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, estimates that Obama’s plan would reduce the uninsured by 18 million in 2009 and 34 million in 2018, which would still leave 34 million Americans without coverage.

The Obama campaign says the plan will save a typical American family up to $2,500 a year and will cost $50 billion to $65 billion a year (about $200 per American) once it’s up and running. The Tax Policy Institute estimates his plan will cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years — while stressing that’s their best guess based on what is, after all, campaign poetry, not governing prose.

His campaign says that he can cover the up-front costs of implementing his plan with the new federal funds that would come in by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire, and it also says that costs would be reduced through the administrative savings in the health care system it would create. (Solid rule of thumb: “New administrative efficiencies” offered by candidates amount to “number a staffer half-guessed, then multiplied by three.”) [...]

Paying for it all

Now, many of these plans will cost money, which is why I've laid out how I'll pay for every dime — by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don't help America grow. But I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less — because we cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy.

As with almost all politicians, the how-I’ll-pay-for-it bit is understandably less verbose than the what-I’ll-buy-you list.

Even so, this is a particularly pain-free promise for a politician who otherwise likes to stress that “this won’t be easy."

According to an Aug. 28 report by the Tax Policy Center, “Both John McCain and Barack Obama have proposed tax plans that would substantially increase the national debt over the next 10 years.”

And while ending corporate loopholes and tax havens has long been a popular proposal on Capitol Hill, it has remained something politicians can promise to end precisely because it's not ended so easily. Not only do the groups that benefit from the tax code fight against changing it, but when it does change, there’s invariably a new loophole to fit through.

And, business groups would add, changing laws to increase revenue amounts to a business tax hike by another name.

Finally, two other notable omissions: His speech made no mention of his call to eliminate tax breaks for oil and gas companies or to create a new windfall profits tax for them.

This was the speech where the Unicorn Rider was finally going to spell out in detail what his airy rhetoric means in concrete policy terms, so let's read the speech as if it were a legislative/governing agenda and see what the change is he's talking about, Sen. Barack Obama Addresses Denver National Convention at Invesco Field (August 28, 2008)

So -- so let me -- let me spell out exactly what that change would mean if I am president. [...]

I'll eliminate capital gains taxes for the small businesses and start-ups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow.

I will -- listen now -- I will cut taxes -- cut taxes -- for 95 percent of all working families, because, in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class.

Outstanding! George W. Bush has cut taxes every year of his presidency, it'd be nice to continue the trend. Further complexifying an already Byzantine tax code is unfortunate--you'd probably save those businesses more by simplification than by cuts--but we take what we can get. We're a bit confused though, because Mr. Obama is a sitting Senator and if he just submitted the bill to do this the GOP would happily help him pass it. What's he waiting for?

And for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East. [...]

As president, as president, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I'll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America.

I'll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars.

OBAMA: And I'll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy -- wind power, and solar power, and the next generation of biofuels -- an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced.

Excellent. You can hardly ask for better than a Democrat who's willing to build so many nuclear plants that we stop importing oil. Unfortunately, he's picked the worst way to innovate, having the feds pick and choose new technologies, rather than just using gas taxes to create an incentive for open innovation. And helping people buy cars seems not just a dubious way to reduce energy consumption but an awfully big corporate subsidy.

I'll invest in early childhood education. I'll recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries, and give them more support. And in exchange, I'll ask for higher standards and more accountability.
W hasn't really left him any choice on this one, has he? NCLB has been so successful that standards and accountability are here to stay.
And we will keep our promise to every young American: If you commit to serving your community or our country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.
The reason college is so expensive is that it's one of the most heavily subsidized industries in America, so tossing more federal money at schools seems counterproductive, particularly given the fact that the sheer numbers of people attending college already demonstrates that it is, if anything, too affordable. But National Service is a nice enough idea and if you have to use college money as an inducement and aren't willing to just make it compulsory so be it. Charlie Rangel may have something to say about that though.
Now -- now is the time to finally keep the promise of affordable, accessible health care for every single American.

If you have health care -- if you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums. If you don't, you'll be able to get the same kind of coverage that members of Congress give themselves.

