Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New Blog: Center Right

I'm launching a new venture.

With increasing frequency, I've been giving in to the temptation to write opinion pieces on this blog. That was not my original plan, which was to describe the political process in a (mostly) non-partisan manner.

As Oscar Wilde once said, "I can resist anything but temptation." So, I am giving in to the urge to continue with opinion writing, but I'm doing so elsewhere.

I have started a new blog called Center Right. I plan to continue writing on this blog, with posts about the political system and its history. But please check out the new blog, on which I'll be concentrating my opinion writing.

Staying in Washington

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, is reneging on her pledge to resign from the Senate, and will instead complete her current term, which runs until 2013.

She lost her party's primary for governor earlier this year. Hutchison's plan to resign was originally intended to free her up to campaign in that election. When it became increasingly obvious that she couldn't win the gubernatorial primary, she maintained that she would still resign, regardless of the outcome of the primary. Immediately after the March 2 primary, there were signs that Hutchison was backpedalling from her decision.

The senator has made the same discovery that other Washington politicians have made over the years, i.e., that their continued presence in the capital is absolutely vital for the future of the country.

I'm reminded of the late Democratic senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, who, when he was first elected in 1990, pledge to serve no more than two terms. By 2002, it was objectively clear to Wellstone that he was too important to leave the Senate. He was engaged in a tight battle for reelection when he died in a plane crash in October 2002.

Hutchison has not said anything about plans for a reelection campaign in 2012. If she does run, it will be interesting to see whether she faces as strong a challenge as Wellstone did, from Republicans or Democrats or both.

She gets some cover from Republican Senate colleagues, and from her erstwhile opponent, Governor Rick Perry, who have urged her to remain in the Senate. They want a secure hold on all of their current 41 seats, as they seem likely to get up into the high 40s in this year's midterm elections, with a possibility, though not a probability, of regaining the majority they lost in 2006.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Excellent analysis of the health care situation

I agree with both of the main points in this analysis posted on the Power Line blog by Paul Mirengoff.

First, the rationing of health care services. Resources are always finite, and therefore need to be rationed among consumers. Products and services are, for the most part, rationed by price. That system works so well that we don't tend to think about it very often. In cases where government prevents rationing by price, then one or more of those mechanisms that we usually think of as rationing, must come into play.

In some cases, rationing is achieved by government mandating a certain allocation of resources. For example, in the U.S. during World War II, it was decided that each person would get a certain number of rationing points, documented by government-printed coupons. A purchase of gasoline, or certain types of foods, required a combination of cash and ration coupons. Another example of this type of rationing was the system in the Soviet Union, where the political elite were allowed to shop in well-stocked stores that were off-limits to the proletariat.

A more common method is rationing by standing in line. Those Soviet consumers who were kept out of the elite stores, were limited to stores where shortages were common (unless they traded in "black markets", i.e., those things that are known to the rest of us as "markets"). When they found out through word-of-mouth (nothing so bourgeois as advertising, of course) that a scarce product was available at a certain place, a long line quickly formed. Because prices were set by bureaucratic mandate, rather than supply and demand, the products could not be rationed by price, and were therefore rationed by waiting in line. A similar situation occurred in the U.S. at certain points during the 1970s, when federal price controls prevented the price of gasoline from rising to the market level. Shortages ensued, and we waited in line at the gas pumps.

Something similar has already happened with health care and, as Mirengoff explains, it's likely to get worse if some variation on the Obama-Pelosi-Reid plans is enacted. Various types of managed-care plans that have come into use over the last several years have imposed price controls on health care providers. Have you noticed how the waiting times at the doctor's office have lengthened, and the amount of time the doctor is willing to spend with each of us has shortened? I have, and I can identify with Mirengoff's opening paragraph, because my nonagenarian mother has noticed it too. It stands to reason that, if a physician is being paid less for each performance of a service, he or she must squeeze more work into each day.

Here in America, that type of rationing has not reached the level that's prevalent in the U.K., where the National Health Service puts patients on long waiting lists for procedures that we can have done pretty much immediately in the U.S. Those of us who oppose further American government involvement in health care do not want our country to emulate that practice.

