Thursday, December 31, 2009

Conference Committee 2: Health Care

Following up on this post, where I described the general rules of reconciling differences between House and Senate versions of a bill, I will now discuss expectations for the upcoming House-Senate conference on health care.

For those of us who would like to see the Congress reject both versions, and start over with a more market-oriented approach, such as I described here, the best-case scenario would be for the Democrats to fall into such disagreement about whether the legislation either goes too far, or not far enough, that they fail to reach a compromise.

Nate Silver, on the 538 blog, who is on the opposite side from me on this issue, considers, and (correctly I think) rejects that possibility.

Joe Klein has written an opinion piece in Time, arguing, from a center-left perspective, against left-wing opponents of a compromise bill. He acknowledges that the public-option government health insurer is dead, but calls it "a worthy but relatively minor provision". Klein parrots the Obama line that it would just add one more competitor to the existing insurance marketplace. That ignores the possibility that, by using public subsidies to hold down premiums, it could force private-sector insurers out of business.

In Politico, Josh Kraushaar writes that Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina, the number-three House Democrat, is furiously back-pedalling from the public option, after the Senate approved a bill without that provision. He seems to be laying the groundwork for the quiet death of that provision in conference.

Congressional Democrats will be faced by a variation on that old military question, "Will the center hold?" The new version is, "Will the center-left hold?" Unfortunately, I suspect that it will, and that Congress will agree on a bill that is very similar to that which passed the Senate.

It would be a major embarrassment for President Obama and the congressional leadership to come out of this process without some form of legislation being signed into law. For Democrats running for reelection next November in conservative states and districts, the embarrassment may come at that time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Conference Committee

Both houses of Congress have now passed health care bills. Some people (although probably not the type of political sophisticate that reads Exploring the Political Spectrum) might think that the process is over, and the utopia of cheap and abundant health care has arrived. Aside from the procedural questions that I plan to address in this post, they would, of course, be overlooking the fact that a utopia, by definition, can never arrive.

The House and Senate bills are not identical. The major difference is that the House voted to create a government-run health insurer, the so-called "public option". The Senate rejected that idea.

Minor differences between Senate and House versions of a bill can sometimes be dealt with via informal means. One house might agree to accept the other house's bill. Or the differences can be worked out through discussions between party leaders and committee chairs in the two houses.

But major differences, such as those involving the health care bills, need to be referred to a conference committee. Anticipating public interest in the process of reconciling the health care bills, the Senate has posted this 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service, on its website.

The conference committee consists of a bipartisan group of conferees or "managers" from both houses. The chairmen and ranking Republicans of the relevant committees will, in practice, select the conferees, most of whom will probably be members of those committees. The speaker of the House and president of the Senate formally ratify those selections.

It doesn't matter whether one house has more conferees than the other. Approval of a compromise bill requires a majority vote among the House conferees, and a majority vote among the Senate conferees. Neither house can outvote the other.

If the conference committee agrees to a compromise bill, the full membership of both houses will then vote on it. The bill can still be filibustered in the Senate at that stage (except for certain budget measures that are subject to expedited procedures). Only if both houses approve an identical bill, can it go to the president for signature or veto.

Next: What are the expectations for the health care conference committee?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Woodrow Wilson's birthday

I recently had a bit of a dialogue in this post, and the related comments, about the academic discipline of political science. And now, today is the 153rd birthday of the only academic political scientist to become president of the United States: Woodrow Wilson.

He was born Thomas Woodrow Wilson, in Staunton, Virginia, on December 28, 1856. Wilson received his bachelor's degree from Princeton, and a PhD from Johns Hopkins.

After teaching at other eastern schools, Wilson found his way on to the Princeton faculty, in 1890. His best-known published work was the book Congressional Government, written during a period when the legislative branch of the federal government had a stronger position as against the executive branch, than is currently the case. Later, Wilson himself had a lot to do with accelerating the 20th-century trend toward assertion of a greater role for the presidency.

In 1902, Wilson turned toward an administrative career, when he became president of Princeton. That helped him establish a political base in New Jersey, where he was elected governor, as a Democrat, in 1910.

I wrote here about the circumstances under which Wilson was elected president, in 1912. He took advantage of a split in the Republican Party, to become the only Democratic president during the period from 1897 to 1933.

As was the case with the next Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, Wilson came into office with a largely domestic agenda, but later took the country into war. He had kept the U.S. out of the World War, which had begun in Europe in 1914, and had won reelection in 1916, largely on the basis of that achievement. But, shortly after his second inauguration, in 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. German attacks on American ships in the Atlantic eventually made neutrality impossible to sustain.

Shortly after American involvement began in earnest, in 1918, Germany was defeated. I wrote here about Wilson's involvement in the subsequent Versailles peace conference, when the victors re-drew world maps, following the collapse of German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires.

Up to that time, American foreign policy was largely based on isolationism, an avoidance of European alliances and disputes. That ended, during and after World War II, but, in Wilson's time, the U.S. was unwilling to take on a permanent world leadership role.

Wilson advocated an American international role, including membership in the League of Nations, forerunner to the UN. In 1919, he suffered a stroke during a speaking tour that he undertook in order to defend his position. His convalescence is best known as the period of the U.S.'s only female presidency. That notion is based on the controversial story that Wilson's wife, Edith, in effect acted as president, while trying to conceal the extent of his incapacitation from the outside world.

The U.S. Senate rejected American membership in the League of Nations.

By 1920, Wilson had partially recovered, and wanted to run for a third term. But tentative feelers that he put out to that effect revealed a lack of support.

Wilson's Republican successor Warren Harding advocated a return to normality. But he changed the English language by calling it "normalcy". Harding negotiated peace with Germany, on terms that were more in line with traditional American isolationism, than the Versailles Treaty had been.

Wilson was the only president to choose Washington, DC, as his retirement home. He died there, in 1924. Ironically, Harding, who had presented such a robust contrast to the ailing Wilson in 1920, had predeceased Wilson, dying in 1923.

20 Years Ago 18: European Union

The events of 1989 fundamentally changed the nature of the organization now known as the European Union (EU). And the EU has in turn affected how some of those countries have evolved in the meantime.

In this post, I described the history of the EU and predecessor organizations, and how their membership expanded. Two waves of expansion were tied to the end of the Cold War. Austria, Finland and Sweden, who had been neutral in the Cold War, no longer had anything to be neutral about, so they felt more free to join. And former Soviet bloc countries joined later.

That gave birth to the "broadening" vs. "deepening" debate in Europe.

The fall of the Berlin Wall came two years after the group that was then called the European Community began to implement the Single European Act. That accelerated the process of removing barriers to free trade among the member states. The idea was to go beyond simply the lowering of tariffs, and address issues such as the free movement of labor across the members' borders. That constituted the "deepening" track.

Dissenters, notably in Britain, feared that that path would eventually lead to elimination of the independence of the member states.

But once a consensus started building for inclusion of the neutrals and the ex-Communist countries, i.e., "broadening" the organization, it became clear that "deepening" would be much more difficult.

Further deepening moves have taken place, the most significant of which is the creation of the Euro currency, which is used in much, but not all, of the EU's territory. But anyone's hopes, or fears as the case may be, of a United States of Europe, were put on hold. Two major impediments to deepening:

The larger the number of member states, the more difficult it is to reach consensus on issues. On the biggest questions, the EU still requires unanimous agreement. When there were six countries of continental western Europe, that was much easier than the current situation, with 27 members, spread from the British Isles to Eastern Europe. I recently wrote here and here about how that affected the related questions of ratification of a new EU constitution and elections to new offices created by that constitution. National governments moved to maintain their preeminence, by electing relatively minor players to those positions.

Differences in the economic conditions of member states make further deepening problematic. The EU subsidises its farmers at least as much as the US, with equally little economic justification. And, more broadly, it provides aid to poorer regions within its territory.

Agriculture was much less efficient in Marxist-Leninist economies, whose farmers lacked both incentives and opportunities to modernize. If the EU's subsidy program, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), had remained unchanged, the cost to the richer member states would have been enormous. So the CAP was scaled back, and the new ex-Communist members of the EU would not be as closely integrated economically with the long-time member states as previous visions of European integration would have called for.