And -- and as someone who watched my mother argue with insurance companies while she lay in bed dying of cancer, I will make certain those companies stop discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most.

Let's take Paul Krugman's word for it that Mr. Obama's health plan costs about $4400 per newly insured person and grant Democrats the benefit of the doubt that people without coverage both need it and can't afford it. That much money would buy them catastrophic health and fund an HSA which would allow them to acquire wealth even as it provided a health care safety net. That would seem preferable to just transferring money from taxpayers to insurance companies and a health care industry that's already consuming more and more of our GDP. Giving folks an incentive to save their money rather than waste it on bogus tests -- as well as gving providers an incentive to lower the costs of such tests -- would even help reduce the nation's medical bill.

Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their job and caring for a sick child or an ailing parent.
Why not? We know the Democrats are the materialist party but do they really consider jobs and human relationships coequal? It seems especially odd to be making it more burdensome--both in regulatory and monetary terms--to employee people at a time when even countries like France are trying to make it less so because they've crippled their own economies.
Now is the time to change our bankruptcy laws, so that your pensions are protected ahead of CEO bonuses, and the time to protect Social Security for future generations.
Not much by way of specifics there, but it seems fair to ask both why the CEO's pension should be protected but not his bonus and why a Social Security program that was designed eight decades ago should be preserved as is. Isn't Mr. Obama supposed to be the candidate of change? How about just applying the market principles that are now universally accepted in order to make SS into a modern program?
And now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day's work, because I want my daughters to have the exact same opportunities as your sons.
A certain absence of specifics there too. Equal pay is easy enough to define but what makes work "equal"? And notice the switch he pulls there, changing from equality of compensation to equality of opportunity? What job is it that his daughter isn't allowed to do but your son is?
Now, many of these plans will cost money, which is why I've laid out how I'll pay for every dime: by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don't help America grow.
No matter Mr. Obama's reputation for naivete, let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that this absurd claim is a function of cynicism rather than a genuine belief that there are hundreds of billions of dollars a year just waiting to fall into his lap by closing a few loopholes. Not that it really matters which taxes he raises to get this money--we all end up paying for it sooner or later as the corporations pass the increased costs on to us. Making the vtaxes less direct just makes them less efficient.
But I will also go through the federal budget line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less, because we cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy.
The Court already ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional, so maybe he means he'll amend said document or appoint judges who read it differently?

As commander-in-chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm's way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home.

I will end this war in Iraq responsibly and finish the fight against Al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts, but I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression.

W, Maverick, and General Petraeus haven't left him much choice as regards Iraq: how would he continue a war that's already won and winding down?

And we know diplomacy alone doesn't either stop nuclear proliferation or aggression. His suggestion that it does can't help but call his judgment into question.

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.
One of the signal achievements of the past couple of decades has been driving down the number of abortions, to the point where there are now fewer than at any time since 1974, when Roe was still a shiny new toy that held out the promise of bringing eugenics to the ghetto and ridding us of the poor. But given Senator Obama's stated desire to abort his own grandchildren if his daughters don't want them, his rhetoric about reducing "unwanted pregnancies" seems a summons back to the culture of death.
The -- the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.
We'll set aside for now the curious implication that blacks in the inner city have different rights that rural whites, and just note that he favors gun control of some sort or another.
I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.
Why? If people should be free to make some aberrant choices with their lives (though presumably even Mr. Obama would place limits on how far they can deviate from the norms) why oughtn't we be free to treat them differently on the basis of those decisions? No one much cares if you go and visit your partner at St. Joseph's Hospital, but why should St. Joseph's Church have to employ you regardless of your immorality?
You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.
Which is it? Do we want to bring families together so long as one of them makes it here or do we want to ban them from employment? Are we welcoming, or forbidding to the next generation of Americans? The latter, with its suggestion that we should maintain their illegal status is unworthy of someone who wishes to lead the country. Fortunately, he's not serious. Either he or President McCain will pass amnesty early in their term unless W beats them to the punch by executive fiat.

