Slouching Toward Bethlehem

by Dave Schuler on February 16, 2013

There’s a lot to chew on in this column from Zachary Karabell. Here’s his peroration:

One day, we will look back on this era as a period of transition. The problem is that we don’t know what we are shifting to, or whether it is something we will perceive as better or worse.

Government will be one aspect of that transition. But it would be a mistake to see it as the axis of that transition. The current Washington debates ‑ about whether there will be a “sequester” or not, a drastic cut in spending or only a small one ‑ demonstrate that government is shrinking and the horizons of its ambitions narrowing. Given the limitations of what government can and cannot do, that is hardly something to mourn or decry.

Protecting the commons is something government must do and is. Singlehandedly managing the transition to the next economy is something is cannot do ‑ and should not.

I think the great political conflicts of today are over who is trying to do what. Does the president really want to institute a regime of technocracy, something which, as Mr. Karabell notes, is doomed to failure, maybe even catastrophic failure. Are the House Republicans trying to impose some sort of minarchist fantasy? If that’s not what either is trying to do what are they trying to do? When you do not express your vision or intentions clearly, you can hardly blame people for being mistrustful.

How can government best “protect the commons”? It’s an interesting question, one to which I do not know the answer. I don’t think that granting what are in effect perpetual copyrights is protecting the commons. I think it’s privatizing the commons. And not in a good way. Increasingly, this appears to be the role of government: granting royal patents to friends and allies.

What is government’s most effective role as the new economy slouches towards Bethlehem, to be born? Does it play the role of the wise men or of Herod?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds February 16, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Ideally the government should supply a safety net, protect consumers from dishonest or reckless businesses, protect business from being victimized by foreign governments, and of course manage the usual national defense, court system etc… Taxes should be set at whatever level covers those needs.

I think where it has been failing for some time is part #2: protecting consumers (and workers by extension) from reckless business. The government allowed banks to consolidate, to grow “too big to fail,” then failed to perform the oversight and regulation. You can have a bunch of minimally-regulated small banks, maybe, but if you’re going to pile all the country’s money into half a dozen institutions, you’re going to have to have adult supervision. Ideally not by a gang of former/future Goldman Sachs employees.

I was struck by the shock and horror when Senator Warren had the temerity to ask why no one in the banking and brokerage world had been prosecuted. It’s a question the whole country wanted answered, but wasn’t asked by Senators. Not hard to figure out why.

Dave Schuler February 16, 2013 at 1:08 pm

I don’t disagree but I think that it’s worse than that. Monopolies are rare in nature. They arise through government intervention. Breaking up monopolies is, then, just undoing what was caused by government in the first place and is a legitimate exercise of government power. Why has breaking up monopolies become something that American government won’t do?

In addition, we’ve encountered a problem with this:

Taxes should be set at whatever level covers those needs.

In a perfect world that would be right. But one of the imperfections of the world in which we actually live is that greed has no boundaries. Everybody thinks that he or she deserves more money, ungoverned by what the society can actually afford to pay.

Most recently, here in Chicago teachers and police officers are demanding pay beyond the city’s capacity to pay and that doesn’t even include pensions, a significant reason that raises for present public employees are beyond the city’s capacity to pay. How do I know it’s beyond the city’s capacity? Because the city has already run up against the upper bounds of its power to tax without generating the revenue it needs to pay its bills.

Icepick February 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm

This-

If that’s not what either is trying to do what are they trying to do?

-and-

Increasingly, this appears to be the role of government: granting royal patents to friends and allies.

-constitute an asked-and-answered situation. The parties running the government are simply arguing over how the spoils get distributed. This was okay for the first two-thirds to three-quarters of the 19th Century, when the spoils in question were local and regional post-master offices. Now that the federal government comprises a good 20 to 25% of GDP, and influences and controls a much larger share than that, it is no longer okay. The elites are simply looting the country.