But aid to poorer regions continues. And that is widely seen as encouraging the trend toward splitting up multinational states, that I described in this and other posts. If a relatively poor region that had traditionally been connected to a larger state could get money directly from Brussels, it could afford to be less concerned about the economic consequences of secession. That was true of Slovakia as compared to the Czech Republic. And it is probably one factor behind the independence movement in Scotland, that is spearheaded by the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National Party. So, the EU is both cause and effect of the changes in Europe during the last two decades.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Republican Contest for Pennsylvania Governor

Toward the beginning of this year, I wrote a preview of the 2010 gubernatorial election, here in Pennsylvania. Now that the race has had several months during which to develop, I will take another look, first at the Republican side.

State Attorney General Tom Corbett is the Republican front runner. My congressman, Jim Gerlach of the 6th district, is in second place, well behind Corbett.

As I noted in that earlier post, since Pennsylvania began allowing governors to seek reelection (there is now a two-term limit) in 1970, the governorship has shifted at eight-year intervals, both between the parties, and between the eastern and western parts of the state. Corbett, a western Republican, should be due for his turn.

But is there something inherent in the office of state attorney general that produces an ambition to run for governor, but not the means to win such an election?

Corbett's predecessor, Republican Mike Fisher, was his party's unsuccessful gubernatorial nominee in 2002. And an earlier Republican attorney general, Ernie Preate, had his 1994 gubernatorial candidacy derailed by a scandal that resulted in his pleading guilty to mail fraud, and doing prison time.

There seems to be a similar trend in my native state of Minnesota, where four attorneys general have made failed runs for governor since 1970: Republican Doug Head in 1970, and Democrats Warren Spannaus (1982), Hubert (Skip) Humphrey (1998) and Mike Hatch (2006).

Time will tell whether Corbett will break the A.G. jinx, if there is one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

When in Rome ...

Senator Arlen Specter, Democrat of Pennsylvania, seems to be pursuing his own version of the old saying, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." Except for him it's, "when on the Democratic side of the aisle, do as the Democrats do."

Throughout the health care debate in the Senate, Specter has been strongly pushing the so-called "public option", a government-run health insurer that would, depending on whose narrative you believe, either compete with, or push out of business, private-sector insurers.

Specter has emailed a statement that reads in part:

It is not the bill that I would have preferred and there is an oppuntunity [sic] to improve it in conference. I would like to see a strong, robust public option.

If the Democrats try to resurrect the public option during their conference with the House that will reconcile differences between the bills passed by the two houses, they would presumably renew their battles with Senators Lieberman, Nelson and Lincoln.

My guess is that Specter has no such expectation, and he is merely throwing red meat to the Democratic primary electorate here in Pennsylvania, that will decide between Specter and Representative Joe Sestak for their Senate nomination next year.

That's not particularly surprising, but it is a different path for Specter, who consistently hugged the political middle ground in his five Senate candidacies on the Republican ticket. If he wins the primary, he will probably tack back toward the center in the general election campaign. But I expect him to have trouble with voters on the center-right, such as this writer, who have supported him in the past.

Republicans and 2010

It has been a busy few days for me, so I haven't been blogging. But, Upper Midwestern weather is going to stop me from traveling this weekend, so I should have some chance to catch up.

As the parties gear up for the 2010 mid-term elections, the Republicans got mixed news, this week.

Current polls predict that the Republicans will make gains next year. It's possible (though I wouldn't say probable) that the G.O.P. can retake control of the House of Representatives. They will be helped, to the extent that: 1) they have incumbents (other than those tainted by scandal) on the ballot, or 2) when there is no Republican incumbent, they can recruit a proven vote-getter to seek their nomination.

The best-case scenario is for a congressman to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Not only is there an additional Republican incumbent, but there is one fewer on the other side of the aisle. The defection of Representative Parker Griffith of Alabama puts such a double-whammy on the Democrats.

Griffith is a freshman congressman. His district has consistently elected Democrats to Congress, but recently has tended to vote Republican in presidential elections. Griffith has opposed Democratic positions on stimulus spending, environmental issues, and the health care bill.

A few Democratic congressmen in similar situations have recently announced that they will not run for reelection next year. Their districts will constitute the Republicans' prime targets.

On the other hand, Republican hopes in New York have taken a hit, due to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision not to seek statewide office in 2010. Even though he has never won an election outside of New York City, and failed to get out of the starting gate in a presidential run last year, he is a "big name" who might have helped Republicans take a Senate seat or the governorship away from the Democrats.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Senate Successors

At least one report on the recent U.S. Senate primary in Massachusetts for the special election that will choose the late Ted Kennedy's successor, noted the big names who had held that Senate seat in the past. Not only the Kennedy brothers, John and Edward, but also Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams. That reminded me of a topic I've had in the back of my mind for some time: who are the current successors to some of the famous senators from history?

House districts appear, disappear, and change shape, after each census. But, for example, the Class I seat and the Class III seat from Pennsylvania have existed in the same form since the First Congress. So there is a clear line of succession throughout history.

Pure trivia, I suppose. But every once in a while, senators indicate that it's something they think about. Perhaps it feeds their oversized egos. But it might be embarrassing, in some cases.

Here are the 16 presidents who served in the Senate, and the current holders of their Senate seats:

James Monroe/Jim Webb

John Quincy Adams/Paul Kirk

Andrew Jackson held both Tennessee seats for different periods, so he can be considered predecessor to both Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

Martin Van Buren/Kirsten Gillibrand

William Henry Harrison/George Voinovich

John Tyler/Jim Webb

Franklin Pierce/Judd Gregg

James Buchanan/Arlen Specter

Andrew Johnson/Bob Corker

Benjamin Harrison/Richard Lugar

Warren Harding/George Voinovich

Harry Truman/Claire McCaskill

John Kennedy/Paul Kirk

Lyndon Johnson/John Cornyn

Richard Nixon/Barbara Boxer

Barack Obama/Roland Burris

By far the oddest of couples in that list is the pairing of Nixon and Boxer. Nixon won his only Senate election in 1950, running against a left-wing woman whom he labeled the "Pink Lady". Boxer was first elected to the Senate in 1992, about a year and a half before Nixon died. I'm not sure to what degree he took note of her election, and that it was his old Senate seat. If so, perhaps he would have considered her at least pink, if not downright crimson. (That's in the old sense, when the left was considered red, before, for some strange reason, people began to call Republicans red.)

John Cornyn could probably have found common cause with some of the old-time Texas Democrats. But he would not fit too easily with Lyndon Johnson, who came out of a more populist strain of Texas politicians.

James Buchanan and Arlen Specter are two of the most prominent political names in my home state of Pennsylvania. But I'm not sure what either one would have thought of the pluses and minuses of the other.

And President Obama was clearly embarrassed about the circumstances under which Roland Burris became his successor.

Otherwise, for the most part, it seems as though predecessors might have approved of successors.

My Vote -- Revisited

Paul Mirengoff raises an interesting question on Power Line: whatever happened to the Obamacons?

Last November, as I described here, I voted Democratic for president for the first time since 1980, when I was still experiencing the hangover from my student-liberal days that had then been over for a year and a half.

Mirengoff links to a commentary piece that Christopher Buckley wrote in March, regarding his decision to vote for Barack Obama. If Buckley can't exactly be called the intellectual leader of the Obamacons, it's probably true that he, because of his surname and quirky writing style, brought more attention to the (what does one call it? a movement?) than anyone else.

I'm not sure whether Buckley has changed his mind in the meantime, but in March he said that, if he had it to do over again, he would still have voted for Obama:

Our choice, last fall, was between an angry 73 year old with a legislative record far from consistently conservative, who nominated as his running mate a know-nothing religious extremist; on the other side was an appealing, thoughtful man who--for a brief shining moment--seemed to be more than the sum of his ideological parts.

Buckley's view of Obama was more idealistic than mine. I've long since given up being idealistic about politicians. But I fully agree with his characterization of the Republican ticket, which is very close to what I wrote last November.

While this is not primarily intended to be an opinion blog (although I'm increasingly giving in to the temptation to turn it in that direction), I have criticized Obama. However, if given another chance to vote for the McCain/Palin ticket, I would decline.