What we have here is a rather mixed bag. On a number of issues he'd be W's third term (or Clinton's 5th), but on several big ones he's an extremely retrograde figure, taking us back to the 70s, rather than ahead. It's almost as if Democrats don't live in the world where IRA's and 401k's and Welfare-to-work and HSA's and housing vouchers and school vouchers have changed the way we think about how best to provide people with a safety net. It's as if they're the last ones to hear about the End of History.

This is also apparent in the way Mr. Obama failed to mention the broader project of liberalizing the Middle East, Asia and Africa and his silence about the wide alliance of democratic allies with which we work to contain and transform those states which have been laggard. Of course, the Democratic mantra is that W has shredded our alliances, but the reality is just the opposite. Not only have such disparate places as Mongolia, India, Indonesia, and Colombia been knit into an Axis of Good, but we have entirely new relationships with places we helped liberate--like Liberia, Haiti, and Southern Sudan-- with places that are reforming under American pressure, Libya--and with a whole series of states that have elected pro-American governments, often replacing anti-American ones: France, Germany, India, Colombia, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, South Korea, and on and on. One hardly expected Mr. Obama to have much to say about foreign policy, but a more historically aware leader might have noted the opportunity that's being handed to him to bring about change in our few remaining and increasingly isolated and nervous foes: Burma, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba. Some acknowledgment that he at least understands the geo-political situation that he could inherit would have been welcome.

Despite the Clinton years, the Democrats seem to be stuck to some considerable degree in the 1970s and this speech would have been better given at the 1972 convention. Back then we really were isolated because of a war, faced unfriendly governments even in the West, had genuine economic problems we weren't facing up to, thought ever more permissiveness was the path to human happiness, and believed that only socialistic institutions could provide us the type of welfare net that the Depression had scared us into thinking we required. In 1970s America it was not irrational to believe that democratic capitalism had failed or was failing and that we were faced with decline.

But, seemingly unnoticed by the party that gathered in Denver, quite a bit has happened since then. New Zealand, Chile, and Margaret Thatcher's England innovated Third Way programs that bring market forces to bear on social programs. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Pope John Paul II, the Moral Majority, MADD, Ronald Reagan, and others reversed the slide into decadence and reminded us that moral choices matter. And the Cold War turned out not to be a twilight struggle, but just one more discrete battle in the Long War that has seen the Anglo-American/Judeo-Christian model trump all comers, Islamicism being just the latest failed alternative. Where though is the evidence that the Democratic Party has evolved along with the rest of us? Where the New Democrat reforms to SS, health care, education and housing? Where the recognition that individuals have responsibilities not just "rights"? Where the celebration of our values and their continuing victory over great evils, like those represented by Charles Taylor, Castro, the Kims, Saddam, and Osama?

We've just been through three decades of reasonably rapid change as globalization has worked to force other countries to become more like us in political and economic terms while making our economy more interconnected with and dependent on others. These changes have been almost uniformly healthy--giving us a more peaceful and affluent nation and world--but they, understandably, scare folks. This global extension of freedom is, by its very nature, destabilizing, not just toppling regimes abroad but businesses, industries, institutions at home and radically rearranging demographics, human relations, and power distributions. As always in politics, we are arrived at the basic question: do people now want more security, even if it means less freedom, greater isolation, and a reduction in our aspirations? Mind you, this is not as open and shut a case as it often appears to conservatives. We need to understand that for many on the Left and the far Right there is something to be said for withdrawing from the world and focusing on the self. After all, just because the last time we went through a bout of protectionism, isolationism, and nativism it triggered the Great Depression and WWII doesn't mean that the same would happen this time. Or, at any rate, we can convince ourselves that things would be different this time around. But that does seem to be the kind of change that Senator Obama is talking about, a reaction to the change of the Reagan/Clinton/Bush era and a retreat into the more secure world of the Second Way, where our own government is the solution to all of our problems and who cares about anyone else anyway. You can see why some find this kind of dependency on the state to be comforting, but it's strange to consider it idealism and it's awfully hard to reconcile with what we've traditionally considered the American Experiment. In that sense at least, Mr. Obama offers a deeply unAmerican vision of the future.