Icepick February 16, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Most recently, here in Chicago teachers and police officers are demanding pay beyond the city’s capacity to pay and that doesn’t even include pensions, a significant reason that raises for present public employees are beyond the city’s capacity to pay.

Looters, and they’ll do far more damage than any simple mob in a riot.

michael reynolds February 16, 2013 at 2:48 pm

It seems we no longer see a problem with monopolies. I’ve been shocked by some of the mergers that have been allowed. Are anti-trust laws still on the books?

TastyBits February 16, 2013 at 2:52 pm

@michael reynolds

… if you’re going to pile all the country’s money into half a dozen institutions, you’re going to have to have adult supervision.

(This is not aimed at you. I am just riffing off your comment.)

You can never control anything that big. This includes banks and government. A better solution is to keep them at a manageable size and to create feedback loops to self-regulate the system. The system is not regulation free, but the regulations provide a framework for the system.

Politicians and regulators want to have greater control, and therefore, larger institutions are required. Larger institutions need more regulations, and more complex regulations are required. Those who call for more regulation for mega-institutions are no different than less regulation for mega-institutions.

The problem is not the amount of regulations. The problem is the mega-institutions. If you decide to keep a tiger as a pet, do not be surprised if he tries to eat you. Ask Siegfried & Roy if it is a good idea.

Andy February 17, 2013 at 8:45 am

One of the themes I come back to again here frequently is the idea of the parties as institutions with no real vision. Despite the rhetoric, they don’t look forward, they look backward to some rose-colored past that doesn’t exist and is no longer relevant. Their “new” ideas are really just recycled or are simply platitudinous extensions of the status quo. Their ideas and policies aren’t even internally consistent.

I really don’t think anything will fundamentally change absent something that forces change.

jan February 17, 2013 at 1:48 pm

I’m not sure there are plentiful institutional options to two-party themes or visions, absent their innate ideological or philosophical frameworks. In the case of the dems such a framework evolves around a powerful centralized government governing the masses. As for republicans/conservatives, individuals are touted as masters of their destinies, with an overarching government being muted in it’s micro management of personal lives.

These two styles of governance seem to cycle in and out of history. When one is dominate, it tends to overreach causing it to crash and burn, leaving room for the other party to step in as a savior, with a similar seasonal trend that eventually sends it out of power. Even the European nanny states have seen a see-saw effect of parties gaining and losing power, sometimes in relatively short periods of time.

The reason for this is that people are basically very self-serving, looking out for what suits them best, as to what is being sold in the politics of the day. Right now the lesser of two evils are the subsidies, financial benefits, and social/moral laxness supplied by liberal democrats. These aspects are a better fit with the cultural positions that were cultivated by the baby boomers in the 60′s and 70′s, transiting with and growing as this generation ages. Odds are, though, once the boomer’s influence dims, others behind them, who have been hurt by their excesses and, yes, narcissism, will find alternate forms of government (conservative) more appealing.

There’s a book I recently read called <a href=http://www.zerohedge.com/contributed/2012-08-13/fourth-turning-finallyThe Fourth Turning… that delves into this more, elaborating on past generational cycles, and hypothetically connecting them to what the current trends indicate might be awaiting us in the near future. BTW, the 4 cycles, in a given time period, are called the high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis. According to this read we are in the final turning point, the ‘crisis’ one, which either spins dries a country into oblivion or propels them on to a new regeneration….

jan February 17, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Link error correction:

The Fourth Turning…

Dave Schuler February 17, 2013 at 2:24 pm

As for republicans/conservatives, individuals are touted as masters of their destinies, with an overarching government being muted in it’s micro management of personal lives.

I don’t really think that’s true, at least about Congressional Republicans. They have no opposition to “an overarching government”. They just differ about what should be micromanaged.

So, for example, they have little problem with government reaching into bedrooms, into decisions about abortion,or relating to recreational drug use.

Additionally, I don’t see any evidence that the Congressional Republicans are reluctant to give political giveaways to their friends. Check on the enormous increase in domestic discretionary spending under the Bush Administration. They just have different friends than the Democrats do.

jan February 17, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I don’t really think that’s true, at least about Congressional Republicans. They have no opposition to “an overarching government”. They just differ about what should be micromanaged.