Republicans who criticize Obama sound like Bob Taft or Everett Dirksen, calling for fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets. That's fine, as far as it goes. But Republicans making those arguments in 2009 should, it seems to me, acknowledge their own party's dismal fiscal policy, especially during the 2003-6 period when they controlled both of the political branches of the federal government, and the fact that we're just barely emerging from a severe recession.

George W. Bush's deficits in the hundreds of billions during a time of economic growth are not that all that different from Obama's trillion-plus deficits in a time of recession. And those who criticize Obama's advocacy of increased federal government involvement in health care seem to forget about Bush's massive expansion of Medicare.

I was not one of the Obama voters (and there were many) who equated his election with the Second Coming. I voted as I did, hoping that, after some time in the wilderness (somewhat mixing my religious metaphors here), the Republicans will produce a ticket in 2012 or 2016 that I can support.

I've made no secret of my hope that Governor Tim Pawlenty, Republican of Minnesota, will head that ticket. I admit that chauvinism about my native state contributes to that feeling, and I'll be watching his performance over the next few months, to confirm whether or not he is really The One.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Texas Senate Election -- The Democratic Side

I wrote here about a potential Republican candidate to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison as a senator from Texas, if, as expected, she resigns from that body, after next year's primary election in which she's seeking the Republican nomination for governor. But what about the Democrats?

Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post describes John Sharp as "the near-certain Democratic nominee".

Sharp, 59, spent 20 years in electoral politics in Texas, in the legislature, on the Railroad Commission, and as state comptroller. Since leaving the comptroller's office in 1998, he has worked as a tax consultant.

Mayor Bill White, of Houston, had planned to run in the Democratic Senate primary, but recently switched to the gubernatorial race. That seems, for the moment at least, to leave Sharp a clear path to the special election for Senate.

No Democrat has won a U.S. Senate election in Texas since Lloyd Bentsen won a fourth term in 1988, which he later cut short, to accept appointment as President Bill Clinton's first secretary of the treasury. Hutchison won a special election to replace Bentsen, in 1993, and that is the seat for which Sharp is now running.

20 Years Ago 17: Soft Power

I decided to write a bit more about Poland's Solidarity movement, after I saw this recent obituary in The New York Times. The article describes the contribution of the late James F. Brown to Solidarity's eventual success.

Brown was director of Radio Free Europe during the pivotal years between 1978 and 1984. His radio station provided important information to the Polish dissidents, without being too strongly polemical about their efforts.

It fits the Times' biases to oppose what they would consider to be too strong an anti-Communist message. But in this case, I think they have a legitimate point about the events that led to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary in 1956.

The American foreign policy establishment early in the Eisenhower presidency, led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, spoke of rolling back Communism (in contrast to the Truman Administration's policy of containment, as articulated by George Kennan). This brief biography of Dulles mentions a degree of caution on Eisenhower's part:

Although both called publicly for the “roll back” of Communism, and the “liberation” of those held captive by its “despotism and godless terrorism,” Eisenhower cautioned his secretary of state to add the phrase “by all peaceful means.”

Still, the argument is made that American rhetoric emboldened Hungarian reformers to resist the party line from Moscow, while the U.S. had no intention (and/or ability?) to back up its words with military force. That allowed the Soviets to militarily crush the Hungarian rebellion. (Similar circumstances obtained in relation to opponents of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship at the end of Gulf War One in 1991.)

25 years after the Hungarian situation, when the world contemplated what the Soviet Union might do in response to the formation of an independent labor union in Poland, the question again arose as to whether the U.S. and others in NATO might react militarily if the Soviets invaded Poland. Ronald Reagan kept Moscow guessing as to his intentions and, while the Polish government imposed martial law and outlawed the Solidarity union, the Soviets stopped short of repeating the tactics they had used in Hungary in 1956 and, under similar circumstances, in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The obituary indicates that Brown "resigned from the network in 1984 because he felt that the Reagan administration’s insistence on avid anti-Communist programming was counterproductive."

As I see it, the results indicate that Reagan struck the correct balance, by speaking out against what he considered wrong in the world, without creating exaggerated expectations about what the U.S. was, and was not, prepared to do.

And all of this provides interesting background to the "hard power" vs. "soft power" debate that has been going on, regarding our war against Al Qaeda.

Reagan's strategy of intentional ambiguity about his future plans was carried on throughout his presidency, not just in regard to Poland's situation. It stands in contrast to President Obama's setting a specific date for American withdrawal from Afghanistan. I understand Obama's strategy of putting pressure on the Afghan government, and I hope he succeeds. Again, this is one of those unanswerable historical what-ifs, but I strongly doubt that, if Reagan had faced the circumstances that Obama faces in Afghanistan, Reagan would have been as clear about his future intentions as Obama has been.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Army Navy

Later today, the Army-Navy football game will be played at its traditional neutral site, here in Philadelphia, about half-way between West Point and Annapolis. To commemorate that event, let's look at alumni of those academies who have become president of the United States.

West Point is ahead of the Naval Academy on that score, by 2-1. Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower were alums of the U.S. Military Academy. But Jimmy Carter is the only Navy alum to become president.

But the football score is expected to go in the other direction. Navy, coming in with a record of 8-4 is favored over 5-6 Army. If Ike were still around to play linebacker for West Point, maybe it would be the other way around. But maybe not, because he'd be 109 years old!

UPDATE: Navy did indeed defeat Army, by a score of 17 to 3.

CORRECTION: I got the math wrong. Eisenhower would be 119 years old.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Texas Senate Election

More news about a special U.S. Senate election that will be held in Texas if Kay Bailey Hutchison resigns from that body next year, as she has said she will do. Hutchison is running for governor of Texas, and will stay in the U.S. Senate until after the gubernatorial primary in which she faces incumbent Rick Perry. (Contrary to my speculation in this post, she has pledged to resign, even if she loses the primary.)

Chris Cillizza reports, in his blog The Fix, on the website of The Washington Post, that the Senate candidacy of Commissioner Michael Williams, of the Railroad Commission of Texas, will get a boost from Washington. Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, whom Cillizza describes as "the de facto leader -- within Congress -- of the tea party wing of the party", will reportedly endorse Williams.

Williams, 56, was appointed in 1998 to fill a vacancy on the commission by then-Governor George W. Bush. He has since been elected and reelected to that position.

"Railroad commission" is a misnomer. It actually regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas.

According to Cillizza, Williams is being pushed as the best representative of the true-blue (or is that "true-red?) right wing of the party. Cillizza portrays DeMint as the leader of an alternative to the official Senate campaign committee of his party.

This is also another case of Republicans seeking an African American candidate who can win a major statewide election. Previous such attempts have failed, such as the unsuccessful campaign of football star Lynn Swann to deny reelection to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell in 2006.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Massachusetts Senate Primary

As expected, in a primary election yesterday, Massachusetts Democrats nominated state Attorney General Martha Coakley as their candidate in the special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate. State Senator Scott Brown won the Republican nomination over token opposition.

Coakley received what passes for a landslide in a multi-candidate primary, winning almost half of the votes in a four-way race.

This report shows that, as of last month, Coakley was well ahead (58% to 27%) of Brown in a poll for the special election, which is scheduled for January 19, 2010.

Glen Johnson of the Associated Press has written an analysis piece that tries to make it sound as though the fact that a Republican won the Republican primary is a victory for that party:

A state senator's victory in the Republican primary for the special election to fill the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat gives the Massachusetts GOP something it's sorely missed: a place in the political spotlight.

Here's that horribly cynical side of me emerging again, but Johnson seems to be trying to create an unfounded sense of optimism about Brown's chances, so that, assuming he does not pull off a miracle and defeat Coakley, his loss might be seen as ending the momentum that the Republicans have recently been gaining, going into next November's congressional elections.

If the mainstream media are trying to make a Coakley victory seem like the same sort of game-changer as, say, Jim Webb's victory in the 2006 Virginia Senate race, they're being even sillier than usual.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Obama's Problem

President Obama has a problem. Some of his predecessors had the same problem. It was a major factor in George H.W. Bush's failure to win a second term in 1992. It made John Kennedy fearful about his chances for reelection, around the time that he made his ill-fated campaign trip to Texas in November of 1963.

In economist-speak the problem is that unemployment is a lagging indicator. In other words, as the economy recovers from recession, decreases in the unemployment rate happen more slowly than increases in gross domestic product and other indicators of growth.