John F. McCain (Peter Ferrara 08.29.08, Forbes)

On taxes, America suffers from the second-highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world. American corporations face a 35% federal tax rate, averaging 40% with state income taxes. In contrast, the average corporate tax rate in the European Union has been slashed from 38% in 1996 to 24% today. Ireland has a corporate tax rate of 12.5%, which has caused per capita income to soar from the second lowest in the E.U. 20 years ago to the second highest today. Corporate tax rates in India and China are lower as well.

How are American corporations supposed to compete? How are they supposed to provide good jobs at good wages while paying tax rates that are two-thirds higher than their competitors, and more? [...]

Barack Obama, by contrast, seems to have proposed tax-rate increases for just about every federal tax. He proposes to increase the top two individual tax rates. He would increase the capital gains tax rate by 33%. Ditto that for the tax rate on dividends. He has proposed Social Security payroll tax increases of 16% to 32% for families making over $250,000 a year (that would have a minor effect on the long-term Social Security deficit while arbitrarily punishing these families with effective negative real rates of return from Social Security). Mr. Obama's health plan would also impose a new payroll tax on employers. He would reinstitute the "death tax" (estate tax) with a top rate of 45%. He has also proposed several increases in corporate taxes, including a "windfall profits" tax on oil. Nothing Obama said in his speech Thursday night changed these troublesome proposals.

Mr. Obama's protectionist trade policies would also result in higher tariffs.

Changes in Politics (Thomas Sowell, 8/29/08, Real Clear Politics)
Despite the incessantly repeated mantra of "change," Barack Obama's politics is as old as the New Deal and he is behind the curve when it comes to today's economy.

Senator Obama's statement that "our economy is in turmoil" is standard stuff on the left and in the mainstream media, which has been dying to use the word "recession."

Not only has the economic slowdown failed to reach the definition of a recession, the most recent data show the U.S. economy growing at a rate exceeding 3 percent-- a rate that many European economies would die for, despite our being constantly urged to imitate those countries whose end results are not as good as ours.

Barack Obama's "change" is a recycling of the kinds of policies and rhetoric of the New Deal that prolonged the Great Depression of the 1930s far beyond the duration of any depression before or since.

These are the same kinds of liberal policies that led to double-digit inflation, double-digit interest rates and rising unemployment during the Carter administration. These are "back to the future" changes to economic disasters that need repeating.

Make no mistake, the political rhetoric of FDR was great. For those who admire political rhetoric, as so many of Barack Obama's supporters seem to, FDR was tops. For those who go by actual results, FDR's track record was abysmal.

-DNC Filled With the Same Faces & Ideas (David Broder, 8/30/08, Real Clear Politics)
The Democrats had themselves a successful convention -- at the price of appearing quite conventional. [...]

No one is likely to argue that the speech here "changed politics in America." His jibes at John McCain and George Bush were standard-issue Democratic fare and his recital of a long list of domestic promises could have been delivered by any Democratic nominee from Walter Mondale to John Kerry.

There was no theme music to the speech and really no phrase or sentence that is likely to linger in the memory of any listener. The thing I never expected did in fact occur: Al Gore, the famously wooden former vice president, gave a more lively and convincing speech than Obama did.

-Obamanomics? Oh boy. (Colby Cosh, 8/31/08, National Post)
About three-quarters of the way through Sen. Barack Obama's Thursday speech accepting the Democratic nomination, he started reciting a list of political problems that he believes can be magically solved by appealing to Americans' "sense of higher purpose"—which, as it turns out, translates to "making a trite statement of principle and then running away from the actual issue as fast as possible." A sample: "We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country." Real profound, Senator, but the actual problem is that (loosely speaking) about half the people explicitly favour reducing unwanted pregnancies by permitting abortion, and about half explicitly don't.

Stating the fact that everyone's in favour of fewer unwanted pregnancies, ceteris paribus, does less than nothing to help. Should a woman running a gauntlet of protesters outside an abortion clinic tell them "Surely, ladies and gentlemen, we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country, and if you'll excuse me I'm about to go reduce them by precisely 1.0"?

I was so head-clutchingly irritated by the evasiveness of Obama's "higher purpose" litany that it took me a little while to notice that the last item was not only an appeal to the stupid, but stupid in itself.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 31, 2008 6:20 AM
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