The use of rationing-by-price raises the issue of what to do when people can't afford the price. The twofold answer is to maintain programs to provide services to those who can't afford them, and to improve the earning-power of low-income people. That first goal can be achieved through Medicaid-type programs (but not Medicare-type programs that pay for health care, regardless of whether recipients can afford it on their own). As to the second goal, efforts toward making people more productive, such as reform of the educational system, will bring them higher incomes. I don't see how poor people's situation is improved by restricting the right of those of us who can afford it, to buy whatever medical care we choose to obtain.

I also agree with his analogy to George W. Bush's persistence with his Iraq war strategy, which he pursued long after public support had fallen away. He clearly believed he was doing the right thing. Events of the last three years seem to indicate that, at the very least, he should have increased American troop levels sooner. Aside from that, many of us believe that he never should have invaded Iraq in the first place. Be that as it may, his actions brought about large losses for his party in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Similarly, it seems clear that Democratic leaders such as President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi must believe that they are doing the right thing on the health care issue. All indications are that their efforts to push a bill through Congress despite a lack of strong public support for the measure, will adversely affect the Democrats in the elections of 2010 and 2012. I don't think they can be accused of seeking tactical political advantage through these actions. They must really believe in what they're doing.

Head of tiny state

There is only one absolute monarch left in Europe. He (women are ineligible for this job) rules over an extremely small piece of territory. But his influence is far greater than the population and land area of his state would indicate. And, in a situation that (I believe) is unique among independent states, he is elected by a group of voters, most of whom are from other countries.

That man is Pope Benedict XVI, who, in addition to being the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, is head of state of Vatican City State. Its area is 0.44 square miles, and its population is 826.

According to this article is Slate's "Explainer" column, there is no mechanism for removing a pope from office. Accusations that, several years ago, as an archbishop, Benedict (then known as Joseph Ratzinger) participated in a cover-up of clergy sexual abuse scandals, bring those scandals closer to a pope than ever before. The question is whether he could be forced out of office. Christopher Beam's research indicates that the answer is "no". However, there is precedent (though not in recent centuries) for a pope to resign.

The issue of papal resignation was raised toward the end of the long reign of Pope John Paul II. During the last few years before his 2005 death, John Paul's physical decline led to suggestions that he should retire. As it happened, he died in office, apparently able to perform his duties until he was very near the end.

We'll need to wait and see whether pressure will be brought on Benedict to resign.

Normally, the fate of the head of state of such a small place would not generate this much attention. But, of course, Benedict's dual religious and political role magnifies his importance in world affairs. Joseph Stalin, when confronted with the reality of papal influence, is said to have asked "how many divisions does the pope have?" Stalin's successors leading the Soviet Union found out to their chagrin that, figuratively speaking, a pope can lead a huge army, when John Paul II played a major role in dismantling the European Marxist-Leninist regimes.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

U.K. General Election

One of my favorite times in the political cycle is fast approaching: the next British general election. The BBC sets out a tentative timetable of election events.

Why should an American like me be interested in politics on the other side of the ocean? Of course, events around the world affect the interests of America and Americans, and that's more true of the U.K. than of most countries. But that's not really it.

There are two aspects to my interest in politics: 1) the substance of public policy, how it's made, and its effects on myself and others; and 2) politics as a sport. In other words, I follow congressional debates, wondering what the future of American health care will be as I move further into middle age. But I also speculate about upcoming elections the same way I wondered in the spring of 2009 who would win the Stanley Cup playoff final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings.

I can watch the sport of foreign elections more lightheartedly than American ones, because, when the politicians involved inevitably screw things up, the foreign ones have less effect on my life. And, with our common language (more or less) and the incomparable British pomp that accompanies certain parts of the process, the U.K.'s elections are toward the top of my list of favorites.