While many employers cut their work force during a recession, they're reluctant to cut too much, because they will need those workers again when growth resumes, and there are costs related to laying off workers, and hiring new ones. So, there is typically some slack in an employer's work force, and the first increases in work brought on by renewed growth can be handled without new hiring.

Eventually, if growth continues, the economy will return to full employment. Economists who are not paid to say otherwise will tell you that the best prescription is for government to step back and allow markets to work.

But, in the meantime, those looking for work are impatient. And, rightly or wrongly (to a great extent, wrongly), the bulk of that impatience always gets aimed at the president.

Early indications are that Obama's party will suffer significant reverses in the 2010 congressional elections. I assume that he and his advisers are fully aware of the economic facts I've recounted above. But he needs to at least be perceived to be trying to do something about lingering high unemployment, in order to keep those electoral losses from getting out of control.

Therefore, he has proposed new federal spending that will purportedly add (or in that marvelously unquantifiable formula that his administration has invented, "save") jobs.

Instead of pandering in that manner, I would rather see him explain the economic facts to the people, and counsel them to be patient. Maybe he's not the great communicator I made him out to be in this post?

When GDP and the federal debt are both growing, as they now are, I think he should be more concerned about the effect on interest rates and inflation in the near-to-medium term. But that would be tougher to sell on the campaign trail.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Paula Hawkins

An interesting transitional figure in the advancement of women in American politics, has died. Paula Hawkins, who represented Florida in the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1987, died last Friday, at the age of 82.

The cataloguing of firsts for women in elective office is complicated by the distinction between those who followed their husbands into office, often as widows, as opposed to women who achieved public office "on their own". In its obituary, The New York Times describes the nature of Hawkins's "first":

She was the first woman elected to a full Senate term without being preceded in politics by a husband or father. (Hazel Abel of Nebraska, who also had no political family ties, was elected to the Senate in 1954, but only to serve the final two months of the term of the incumbent, who had died in office.) She was also the first woman to be a senator from Florida.

To some of us, 1980 doesn't seem like that long ago (although perhaps we're just in denial). But it clearly was a different time, as evidenced by the following story recounted in the Times:

At a news conference soon after her victory, a male television reporter condescendingly asked Mrs. Hawkins who would do the laundry now that she was going to be busy in the Senate. “I don’t really think you need to worry about my laundry,” she replied, smiling with her lips but not with her eyes. “O.K.?”

Nancy Kassebaum, Republican of Kansas, was the only other woman in the Senate during Hawkins's term. There are now 17 female senators.

Most of the women who have been elected to the Senate since Hawkins left that body, are Democrats. Of the six Republican women who have followed Kassebaum and Hawkins, I think it's safe to say that none have been as socially conservative as Hawkins was. My main memory of her from that time was of how she got under the skin of the leaders of the women's movement, who were (sometimes far) to the left of her. She was, for better or worse, a sort of forerunner of Sarah Palin.

Hawkins also played a role in the process I described here, of Republicans taking over Senate seats in the South. In the 11 states that had seceded at the time of the Civil War, Republican numbers went from six to 10 with the 1980 election. Then, in 1986, when Hawkins failed of reelection in a year when Democrats took back control of the Senate, that number went back down to six. There are now 15 Republican senators from those states.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

20 Years Ago 16: Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, who ran the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, first as party general secretary and then as president, won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize ...

... for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community. During the last few years, dramatic changes have taken place in the relationship between East and West. Confrontation has been replaced by negotiations. Old European nation states have regained their freedom.

Nobel peace laureates are often controversial. I have not shied away from such controversies myself.

But what are we to make of Gorbachev's role in the revolutions of 1989?

His main achievement was not something he did, but rather something he didn't do.

The Brezhnev Doctrine was outlined in a speech by Soviet Communist General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, in November 1968. He justified the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year, which ousted a reform Communist regime:

The peoples of the socialist countries and Communist parties certainly do have and should have freedom for determining the ways of advance of their respective countries. However, none of their decisions should damage either socialism in their country or the fundamental interests of other socialist countries, and the whole working class movement, which is working for socialism ... Discharging their internationalist duty toward the fraternal peoples of Czechoslovakia and defending their own socialist gains, the U.S.S.R. and the other socialist states had to act decisively and they did act against the antisocialist forces in Czechoslovakia.

Although his name is attached to it, Brezhnev did not originate that idea. His predecessor Nikita Khrushchev applied the same therapy to Hungary in 1956.

Gorbachev faced several situations in 1989 in which the Brezhnev Doctrine would have called for armed intervention. He held back, and he made it clear to all involved that he intended to continue holding back. Once the jailhouse door was opened, the prisoners did not linger inside.

So, Gorbachev's achievement was that he was not as evil as Brezhnev. Does that make him a hero?

To answer "no" to that is not to say that Gorbachev's behavior was insignificant, or that it didn't take a certain type of courage to purse that path. Perhaps we can turn around Edmund Burke's famous phrase and say that all that was necessary for the triumph of good was that evil men do nothing.

Gorbachev advanced through the Soviet Communist system, and benefited from the perquisites of power. I probably would have done the same thing in his circumstances. But the true heroes are the dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, who sacrificed a very comfortable life to be true to his conscience.

This is another of those unanswerable what-ifs, but I wonder whether Gorbachev would have governed in the orthodox Communist fashion, if the Soviet Union's economic circumstances had allowed for that. Some cite the falling oil prices of the 1980s as one factor depressing the Soviet economy. But there was also the cumulative effect of the inefficiencies of socialism that had been acting on the country for 70 years. In other words, an argument can be made that Gorbachev's benign inaction was forced on him, and was not necessarily evidence of a genuine intent to reform the system.

Oh, and then there's that little technicality that he never won a free and fair election. Marxist-Leninist politicians' refusal to compete against opposition parties has always been justified by gobbledygook such as "dictatorship of the proletariat".

Many Western intellectuals bought into that. The notion was that there were idealistic ends that, to some extent at least, justified brutal means.

But I agree with the school of thought that says there was never any idealistic intent; it was all about seizing power by force, and holding on to it by force for as long as possible. Submitting to competitive elections would have inhibited their full exercise of power. And, Marx forbid, they might lose, as they started finding out in various European countries starting in 1989.

And what happened when Gorbachev did run in a multi-party election? He got 0.5% of the vote when he ran for president of Russia in 1996. That's all the democratic legitimacy he ever had, when he interacted with Ronald Reagan, who had been reelected with 58.7% of the popular vote in 1984, and George H.W. Bush, who won with 53.3% in 1988.

And, yet, there are many on the left who want to make Gorbachev the hero of the story, and give only a small share, if any, of the credit, to Reagan and other democratically-elected leaders, including Margaret Thatcher.

The best I can bring myself to do is to damn Gorbachev with faint praise by writing that he was perhaps the least bad of the major Communist leaders.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Political Philosophy

In this post, I quoted the great political philosopher Tip O'Neill.

When I think back on all the time I wasted as a political science major, reading Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Marx, etc., it's too bad I didn't realize at the time that just about the only political philosophy I would need to write this blog, is contained in three quotes by the following 20th-century philosophers:

A week is a long time in politics.

-- British Prime Minister Harold Wilson

Money is the mother's milk of politics.

-- California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh

All politics is (should that be "are"?) local.

-- U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill

Regular readers of this blog will note how useful I find those quotations to be. Perhaps I'll try to work something in from Locke sometime, and see if you're impressed.

20 Years Ago 15: More Velvet

In this post, I briefly alluded to Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, its ever-so-peaceful transition away from Marxism-Leninism, beginning in 1989.

The subsequent decision of the Czechs and Slovaks to go their separate ways, which was implemented in 1993, was equally peaceful. Therefore, it was inevitable that it would be labeled the "Velvet Divorce".

As I mentioned here, the reunification of Germany was directly tied to the events of 1989. The division of Germany that existed between 1949 and 1990 was completely based on Cold War tensions. The USSR could not come to agreement with the other occupying powers, the U.S., Britain and France, on arrangements to unify the country, which had been the goal when the occupation zones were mapped out at Yalta in 1945. But, once the Cold War was over, the dividing line was quickly erased.

By contrast, the multinational state of Czechoslovakia came into existence long before the Cold War started. As was the case with Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia emerged out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in World War I. There is no logical reason why the Czechoslovak state could not have been kept together post-1989, if the political will had existed for that. But it did not.

