Presidents: Leaders and Administrators

America has no king. Instead we have a president. We have no national saints; instead our public idols venerate our nation’s founders and past presidents. America was also, even from the beginning, an amalgam of different peoples united by ideals, not identity (“A nation of laws not men.”)

What’s the point of all of this stratospheric rhetoric that stinks of high school textbooks?

All of this percolates into the collective unconscience of Americans and frames their ideas about what kind of person should be a president. As a people, we are more likely to follow a bold, visionary leader, even if that vision is a certain folly. We want a leader, not an administrator.

This was true from the beginning. The American Revolution itself was either a masterwork of geopolitical strategy, or a military fluke that otherwise should have ended in calamitous failure. First, not many would dispute that the Treaty of Paris was signed because the British no longer felt it was worth prosecuting a war that they could certainly win if they were to bring their full military strength to bear–other colonies were more profitable. In fact, certain British politicians wanted to grant the American colonies a degree of autonomy before the conflict spiraled out of control, and, later did so in Canada, South Africa, and Australia. Those who followed the Revolutionaries did so without any real concern for the likelihood of victory; they did so because they believed it was right. The same could be said for the Confederate States’ secession.

John Adams was probably the first president to be shown the door after one term because he was a good president, but not an inspiring one. He was an administrator, and a competent one but doesn’t merit an image on Mount Rushmore or any currency. Even a flattering recent biography hasn’t done much to rehabilitate him or level his stature within the pantheon of the Founders.

This dichotomy, facile though it may be, does seem to run throughout our history. Grant was a hero but corrupted the government. LBJ was visionary but is most responsible for America’s greatest military failure.

Skip ahead to the future. The Republicans have taken the advantage here. Pick it apart all you like, but most people see Bush as a straight shooter that knows what he wants to do, even if they think it’s shit. Complexitism, Administrativism, and Kerryism are diseases that infected every losing presidential for a long, long time (I think Carter may be the exception, but he seemed to be the tonic for Watergate) including Dole, Bush I, Dukakis (even worse than Bush I), Mondale, etc. etc.

The Republicans also presented a vision for their Congressional campaign in 1994.

I’m still waiting for the Democrats to allow a candidate with a vision–even if it isn’t perfect–through their circular firing squad.

The Assumptions Beneath the "Four Words"

Some Democratic strategists are having difficulty coming up with the “Four Words” that will convey the Democrats’ core philosophy and vision. While creating a bumper-sticker size vision is important, the conventional wisdom that underlies the Four Words are equally pertinent and before a new Democratic vision can resonate that motivating sensibility must be altered.

We all know that the Republicans’ Four Words are “Less Taxes. Less Government.” If this were to actually take place, however, it would probably be bad news for the vast majority of those who voted Republican in the last election. It is a well-known fact that the Blue States’ wealth is redistributed to the Red States at the Federal level. Less government and taxes then would imply less Federal money for Southern, Plains and Rocky Mountain states. If you extend Government to mean regulations and incentives that distort markets then it is no less of a disaster for Red Staters. Across the vast middle of the country and into the Red regions of Blue states, subsidies, tariffs and free water prop up farming communities that would not withstand the competition of a free market.

So what is the “Government” that Republicans are so anxious to have less of? Well the frustrating parts of social life are the “Government” that Republicans want to get rid of. The “Government” integrated the schools; having electricity provided to rural homes for cheap is just how things are. The “Government” supports welfare queens; giving oil companies a depletion allowance is just how things are.

The political genius of the assumptions behind the Republicans’ Four Words is that Americans of any political stripe will obviously think of what they dislike most when thinking of “Less Government.” “Government” is Watergate, negative campaigns, special interest groups, irresponsible spending, the war on drugs etc. Putting a man on the moon, the interstate highway system and money that flows into every hamlet in America is not “Government.” Even when it is Republicans who give “Government” a bad name it still helps their cause so long as the “Government” looks bad.