A review of some key elements, many of which I've written about in this blog:

Elections are not on a regular schedule (as, for example, the quadrennial U.S. presidential elections are). Queen Elizabeth decides, based on advice from her prime minister, when to dissolve Parliament and schedule the election (which means, if effect, that Prime Minister Gordon Brown will set the election date). As that BBC report has it, everyone expects him to call the election for Thursday, May 6, one month before the five-year deadline.

The election is for members of the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament. If one party wins a majority of seats, that party's leader will become prime minister. If no party has an absolute majority, the result is a so-called "hung Parliament". Polls currently indicate that might be the result, which would be the first such occurrence since 1974. More about that in a later post.

As is the case with the U.S. president, the U.K. prime minister is not directly elected. The electoral systems are somewhat similar, in that, in each case, the result is a function of the sum of pluralities in individual sections of the country (states (and D.C.) in the U.S., and parliamentary constituencies in the U.K.) So, the winner is not necessarily the candidate/party with the highest overall vote.

In the U.S., of course, the controversy regarding recounts in Florida of the 2000 presidential vote was compounded by the fact that, even after George W. Bush was found to be the winner of Florida's electoral votes, his opponent Al Gore had a clear plurality of the nationwide popular vote.

The U.K. had a similar result in that indecisive 1974 vote, to which I referred above. While more people voted for Conservative (a.k.a. Tory) parliamentary candidates than for those of the Labor Party, Labor won more House of Commons seats than the Tories (though short of an overall majority). This year, there could be either a repeat of that 1974 result, or a scenario in which the Conservatives get a substantial plurality of the overall vote, but, while they win more seats than any other party, they fall short of an overall majority. Here is an analysis, on the 538 blog, of how the vagaries of British redistricting disadvantage the Conservatives.

The Tories have been ahead in the polls, by fluctuating margins, ever since Brown's popularity started downhill, shortly after he became prime minister, in 2007. Recent polls have shown a relatively narrow lead for the Conservatives, so expectations of a Tory overall majority are decreasing as the election gets closer.

One aspect of British general elections that always gets much comment in the U.S. is that, once the date is set, the campaign will only take one month. Why, then, does an American presidential campaign seem to take forever? There is now a period of about 10 months between the first primaries and caucuses, and the November election day. The vast majority of that time is occupied by the process of the parties nominating their candidates. Once the general election campaign gets underway, it's not that much longer than a British campaign.

In the U.K., each party's candidate for prime minister is its leader, and a party always has a leader in place. That's different from the American practice, which is to nominate candidates 2-4 months before the date of the general election. The Conservatives chose their current leader, David Cameron, in 2005. In a sense, the campaign will have gone on for about 4 1/2 years, by the time election day gets here. And, indeed, the British parties do campaign constantly; it is not, in any meaningful sense, limited to the month immediately preceding election day.

Part of that campaigning takes place in the House of Commons, at the weekly Prime Minister's Questions sessions. The opposition parties' leaders, and backbenchers of all parties, get their opportunity to direct questions at the prime minister. Those debates have gone on between party leaders for about half a century, and have been televised for about 20 years. But apparently that's not enough. This will be the first campaign during which the party leaders will engage in televised campaign debates, similar to those that have been a regular feature of American presidential races since 1976.

That seems superfluous to me, in light of those regular parliamentary debates. But, rightly or wrongly, they didn't ask for my opinion. We'll see what effect they have on the future of that ancient political system.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bush Nostalgia?

Stanley Fish, who blogs on the website of The New York Times, recently revisited a topic about which he had written a year and a half ago: the rehabilitation of George W. Bush's reputation. I had reacted to his earlier post here, and discussed similarities between Bush and one of his predecessors.

I've made no secret of my assessment of Bush's presidency, an evaluation that is, on balance, negative. (See this post and this post.)

I think Fish is overreaching in looking for signs of an early revival for Bush. The Minnesota highway billboard to which Fish refers was financed by some local businessmen, as Scott Johnson explains on Power Line. That says nothing about the opinions of any statistically significant part of the population.

But I do believe that, in the long run, Bush will be viewed much more favorably than he is now. Two reasons: 1) other people's criticisms of Bush have not been as measured as mine, and the passage of time will inevitably convince most people that the strongest of those criticisms were exaggerated; and 2) that is what has generally happened with other former presidents.