The country's Communist dictators had no incentive to split up Czechoslovakia, because that would have diminished their power. However, after 1989, democracy allowed interests in both sides of the country to push their separatist agenda. In other words, the grass roots had a very different view than the former top-down rulers. The democratization allowed Tip O'Neill's famous saying to apply: "All politics is local."

To summarize: the Velvet Divorce was tied into the events of 1989, just not as directly as German reunification was.

But why wasn't the breakup of Czechoslovakia as violent as that of Yugoslavia? Here is a summary of a lecture by Valerie Bunce, a Cornell professor, going into at least as much detail as you're probably interested in, regarding differences in governmental structure. The key is:

Serbs were angry at not getting what they saw as their due, and Serbian leaders had significant institutional resources at their disposal to give a clear voice to these resentments.

Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, a product of Yugoslav Communism, had, by the early 1990s, no counterpart in Czechoslovakia. As was typical of Communist leaders, Milosevic gave top priority to preserving his power. By contrast, the democratic leaders of Czechoslovakia had no incentive to use force to prevent a breakup.

Aside from those issues of governing structure, the religious demographics are different. Roman Catholicism is the primary religion in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. That differs markedly from the combination of Catholics, Serbian Orthodox and Muslims in Yugoslavia. That seems to have been a major factor in the animosity between the various Yugoslav nationalities.

Monday, November 30, 2009

20 Years Ago 14: Pax Sovietica

When the Roman Empire controlled many of the areas that were on or near the Mediterranean Sea, one of the benefits Rome provided, in exchange for those regions giving up their political independence, was the Pax Romana. That's Latin for "Roman peace".

The website summarizes conditions from about 27 BCE to 180 CE as follows:

The Legions patrolled the borders with success, and though there were still many foreign wars, the internal empire was free from major invasion, piracy or social disorder on any grand scale.

The Empire went into decline thereafter, and eventually fell, but, at its height, Rome for the most part enforced peace in the areas it controlled.

As was the case with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 20th century, the Roman Empire combined many cultures and religions into one political entity. Those disparate peoples may well have engaged in frequent warfare, had the iron hand from above not held them in place.

That concept is sometimes applied to the USSR and its satellite nations. Moscow is said to have enforced a Pax Sovietica, that was similar to the Pax Romana.

As the Soviet Union's power waned, and eventually disintegrated, fault lines in its empire began to show. Christian Armenia fought against Muslim Azerbaijan. Minority peoples within Russia itself, such as the Muslims of Chechnya, fought for autonomy. The potential for such violence had always been there, but the iron hand from Moscow had kept those groups in check for many decades.

The Pax Sovietica also extended to the satellite countries of eastern Europe. Minority ethnic groups in many of those countries nursed grudges against their perceived oppressors.

Yugoslavia was not controlled by the USSR, after its Communist dictator Josep Broz (a.k.a. Tito) broke with Moscow in 1948. But there was a "Peace of Tito" (not being fluent in Latin, I can't translate that) that was a smaller-scale version of the Soviet Peace. Tito held together the different cultures within Yugoslavia, continuing to rule until his death in 1980.

The combination of Tito's absence, and the general air of revolution in the region, doomed the Yugoslav state, by the early 1990s. As I said here, I'm not going to go into detail but, as you undoubtedly know, the result was extremely violent in most of the territory that had constituted Yugoslavia.

Religious differences, which can paint The Other as a demonic force that needs to be dealt with accordingly, accentuated the violence.

The Communists did not eliminate nationalism within the territory they controlled. They kept a lid in place for several decades that was tight enough to prevent those pressures from exploding.

Was the eventual explosion worse than it would have been, had that lid not been held in place? That's one of those what-ifs of history that can't be definitively resolved. But the poverty and the suppression of civil society that were produced by totalitarian rule probably made things worse.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

California Governor: The Republican Primary

I've written about next year's Democratic nomination for governor of California, in this and other posts. But there is a more spirited contest on the Republican side, where three major candidates are contending for that party's nomination. To be scrupulously fair, they are, in alphabetical order:

Tom Campbell, 57, was elected to the U.S. House in 1988. His service in the House was interrupted, when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that was won by Barbara Boxer in 1992. Campbell returned to the House in 1995, but again gave up his seat for an unsuccessful Senate candidacy. In 2000, he won the Republican nomination to run against Dianne Feinstein, but lost to her in a landslide in the general election. Trained as an economist and a lawyer, he has held college faculty positions during periods out of elective office.

Steve Poizner, 52, is California's insurance commissioner, an elected official in that state. Before he was elected to that position in 2006, Poizner was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Meg Whitman, 53, is making her first run for public office. She is a businesswoman, whose career also took her to Silicon Valley. She was CEO of eBay from 1998 to 2008. Last year, Whitman was associated with the presidential campaigns of, first, Mitt Romney, and then, John McCain.

George Will has written favorably about Campbell and Poizner. As far as I know, he hasn't said much, one way or the other, about Whitman. I'm not sure if that means he just hasn't gotten around to doing a column about her, or he opposes her candidacy.

According to Real Clear Politics, Whitman leads Campbell by an average of 9.2 percentage points in polls that have been taken since August. Poizner is far behind in third place.

The primary election will be held on June 8, 2010.

20 Years Ago 13: Nations

In this series about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and related events, I don't plan to go into much detail about the breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. But I do want to address how nationalism has affected events in many parts of the ex-Marxist-Leninist countries of Europe.

The end-game of Communism in some of the places that had been part of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was much more violent than in other places such as Czechoslovakia, home of the Velvet Revolution.

The violence took place between different nations that had been thrown together in the same state.

I'm not a lawyer, let alone an international lawyer, but I'm using the terms "state" and "nation" according to what I understand to be their technical legal meanings, which are different than the way we use those words in American political conversation.

"State" means an independent country. But since, of course, we apply that word to political subdivisions of our country, we tend to call an independent country a "nation". But the international meaning of "nation" is a people with a common culture, which may or may not have a state of their own.

So, for example, there is a Japanese nation and a Japanese state. However, there is a Kurdish nation, but no Kurdish state. And to illustrate one more variation on the theme, Belgium, for example, is a state with two nations (Flemings and Walloons).

The USSR and Yugoslavia consisted of multiple nations crammed into a single state. The USSR created that situation by conquest, while Yugoslavia was somewhat of an artificial creation, as part of the Versailles peace settlement after World War I.

There is a story about the creation of Yugoslavia that gets repeated so often, I assume it must be apocryphal. But, whether it happened or not, it makes a good story, especially for a Republican to tell. Supposedly, President Woodrow Wilson, representing the U.S. at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, micromanaged the creation of Yugoslavia to such a degree that, at one point, he was down on his knees, drawing boundaries on a map that was placed on the floor. In a PBS interview in 1999, journalist Harold Evans describes:

... when Wilson went to Versailles to make the world safe for democracy and was on his knees drawing a map of Yugoslavia on the principle of self-determination ...

Serbians, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Montenegrins and Macedonians were combined into Yugoslavia, the land of the South Slavs. The boundaries needed to be redrawn because those areas had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was broken up when it ended up on the losing side in World War I.

The notion that Yugoslavia was totally dreamed up in Wilson's idealistic head is at least an exaggeration. Srdja Trifkovic, writing under the auspices of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, describes unification efforts by some of the people in those nations, that predated Wilson.

But regardless of who gets the credit or blame for its creation, the fact remains that multiple nations with disparate cultures were combined in one state. Among other differences, Yugoslavia threw together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as Muslims.

Next: What held the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia together, temporarily?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Circular Reasoning

Adam Liptak writes in The New York Times about points of agreement between some on the left and some on the right of the spectrum, regarding criminal justice issues.

This is an excellent example of something I wrote about here, which is that the political spectrum can be represented graphically by a circle, rather than a line.

Liptak quotes one interested party who sees it that way:

“It’s a remarkable phenomenon,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The left and the right have bent to the point where they are now in agreement on many issues. In the area of criminal justice, the whole idea of less government, less intrusion, less regulation has taken hold.”