My statement was that the republicans touted individuals as being masters of their own destinies. This is the banner on which they run. However, in implementation, it’s not always the case. Nonetheless, when compared to the dems, I do think their policies tend to at least show more fiscal awareness, and consequently restraint.

So, for example, they have little problem with government reaching into bedrooms, into decisions about abortion,or relating to recreational drug use.

Republicans socially support more traditional values — values that once were the yard stick of most Americans. This includes abortion, same-sex marriage, and an aversion to drug abuse. It’s less a matter of getting into one’s bedroom, than simply adhering to practices that have long been held as normal, religion-based standards in this country’s culture. Culture, though, has changed, and it depends on whose lens one is looking, as to whether it is better or worse.

Check on the enormous increase in domestic discretionary spending under the Bush Administration.

You’re right. However, much of this spending was abhorred by many conservatives, and Bush soundly derided for his ‘compassionate conservative’ stances. For instance, his Medicare prescription plan was one of those controversial bills that created conflict among rank and file republicans. As much as that plan was disliked, though, it still has cost less than it’s initial projections, which is something that will most probably not happen to the ACA.

Also, many ‘moderate’ republicans, negatively labeled RINOs, by the more conservative faction of that party, are accused of acting like democrats in their discretionary spending inclinations, as spending and big government continue to be seen as an attribute of the democratic party more than it’s conservative opponent. Also, I think there are far fewer DINOs and/or blue dogs moderating liberal policy-making than in the republican party.

Dave Schuler February 17, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Republicans socially support more traditional values

It’s not support that I’m talking about. I’m talking about wanting to harness the power of the state to enforce the values. I don’t see that as any less authoritarian than Democrats wanting to use the power of the state to enforce theirs.

steve February 17, 2013 at 7:44 pm

@jan- Judged by their actions, both parties are willing to spend too much. The difference is in their willingness to pay for their spending. The Dems are a bit more willing to pay for their spending. The problem with all of the GOP tax cuts is that people have been getting more govt than they pay for, so they want more. Starve the beast has been brilliant electoral politics. It has been horrible in every other way.

Steve

Drew February 17, 2013 at 7:47 pm

You know Michael…

You often say we really are not that far apart. In some, perhaps most, respects I agree. We seem to hold very similar core values. However, you absolutely amaze me when you say something like “adult supervision” and cite government as the keeper or monitor of that trait. That’s when I fall off my chair. Seriously?? Seriously??

Anyone here by now should know that I hold all things “big” pretty much in contempt. Its the natural human and organizational condition for it to come to a grinding mess. In my view its to be tolerated only when there is no sensible alternative. Say, the national defense. Or bizarre notions of thousands of people making steel in their back yards as if they were stilling corn liquor or tending tomato gardens. Your faith in government amazes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to derive from (IMHO) a correct suspicion and distaste of/for Big Business, but a failure to realize Big Government – and empirically demonstrated – is even worse……for there is no profit or efficiency motive or metric, just power and bigness for the sake of power. (I know, there are the pure. But it can’t be more than 30% of all the public servants)

(BTW – people need to understand the US bank consolidation in the context of global competitiveness. That’s not a value judgment, just an economic and competitive fact.)

Did Pres. Obama and Rep. Pelosi actually just posit that we do not have a spending problem? I think they did. Neither are idiots, even though their propositions are idiotic. They are evil and raw ideologues – they know exactly what they are doing – and preying on the public ignorance and distraction, to the detriment of the general welfare, soley for political gain and influence. I simply cannot cotton to this.

Dave and others covered this, but I just thought I’d lob a grenade in.

Just to finish, some randoms.

I hold no brief for the Republicans……..when they act like Democrats. GWB and the punch drunk spending Republican Congress of the early aughts come to mind. But as a general proposition, they behave better. And also, I defy anyone to make the case that the tax and spend discussion right now would be worse with a Pres Mitt Romney. Don’t even answer, you will go into the idiot column.