The case of Harry Truman has been much talked about, including by me, here and here. As to his successors:

Dwight Eisenhower was still popular when he left office in 1961. The first president to be constitutionally term-limited, he could otherwise probably have won a third term. Current opinions of him are generally favorable. Sophisticates among the comedians and other political commentators in the '50s portrayed Ike as genial but not too bright. I think that that view has faded away to a large extent.

Americans generally considered John Kennedy to be a demi-god, for a period of time after his 1963 assassination. An air of martyrdom and fresh memories of his charisma combined to raise his stature to a level far higher than the meager accomplishments of his 34-month presidency would justify. Today, people across the political spectrum generally have a higher opinion of him than I do. But it was inevitable that those opinions would fall back a little closer to earth over time. Allegations regarding adultery and drug abuse have contributed to that trend. Overall, opinion about Kennedy seems to have returned to where it was when he embarked on his ill-fated trip to Texas. His poll numbers had fallen back to a level just a bit above 50%, as he was seen as above-average but not great.

Lyndon Johnson left office under circumstances similar to those of Truman and George W. Bush. He was unpopular, largely because he got the country bogged down in an unpopular war. I've often thought that, if Johnson had done what he did in 1964, and then declined to run for a full term and retired to Texas, I would have a higher opinion of him that I in fact do. During his first year in the White House, Johnson pushed through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a supply-side tax cut. (The flaw in that analysis is that, had he been a lame duck, LBJ probably would have been less successful with Congress.) There was no good answer as to what to do in Vietnam during Johnson's presidency. But both Hawks and Doves have a case to criticize Johnson for maximizing our involvement in the war, in a way that minimized the chances of accomplishing anything. Emotions about Vietnam have cooled since 1975; as I see it, current opinion about Johnson is somewhat negative, but his critics are nowhere near as hysterical as they were in the late 1960s.

Richard Nixon was always, at best, more respected than loved. He was introverted and uncharismatic. Charismatic presidents such as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were able to withstand scandals. But Nixon did not have a reservoir of good will to draw on, when the details of Watergate began to emerge into public view. When he resigned in 1974, Nixon's poll numbers were similar to the low ebbs of Truman and Johnson. After lying low for several years, Nixon began to re-emerge as an author and elder statesman during the 1980s. Toward the end of his life (Nixon died in 1994), I was astounded to hear some people say they wanted him back in the White House. I'm not sure how serious that talk was, but it was based on a misunderstanding of the term-limit amendment; Nixon could not have been elected a third time, despite his having ended his second term prematurely. The effects of charisma, or the lack thereof, seem to fade over time. By now, the foreign-policy-genius-Nixon has grown in relation to the unlovable-Nixon.

Gerald Ford was also charisma-challenged. Unlike his predecessor, Ford was a likable guy. But, perhaps if, in his football days, Ford had been a dashing quarterback, rather than a stolid offensive lineman, he would have had more of a hold on the public's imagination. Ford barely lost his bid for a full term in the White House in 1976. Had it not been for the support he lost when he pardoned Nixon in 1974, chances are Ford would have won that election. After a long ex-presidency, Ford was generally admired. By the time of his death in 2006, people had come to see the pardon as a sacrifice for the sake of the national interest. Further proof that ex-presidents are eventually looked at differently than when they were in office.

Time to end this. It's getting long, and historical perspective is less available in relation to more recent presidents. My point in all this rambling is that historical precedents bode well for an eventual improvement in Bush's reputation. But let's not be premature; one billboard does not a comeback make.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Article VI of the federal Constitution provides that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." But I think people who are elected to either house of Congress should be required to take an economics test in order to qualify to be seated in Congress. Those who fail (and my guess is that a large number of current members would flunk) would be required to go to school for two years, after which they can try running for Congress again.

Exhibit A is this press release from Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York. But responsibility is shared by some other Democrats, including my own junior senator, Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana.