Criminal justice issues seem particularly conducive to producing that bending-around effect. More purely economic issues lend themselves more to the traditional linear view of the spectrum. No model ever exactly fits reality.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Let The Debate Begin

On Saturday, Senate Democrats held their 60-member caucus together, and were therefore successful on a cloture vote to allow consideration of health care legislation. The wavering Democrats whom I described here, all fell into line by that afternoon.

But it's nowhere near a done deal yet. Senate proceedings are expected to last at least through the month of December. And it seems unlikely that key votes on the legislation will repeat the absolute party-line nature of Saturday's procedural vote.

Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a member of the Democratic caucus, who was reelected as an independent candidate, opposes the creation of "a government-run health insurance company — the so-called public option", according to a press release on his website.

Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, who was one of the last three from his party to agree to go along with the procedural vote, issued a statement reading in part:

In my first reading, I support parts of the bill and oppose others I will work to fix. If that's not possible, I will oppose the second cloture motion—needing 60 votes—to end debate, and oppose the final bill.

Another Democratic senator, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, the absolute last holdout over the weekend, says that she will "not help move the bill past the next stage if a government-run public option remains part of the legislation."

On the other side, Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, was the only member of her party to vote in the Finance Committee for the Baucus bill, which would provide for a sort of public-option-lite, which Time magazine described as follows:

$6 billion in federal funding to states or groups of states to set up nonprofit, consumer-owned and -operated health-insurance cooperatives. These cooperatives would be unaffiliated with any government entity and would be self-insured — meaning cooperatives would collect premiums from members and pay out claims from those funds.

On Saturday, Snowe voted with her Republican colleagues against consideration of the bill sponsored by Majority Leader Harry Reid.

I expect most Republicans to vote against Reid's bill, regardless of how it might be amended. But Snowe, and her Republican colleague from Maine, Susan Collins, are mentioned as Republicans who might be convinced to support some version of the legislation.

Unless Reid is able to twist some Democratic arms very strongly, it seems as though the full-fledged public option is dead. But it could perhaps survive in some watered-down form.

Friday, November 20, 2009

You're no George Washington

The American Constitution is often held up as the perfect governmental structure. The checks and balances bring things back into line, when any person or institution oversteps. And the amendment procedure is flexible enough to allow the document to change with the times, but rigid enough to give it staying power. That has allowed significant flaws in the 1787 Constitution, especially its tolerance of slavery, to be corrected.

But many other countries have constitutions that look good on paper. Not all of them have had the political success that the U.S. has had.

I would argue that the stamp that George Washington put on the institution of the presidency was also a major factor.

The framers of the Constitution are said to have had Washington in mind when they designed that office. He had sufficient stature to assert authority as a strong executive. That stature derived from his inherent personal qualities, as well as his military leadership during the Revolution.

The precedents that Washington set, ensured that presidents would be more than mere administrators. On the other hand, they would not be monarchs, especially in light of Washington's precedent of retiring after eight years on the job.

The European Union (EU) just completed the process of adopting a new constitution, which I described here and here when that process was almost over. I see similarities between the EU's action, and America's strengthening of its federal structure, when it replaced its original constitution, the Articles of Confederation. I hope to explore that topic further, when I have the time.

The new EU constitution, the Lisbon Treaty, creates two new offices, president of the Council, and high representative. Those are informally called, respectively, president of Europe and the European foreign minister.

Filling EU offices always involves considerations of nationality and one's place on the political spectrum. It had been clear for some time that the two new offices would be balanced between left and right, and between the larger countries and the smaller ones.

But, in this case, there was also the stature issue. Backers of the unsuccessful presidential candidacy of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in terms of his ability to stop traffic in Beijing. In other words, the issue was whether the EU wanted internationally recognized Big Names in the new positions.

In the end, the EU answered "no" to that question.

Their choice for president is Belgian Prime Minister Herman Von Rompuy, who has been in that office for less than 11 months. Van Rompuy, 62, trained as an economist, has been a bureaucrat in various positions in his home country. Perhaps the traffic would stop for him in Brussels, but probably not anywhere else. His party is that of the center-right Christian Democrats.

For some time, the expectation had been that, if Blair didn't get the top job, Britain would get the consolation prize of the foreign minister position. That turned out to be the case but, again, that choice was underwhelming.

Two Big Names had been mentioned for that office: Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, both of whom, along with Blair, belong to the Labor Party. They both backed out of the race.

Catherine Ashton, a.k.a. Baroness Ashton of Upholland, will be the high representative, if confirmed by the European Parliament. Ashton, 53, was appointed to Britain's House of Lords in 1999, and has been the EU's trade commissioner since October of 2008.

This article from the London Times sums up what seems to be the prevailing opinion about the Baroness:

The appointment as a little-known peer to become Europe's first "foreign minister" stunned and dismayed many in Westminster [the district of London where Parliament meets] ...

The votes seem to reflect an aversion on the part of European leaders to have anyone atop the EU structure who might overshadow the national leaders of the member states. That's a signal that the EU will not move closer to being, in Winston Churchill's famous phrase, the United States of Europe. After all, how could you have a United States without a George Washington?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Medicare: The Sequel

Nicholas Kristof, in The New York Times, cites similarities between the arguments that are currently being made against the Obama/Pelosi/Reid health care plans, and objections that were raised when the Social Security and Medicare programs were first enacted. He argues that those objections proved to be wrong in relation to those programs, and so should be considered invalid arguments in the current debate.

I disagree.

One of the arguments was about "deteriorating service", which Kristof contends did not happen with Medicare. Now, I'm still just a bit too young to have experienced Medicare, but I know that under any managed care plan I've been under, the quality of the service diminishes in proportion to the amount by which costs have been shaved down. The physician is always in a hurry, and unable to devote sufficient time to each patient. You get what you pay for. Or, looked at another way, a physician needs to schedule more patients during any given period of time, if he or she is being paid less for each of the patients.

I have heard that the same phenomenon occurs for Medicare patients, which would make sense, given the cost constraints involved. And there's every reason to think that that would happen with a new program.

Regarding the bigger picture, the financing of Social Security and Medicare is clearly unsustainable. As is the case with lucky participants in every Ponzi scheme, early beneficiaries have received benefits. But expanding life spans and declining birth rates have combined to decrease the ratio of workers to retirees. If benefit levels are to remain at anything near their current level, payroll tax rates will need to go up and up and up.

Kristof blithely states that payroll taxes do not "add to Americans’ tax burden so as to kill jobs". But a good case has been made that the imposition of payroll taxes during the depression was one factor that kept unemployment high for a longer period of time in the 1930s, than had been the case with similarly severe downturns before that.

And much has been said about jobless recoveries from recent recessions. That has always been an issue to a certain extent, given that unemployment is a lagging indicator. That's economist jargon for the pattern that, after GDP begins to grow again after a recession, it takes some further time before the unemployment rate starts to decrease.

Supposedly that lag between recovery and employment has been getting longer for recent recessions. If that's the case, then the higher payroll taxes in recent years are probably a factor.

Businesses always have a choice between what economists call labor inputs and capital inputs. Capital inputs are plant and equipment. They represent what the unions have traditionally dreaded as "automation". If payroll taxes continue to rise, employers will have an incentive to turn more toward capital inputs, and recoveries will become more and more jobless.

Kristof contends that those of us who oppose his point of view are "on the wrong side of history". That Marxist language, which was used to justify the policies of, for example, the Soviet Union, was turned on its head two decades ago, when history was shown to instead be on Ronald Reagan's side.

Now Franklin Roosevelt (whom Reagan inexplicably continued to admire throughout his career) is the one who is being shown to be on the wrong side of history. Much as I like to see Roosevelt's ideas exposed as paskan (that's a Finnish noun for something brown and malodorous that I'm euphemistically inserting here), I'm concerned about dealing with the huge problems ahead with the current programs. In light of that, it's certainly irresponsible to create more entitlements (as George W. Bush did with Medicare). In other words, let's not veer further toward the wrong side of history.

Take two aspirin, read the Constitution, and call me in the morning

George Will analyzes constitutional implications of the health care bills under consideration in Congress.

He makes some plausible arguments about provisions of those bills being unconstitutional. But there doesn't seem to be any obvious cut-and-dried case for unconstitutionality.

If the legislation is enacted, and a challenge comes to the Supreme Court, it will, as a practical matter, probably come down to whether 1) the "swing justice", Anthony Kennedy, goes along with the challenge; or 2) President Obama is able to replace any members of the Court's "conservative wing".