As for Republicans in the bedroom. This is childish argumentation. The Democrats are in our knickers all day long, just a different set of issues and objectives. Get a clue and get rid of your Big Gulp, your gun, your gas guzzling car, your fast food and your coffee cup. By the way, we want your money too. I’d like someone to point out to me a Republican “in your bedroom” law that actually hit the books. In my lifetime we have done nothing on the non-economic side but get more libertarian. And I support that.

The big issue of course is abortion. As big an issue as it is, I have never, ever been able to get my dander up about it. If you believe “life” begins at inception, you have no choice but to oppose it as plain and simple murder, and view those who don’t as those who murder for personal convenience. If you believe that “life” begins later – you tell me – second trimester? – then there is the natural conclusion that a woman should have that “right to choose” in the interim.

Greater minds than mine need to decide when “life” really occurs. I will say this. A woman needs to decide on that “right to choose” before late term. Partial birth abortion is flat out murder, no different than deciding after a year you don’t want the baby and throw it in the dumpster. That is a criminal and immoral act.

And in best Monty Python fashion – Now, something completely different:

Go Blackhawks!

Drew February 17, 2013 at 9:33 pm

“@jan- Judged by their actions, both parties are willing to spend too much. The difference is in their willingness to pay for their spending. The Dems are a bit more willing to pay for their spending. The problem with all of the GOP tax cuts is that people have been getting more govt than they pay for, so they want more. Starve the beast has been brilliant electoral politics. It has been horrible in every other way.”

steve – Sorry, I think this is wrong headed in so many ways.

The difference isn’t in their willingness to pay for spending. As a general proposition, all politicians want to feed their constituents, but Republicans – real ones that is – desire to spend less. Compare Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama with a Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio. Give me a break. No contest. Democrats plain and simply have never found an issue they haven’t wanted to fund. As for paying for it, get real. “a bit more” a bit more?? – what pure, unadulterated crap. We borrow 40 cents on the spent dollar. 40% Spare me the faux fiscal responsibility argument. “a bit more” was left in the dust years ago. This is credit cards gone wild. No amount of taxation that wouldn’t shut the country down into depression could fund our spending. All we have done for 50 years now is inexorably creep towards our terminal debt capacity.

But the jig is just about up. Helicopter Ben notwithstanding.

jan February 18, 2013 at 10:34 am

The Dems are a bit more willing to pay for their spending. The problem with all of the GOP tax cuts is that people have been getting more govt than they pay for, so they want more.

Steve,

I find this response, at best, convoluted.

How the dems want to pay for spending is through increased taxation, rather than growing the economy, which, in their political jargon, always seems more like a rhetorical after thought. Just look at all the new and confusing regulations that have come down via the EPA, since Obama has been president! For the most part they are job killers. The ACA is another strain on the economy, although, you don’t think so. To date, though, only 26 states have signed on to the federal regulations. And, to make things even more complicated, businesses are trying to find ways around the financial impositions of the ACA, including trimming jobs or engaging in self-insurance, if they have a number of young, healthy people in their employ. And, for every action there is a reaction:

Insurance regulators worry that commercial insurers — and the insurance exchanges being set up in every state to offer a range of plan options to consumers — will be left with disproportionate numbers of older, sicker people who are more expensive to insure.

Furthermore, with Obama leaning on most kinds of fossil fuel expansion, opting instead to invest taxpayer dollars in failed solar and electric car projects, energy costs are going up. Gasoline, alone is up some 98%, since Obama came into office! Now do you think that’s helping the middle class, growing the economy more, or off setting the increased spending that has also ensued under his reign?

Drew February 18, 2013 at 6:17 pm

http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/02/15/the-unsung-but-massive-obamacare-sales-tax-increase-that-is-on-the-way/

Here is another whack to the working Joe, who Obama clasims to care for. With friends like these.

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