Their premise seems simple. If the federal government is going to spend money to create economic stimulus, those funds should finance work done by American workers. And that's exactly what certain simple-minded senators think.

First problem: products do not tend to be purely American or purely foreign. The Honda that I drive was assembled in the U.S. from parts, some of which are American and some of which are foreign. The same goes for the components of Texas windmills that are at the heart of this controversy. It clearly makes sense for recipients of U.S. government grants to look to whichever suppliers are able to give the best value for money. Restricting the supply chain strictly to American suppliers would inevitably waste money.

Second problem: it makes no sense to try to create American jobs in a vacuum. Globalization is literally a 13-letter word; but, in some people's opinion, it's figuratively a four-letter word. I disagree. Globalization is necessary, in order to allow the concept of comparative advantage to improve the standard of living of Americans and of people in other countries. If we domestically produce those products and services that we can produce with greater relative efficiency, and import products and services in relation to which foreign producers have a comparative advantage, everyone is better off. On the other hand, history shows that countries that cut themselves off from the global marketplace subject their people to extreme poverty. Just ask the average North Korean.

Oh, and that reminds me. Those prospective congressional representatives who are studying economics should be required to minor in history. For example, they should learn how the recession that began in 1929 was turned into a great depression, when American international trade policy was turned in a radically protectionist direction. As we begin to emerge from the recent recession, a new wave of protectionism could produce a similar result.

The philosopher George Santayana famously said that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. " It wouldn't seem fair if all Americans, as well as potential trade partners abroad, were condemned to repeat that history, just because some of our senators are ignorant of economics and history.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Britain's Left Foot

It's an interesting coincidence that, at this time when the U.K.'s Labor Party might be on the verge of being voted out of power, a man who had a major role in events that followed the last previous ouster of Labor, has died. Michael Foot, who was that party's leader from 1980 to 1983, died yesterday at the age of 96.

Foot was originally elected to the House of Commons in 1945. That was the long-delayed general election that followed the end of World War II in the European theater. A mere two months after London crowds had raised delirious cheers to Prime Minister Winston Churchill on V-E Day, the country gave a landslide defeat to Churchill's Conservative Party. Labor, led by Clement Attlee, had a mandate to implement socialism in the U.K.

Foot was at the forefront of that change. He was a protege of Aneurin Bevan, who, as Minister of Health in Attlee's government, oversaw the creation of the National Health Service, one of many activities that the government took over from the private sector during the late 1940s.

Foot served in the Cabinet under two later Labor prime ministers, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. But he didn't fit in very well with those leaders who were of a more pragmatic bent.

When Callaghan resigned as party leader in 1980, the year after the Conservatives, by then led by Margaret Thatcher, had won a general election, a showdown came about between heavyweight contenders from Labor's leftist and moderate wings. Those candidates, Foot and Denis Healey, respectively, opposed each other in the vote for leader of the Labor Party.

Healey had been Britain's finance minister (chancellor of the exchequer) under Wilson and Callaghan. That put him in the unenviable position of dealing with the economic effects of three decades of socialism. On his watch, the U.K. was reduced to virtual Third World status, when the country needed to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.

Foot won that contest for the party leadership, which guaranteed that, for some period of time, at least, Labor would quixotically continue on a hard-left path. In 1981, that led a group of prominent Labor moderates (excluding Healey) to leave Labor and form a new party, the Social Democrats. They later merged with the Liberal Party, to form the party now called the Liberal Democrats.

Gerald Kaufman is a Labor politician who, despite having served for several decades in the House of Commons, is no more than a footnote in British political history. But he achieved an immortality of sorts, when he uttered a soundbite that is still widely quoted. He called his party's 1983 general election manifesto (the equivalent of an American party platform) the "longest suicide note in history." Foot fought that election campaign on the basis of extreme-left positions on nuclear disarmament, European integration, and socialism.

The Conservatives won a landslide victory in 1983, winning a House of Commons majority that was about as large as the majority Labor had won in 1945. Those two years can be seen as bookends around the period of British socialism. Thatcher's government privatized many of the industries that had been nationalized by Attlee's government. (The National Health Service is the main exception.)