But, surprises do happen. If a good case can be made against any or all of a new health care structure, some from the "liberal wing" might be compelled to call it unconstitutional.

The Democrats would do well to consider what chaos would ensue, if they implement a plan, only to have it disallowed by the Supreme Court a couple of years or so down the line.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I wrote here about a possible filibuster that would stop the Senate health care debate before it starts.

But there has been much talk about the Senate's Democratic majority doing an end run around the filibuster rules. One vehicle for such a maneuver is the budget reconciliation process.

That process was part of the new budget rules that the Congress adopted in 1974, in the wake of budget battles that it had fought against Richard Nixon.

If Democrats use that procedure in this case, it seems as though they would be turning its purpose upside down. Reconciliation was intended to make policy changes to bring spending in line with the totals mandated by the annual budget resolution. Its purpose was to restrain federal spending, not to greatly add to it.

One procedural rule for the reconciliation process is that it can't be filibustered in the Senate. Therefore, health care legislation passed via that process would require only 51 affirmative votes rather than the 60 votes that are usually needed to prevent a filibuster.

If the Democratic leadership does that, the Republicans could respond by procedural moves that could greatly slow down the workings of the Senate.

The Senate often speeds up its proceedings, by obtaining unanimous consent to bypass certain cumbersome rules. If one or more Republicans were to object to those unanimous consent requests, they could really gum up the works.

One example is unanimous consent to not require that the full text of a bill be read to the Senate. According to this NPR report, Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is considering objecting to that routine procedure as regards the lengthy health-care bill.

What goes around comes around. When Republicans controlled the Senate during most of George W. Bush's presidency, Democrats were talking about using similar tactics, if the Republicans had bypassed filibusters against some of Bush's judicial nominees.

I very much want to prevent enactment of socialist health care. And Republican guerrilla tactics might be necessary to accomplish that. But it would be better if the Democrats were to realize that they will be back in the minority some day, and they therefore ought to be careful about weakening the filibuster option.

The other public option is to filibuster

As the Senate leadership tries to get floor debate going on a health care bill, an early cloture vote looms.

This New York Times article describes the situation facing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who needs all 60 of his troops to stay in line, to prevent a filibuster that would keep the bill off the Senate floor.

It looks as though the Republicans have party-line discipline. Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, who voted in the Finance Committee in favor of a bill sponsored by that panel's chairman, Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, will support a filibuster against Reid's more aggressive version of the bill.

Here's a home-state report on one of the wavering Democrats, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, that indicates that Nelson is expected eventually to fall into line behind Reid.

Health Care: A Modest Proposal

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, makes an interesting counterproposal to the Democrats' health care plans, on his blog Marginal Revolution.

It seems to achieve most of the goals I set out here and here, in my description of an ideal health care policy. Cowen suggests ways to take care of those who can't afford to pay the full cost of their health care, while allowing markets to function.

I'm skeptical of his suggestions to have government micromanage issues such as medical records. For one thing, I doubt that that's a big factor in the cost equation.

Ideally, market forces would take care of that. But would they? Will someone buy services from one physician rather than another, because one of them is better at handling medical records?

My primary care physician writes prescriptions with pen and paper, while a specialist that I see periodically, prints them out from a laptop computer. Would I leave the primary care physician I've been with for 18 years, if I found another one who is more tech-savvy? That's the type of thing that would need to happen, if market forces were going to improve that situation.

But, regardless of all that, I'm still skeptical about the federal government mandating standards regarding that issue.

20 Years Ago 12: Laggards

Some of the East-Central European countries that had had Marxist-Leninist regimes were slower than others, in voting those regimes out of power.

In Poland, even though the 1989 election had been rigged to produce a Communist victory, the Solidarity union-cum-party was able to elect a prime minister from its own ranks.

East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary followed in short order, early in 1990.

In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who had been a political prisoner, was elected president on December 29, 1989. The country then voted in a free parliamentary election on June 8, 1990. The Civic Forum, a broad anti-Communist coalition, won a majority.

Then, in May 1990, Hungary elected a parliament, resulting in a coalition government headed by the center-right MDF party.

Poland eventually threw off the last vestiges of its Marxist-Leninist past. Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader, was elected president in December 1990. A fully free parliamentary election followed on October 27, 1991, putting a center-right coalition into office. However, in Poland, as in many of these countries, center-left parties with roots in the Communist past, have held power at various subsequent times, but they haven't significantly strayed from the democratic market-oriented path that was set in 1989.

As I noted here, Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu did not go gently into that good night, as some of his counterparts did. He had to be shot out of office. After that, the National Salvation Front (FSN), which largely consisted of lower-level Communist functionaries from the Ceausescu regime, held on to power for years. It took until 1996 for an opposition party to be elected. But Romania has progressed at its own pace, and is now a member of NATO and the EU.

On June 10, 1990, Bulgaria held a multi-party election in which the Socialists (a reformed version of the Communist Party) won a majority. Another election, on October 13, 1991, produced a coalition government led by the anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces. Sources on the Web describe the 1991 election as Bulgaria's first fully democratic one. But I could not find any description of the ways in which the 1990 election fell short. Any comments on that would be appreciated.

Albania was odd man out, among the European Marxist-Leninist countries. It was the only one that maintained closer ties to China than to the Soviet Union, after the rift opened up between Moscow and Beijing, circa 1960. Albania maintained a Stalinist approach to government, which alienated it from Stalin's successors in Moscow and, later, to Mao Zedong's successors in Beijing. Those policies left it as perhaps the worst economic basket-case on its continent. In 1992, the Communists were voted out of power in Albania.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

30 Years Ago

I've been writing about the events of 1989, 20 years ago.

Events of 30 years ago, during the winter of 1979-80, were also significant. But they were less fun. The Iranian terrorists' unique interpretation of diplomatic immunity, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, are less enjoyable to write about than the fall of Berlin Wall and related events.

So, exercising my prerogatives as a blogger (able to write whatever I want, subject to the libel laws), I'll instead describe what I (somewhat subjectively) consider to be the best hockey season ever. (Wait until February, at which time geopolitics will enter back into the story.)

30 years ago today, the Philadelphia Flyers played to a 3-3 tie (back when there were such things in the National Hockey League) in St. Louis against the Blues. That brought their season record to 13-1-2. Their unbeaten streak had extended to 14 games. How long can it continue, and how will it end? (Heavy foreshadowing intended, especially regarding the latter.)

Deep in the Heart of Washington

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, who is a candidate in her party's 2010 gubernatorial primary, will stay in the Senate, at least until after that March primary.

Hutchison had planned an earlier resignation from the Senate, perhaps as early as this fall. But with the two parties' numbers in the Senate being so close to the dividing line between filibuster and cloture, she doesn't want to make that move just yet.

Of course, one implication of that schedule is that, if she loses the primary, she can hold on to her Senate seat, and seek reelection in 2012. Polls show her trailing her primary opponent, incumbent Governor Rick Perry, by a significant margin.

If Hutchison makes a comeback and defeats Perry, the timing of a special election for her Senate seat would depend on the timing of her resignation. As Josh Kraushaar explains in Politico, that could mean either a May or November special election.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Trial and Error

This New York Times editorial about health care legislation points up some fundamental differences between the statist point of view, which advocates big government, and the libertarian concept, which would limit government to its essential functions.

The editors' main point is that:

The fundamental fix — reshaping how care is delivered and how doctors are paid in a wasteful, dysfunctional system — is likely to be achieved only through trial and error and incremental gains.

The godfather of American statists, Franklin Roosevelt, famously advocated the trial-and-error approach, with the following words:

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

But that method ignores the Law of Unintended Consequences.

When government acts with the intent of doing some good thing, other things tend to flow from that action, and they often have effects that are contradictory to that good intent.

For example, President Richard Nixon implemented price controls on gasoline in the early 1970s, with the intent of making it easier for people to buy gasoline, by keeping it affordable. But, when the market price rose above the level of the government-imposed maximum, the laws of supply and demand imposed gasoline shortages, and we started waiting in line at gas stations. The controls that were supposed to make it easier to buy gasoline instead made it more difficult.

When government follows Roosevelt's admonition to "above all, try something", that something often does more harm than good. And when the federal government tries it, the harm is perpetrated on a large scale.