Foot resigned as leader in 1983 (although he remained in the House until 1992). He was succeeded by Neil Kinnock, who began the process of moving Labor back toward the center. At the general elections of 1987 and 1992, Kinnock managed to shrink the massive Conservative majority of 1983, but not to return his party to power. It would take more radical surgery on Labor's policy positions, including an explicit repudiation of nationalized industry, for Tony Blair, who became leader in 1994, to put the party back in government. That was achieved at the general election of 1997.

If, as the polls predict (although they are volatile), Labor loses the general election that will be held later this year, it seems highly doubtful that that party will take another lurch to the left, as it did 31 years ago.

Foot's obituarists point out that, whether or not one agrees with him on the substance of policy, he was a refreshing throwback to an era that predated political consultants. Obviously, his image, and his rhetoric, were not vetted by consultants and focus groups. That era is probably gone forever.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Zuckerman won't run for Senate

I wrote in this post that New York doesn't have a Ford in its future. Well, now if turns out that it doesn't have a Zuckerman in its future either.

Media and real estate tycoon Mort Zuckerman announced yesterday that, contrary to much speculation in recent days, he will not run for the Senate seat occupied by Kirsten Gillibrand.

That leaves it unclear who will represent the Republican Party in the special election for the last two years of the Senate term to which Hillary Clinton was reelected in 2006. Rumor has it that Republican former Governor George Pataki might throw his hat into the ring.

Great Casesar's Ghost, It's Perry White!

The gubernatorial candidates who were nominated in the Texas primary election yesterday, remind one of the comic-book character who was Superman's boss as editor of The Daily Planet. As expected, Governor Rick Perry won the Republican primary, and former Mayor Bill White, of Houston, got the Democratic nomination.

Perry won slightly more than 50% of the Republican vote in a three-way race. That allows him to avoid a runoff primary against the runner-up, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who trailed Perry by about 20 percentage points. The runoff question was the only unresolved issue going into yesterday's vote. Debra Medina, a political novice who represented the Tea Party movement, finished third.

Yesterday, before the results were in, Chris Cillizza, in The Fix blog on The Washington Post website, pointed out that, even if Perry had fallen below 50%, Hutchison would have been under pressure to abandon the runoff. Medina's absence from a runoff contest would presumably only have strengthened the position of Perry, who has also associated himself with the Tea Party faction. Cillizza also discussed the $64,000 question: whether Hutchison will follow through on her pledge to resign from the Senate after the primary. That promise was easy to make, last year, when she thought she was going to win; Cillizza gives some reasons why she might be tempted to renege, now that she has lost the gubernatorial nomination.

White ran up a huge majority against a political newcomer, businessman Farouk Shami, and other Democratic candidates.

In what is shaping up to be a Republican year, in a state where Republicans have increasingly dominated in recent years, the Democrats might have been expected to put up a sacrificial lamb against a proven vote-getter such as Perry. But, as I mentioned here, while White trails in general election polls, Perry's lead is in single digits. White is a political heavyweight, so this race will be interesting to watch as the year goes on.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New York: There's not a Ford in your future

Turning that old automobile slogan around, former Congressman Harold Ford has decided not to challenge Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in this year's New York Democratic primary.

Ford, who had represented Tennessee in the House, has since moved to New York, and had reportedly been considering a Senate candidacy in his new home state.

That appears to give Gillibrand, who last year was appointed by Governor David Paterson as the Senate replacement for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a clear shot at the Democratic nomination.

Most of the speculation about Republican opposition to Gillibrand centers on media mogul Mort Zuckerman. Zuckerman, 72, is editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report, and publisher of the New York Daily News. He is a political pundit, well known for his appearances on John McLaughlin's TV show The McLaughlin Group. A Senate candidacy would be Zuckerman's first run for public office.

Zuckerman has not declared a candidacy, but might run as an independent candidate in the general election; it seems to be an open question as to whether he would caucus with the Republicans. Apparently, the fact that he is not registered as a Republican voter complicates the possibility of his running in the Republican primary.