That's why I disagree with the Times on the advisability of experimenting on the American health care system.

Also, when big government initiatives cause problems in that way, the statists often propose further big government programs that they think will alleviate those problems.

I explained here how government policy, first wartime price controls, and then tax policy, created incentives for employers to pay for their employees' health care, in place of cash compensation to those employees, who could then spend their own money.

The "wasteful, dysfunctional system" that the Times decries was largely created by consumers spending other people's money (or at least it seems that way to them). The Times wants to correct the problems that government has produced, by giving us more of the same. I fail to see the logic in that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Public employee unions

Here is a Philadelphia Inquirer article about efforts by Republicans in Pennsylvania's state legislature to outlaw strikes by public mass transit employees.

I'm surprised by the description of other states' laws on this subject. I was under the impression that, since the initial growth of public employee unions in the 1960s and '70s, as described in the article, they had established their right to strike everywhere. But, apparently, the People's Republic of Pennsylvania is rare in allowing that.

I hope that right-minded folks in Harrisburg are successful in returning some sanity to that situation.

Later rather than sooner?

Here in the U.S., there's always quite a bit for those of us in the chattering classes to chatter about, during the runup to a presidential or congressional election.

The same is true of a British parliamentary general election. But, in light of the fact that the U.K. has no set time interval between general elections, as I explained here, they have one additional issue about which to chatter: the timing of the election.

The drop-dead deadline is in June 2010. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown can set the date any time before then, and his decision will be rubber-stamped by Queen Elizabeth.

Political reporter Nick Robinson, in his blog on the BBC website, discusses speculation that Brown might try to wrong-foot his rivals by setting the date earlier in the new year. Robinson concludes that the timing of the budget process will prevent that.

It seems as though Brown will do the same thing his predecessors have done when they find their party trailing in the polls, as Brown's Labor Party currently is, which is to wait until the last possible moment, hoping for some unexpected event, such as a surprise uptick in the economy, to save the day.

20 Years Ago 11: Aftermath

In 1990, the former Soviet-bloc countries began to hold free elections. The general trend, which went in fits and starts in some places, was to definitively oust the Communist parties. However, remnants of those parties were voted into power in some places, later on, in the form of center-left social democratic parties.

I recall being skeptical at the time, as future election dates were announced in those countries. Knowing that the outgoing regimes could be trusted about as far as one could throw a hammer and sickle, I was suspicious that the Communists would try to finagle their way out of those commitments. But, for the most part, the game was well and truly over, and they realized that there was nothing for them to do but step aside.

East Germany had a different situation than the others did. In all of the Soviet-bloc countries, there was no longer a raison d’ĂȘtre for the Marxist-Leninist regimes. But that had an additional implication in East Germany, where there was therefore no longer a raison d’ĂȘtre for it as a separate state.

As World War II was ending, the allies carved Germany up into four occupation zones, one each for the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain and France. The plan was to reunite Germany as soon as order could be reestablished, and free elections set up.

That plan fell apart as soon as Harry Truman realized that the trust that his predecessor's administration had placed in Joseph Stalin was naive. The Cold War began, and the wartime allies were cooperating as little as possible, regarding Germany.

By 1949, no longer willing to wait for a reunification agreement, the Soviet Union set up the German Democratic Republic in East Germany, and the others established the German Federal Republic in West Germany. At that time, it was unclear when, if ever, Germany would be unified.

Fast forward to the late 1980s, and that distant goal started to seem imminent. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev toured West Germany, he received a tumultuous welcome. The Economist noted at the time that Gorbymania had turned into Gorbasm. That was largely based on the view (which turned out to be correct) that he wouldn't move to prevent German reunification.

Not all Europeans were so ecstatic, however.

Western European leaders, including Margaret Thatcher, were wary of the consequences of changing the existing European order.

When the Soviet Union expressed security concerns about Germany, which had caused huge suffering when it attacked the USSR in 1941, the Economist dismissed those fears, pointing out that the only time a German army had invaded another country post-1945, was in 1968, when the East German army participated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Although Gorbachev knew that his country could not continue to dominate any part of Germany, his hope was probably that a neutral East Germany could be maintained as a buffer against the eastward expansion of NATO. That remains a concern for post-Soviet Russia, and was a factor in its war with Georgia in 2008.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the Federal Republic of Germany overcame such opposition by strongly pushing for reunification. His victory was probably largely based on the fact that the further economic deterioration of East Germany left the world with no other choice. The form of the unification was not a merger, but rather a matter of the East German Laender joining the Federal Republic. The eastern Laender fell like rotten apples into the Bonn basket.

As a result of all that, the East Germans voted twice in 1990. March 18 saw the only democratic election in the history of the German Democratic Republic. They elected a parliament whose main task was to prepare the east for unification. That event, for which the principals had originally penciled in a later date, was moved up to October 3, in light of the increasingly precarious state of the eastern economy.

The democratic all-German election that was supposed to take place after a brief postwar interim, finally happened on December 2, 1990, a mere 45 years late. The coalition government that was led by Kohl's Christian Democrats was reelected, with strong support in both east and west.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Ben Pershing, in The Washington Post, asks whether, as a nation, we're depressed.

Is it time for another Malaise Speech? The first one worked so well.

20 Years Ago 10: Putting it all together

Earlier this week, world leaders gathered in Berlin to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The November 9 anniversary of that event will seemingly always mark the end of the Cold War in most people's minds.

But, as I discussed in previous posts in this series, that incident happened rather late in a string of events that unfolded all through the year of 1989.

We could endlessly debate which of those events was the most important. I think that the fall of the Wall had the highest symbolic importance, because the Wall had been such an icon of the Cold War. Before November 9, it didn't completely feel as though the Cold War had been won.

During 1989, two bulwarks of Communist power were broken down: 1) restricted emigration; and 2) suppression of power centers that could compete against Communist parties.

As time went on, it became increasingly clear that the command economy system under the Marxist-Leninist regimes doomed their subjects to a lower standard of living than that enjoyed by people living in places where market forces were allowed to operate. If emigration had been freely allowed, the most productive workers would have skedaddled. As it was, some risked their lives attempting to do so, such as those who were shot trying to cross the Berlin Wall, and those who left places such as Vietnam and Cuba in unsafe boats.

As long as those people were kept within borders that were, in effect, prison walls, the command economies could maintain some semblance of economic activity. Once those walls began to be breached, first along the border between Austria and Hungary, the command economies were doomed.

Regarding the other issue, that of competing power centers, Poland led the way. In 1980, an independent labor union was formed, that temporarily received government approval.

Communists' claims of having created a workers' paradise were always belied by the opposition to them on the part of such union organizations as the AFL-CIO. While some on the American left were sympathetic with the Marxist-Leninist regimes, the AFL-CIO was strongly anti-Communist, largely because of those regimes' unwillingness to allow independent unions. Such unions would have been a competing center of power, and the Communist parties were unable to face up to such competition.

The Marxist-Leninist regimes suppressed the churches, which were also potential competitors for power. That was relatively easy with the Orthodox Christian churches that were prevalent in much of the Soviet bloc. They are organized at the national level, and are therefore easier for national governments to co-opt. For example, Stalin loosened restrictions on the Russian Orthodox church during World War II, in order to foment Russian patriotic fervor.

Churches were more of a problem in a place such as Poland, where the Roman Catholic Church is the predominant religion. That church is organized internationally. When, in 1978, cardinals from all over the world elected as pope Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, the Polish regime could do nothing to stop it. They could, in theory, have stopped him from returning to his native land for pastoral visits but, as a practical matter, that would not have been sustainable. Therefore Pope John Paul II became, in effect, the leader of the opposition.

When the Polish government tried to implement limited competition by opposition political parties, they had strayed too far from the principle of a Communist monopoly on power, and they were soon ousted. They probably knew that, but figured they would try the semi-free election of 1989 as a desperate last-ditch tactic.

From our 20-years-later perspective, it's obvious that only those Communist regimes that have been ruthless in their suppression of competing power-centers, such as China and North Korea, have survived.

However, China's regime has been a trying a rather delicate high-wire act of its own, introducing a capitalist economy, while maintaining its dictatorship. Private wealth is a competing source of power that, so far, the government has kept under control.