The reality, of course, is complicated. Some subsides and incentives are good, some government programs are helpful, others are obviously wasteful; all of this depends on the eye of the beholder. Given the pessimistic bent of the press it will be hard to overcome the negative feelings that prop up the Republicans’ Four Words, but here’s my try:

Guess what ladies and gentleman, the government has always been big! Sure, some hardy pioneers went west to make their fortune, and many of them did, often with the help of the Natives. When multitudes of others followed west the indigenous peoples did not take kindly to having their land and lifestyle taken away. Those early settlers and Indians fought, but guess who finished the fight and “tamed” the West? That’s right, it was the government. That was mighty big of them, huh? Guess who then parceled out that land for pennies on the dollar to the railroads? The Government once again.

Here’s the deal. The Government has always been big. All that progressives have done is make sure that it acts favorably for average Americans as well as private business interests.

If you want wasteful government that subsidizes inefficient industries and lowers innovation brought on by a competitive government, while redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich, then vote for the Republicans. If you want a government that challenges industry to prosper while respecting the environment and providing a working wage, and that makes sure the tax burden does not fall heaviest on the poor, then vote for the Democrats: Fair Taxes. Smart Government.

The Economic Future

I have been a bear since 1997 when I advised my grandfather to stay away from dot-com stocks. And I have been a member of the Graham/Buffet school of investing since I first played the stock market with my sixth grade class–value investing, and a focus on the fundamentals, and a longer term horizon. Not that I haven’t made some fun plays, like puts on Astra-Zeneca before their renewed patent on prilosec failed.

Perverse and strange things have happened to my portfolio. I made scads of cash in 2000, and even did ok in 2001, even as I rode lower than most, like Mr. Buffet, in the late 90s.

The reason I have been a bear is because the fundamentals of our economy should not be showing the results they’re showing. After years of ridicule, I enjoyed several months of schadenfreude in 2000, but then I thought things would turn around.

They didn’t and there are a few reasons why. First, the obvious. The federal budget deficit has reached record levels and the actual debt level has too. Yet, at least so far, we haven’t seen the kinds of inflation that we should as a result of that. It’s coming. Also, the dollar is still overvalued, because a cartel of asian central banks is boosting it.

Now for some things that I might be wrong about, but that I’ve been observing. I think the CPI is an increasingly bad measure. Many consumer goods are at all time lows in real terms. Milk is cheap. Basic foodstuffs are cheap. This is the result of the Wal-Mart/Global economy. But while this has occurred, housing prices have surged, as have health care costs. College tuition. The kinds of things that define the middle class have become luxury goods, and a lot of them have been purchased on the HELOCs made available by the artificially low rates. Wages have remained stagnant, with the growth occuring in higher quintiles.

To the extent these HELOCs are adjustable rates, we’ll see a wave of bankruptcies (which are already at record highs).

So, here’s some economic reality. With the tax structure favoring the rich on pipe-dream supply-side theories, a war in Iraq, and a sputtering economy still in denial about a housing bubble there are two choices, none are pleasant.

There will have to be a massive tax hike, and it will have to be focussed on high earners. This is more risky than a lot of people think (and not for the Republicans’ reasons) because the market has more or less adjusted or begun to adjust to the Two Americas. Luxury stores are doing well, so is Wal-Mart. But we know this isn’t happening with the Republicans in control of everything. This will have to wait until sucker-do-gooder Democrats get a seat at the table so it can be blamed on them, even though it’s not their mess.

There will have to be massive spending cuts. This isn’t painless either, obviously. More soldiers and fewer weapons systems might be good (how about a policy that we peg our military strength to a factor of the rest of the world’s in terms of kill ratio and only push our weapons technology in line with that?) Anyway, anywhere you cut spending you probably kill the economy of some town or congressional district.

But neither of those possibilities are as diar as the result of doing nothing. Waiting for a crisis could mean the true end of social safety net programs, and the institutionalization of the Two Americas, and the Thirdworldization of our economy.

HBO News – A Proposal

The broad consensus of the election post-mortem is that the Democrats have a superior, more popular set of positions on the issues. Their losses are due to their inability to articulate those positions better. Whether this is because the party lacks an overarching “vision thing” or because John Kerry was not as likable as George Bush or merely because the Republicans “package” their positions better etc. is open to debate. Regardless of this, one obvious means to achieve better messageering for Democrats is to have some parity in television media, which has become a stalwart right-wing megaphone. Several excellent books have already been written on this phenomenon; lets just take it as a given that the right-wing bias in the media means that any “D” candidate is always running up hill.

There has been some thought of a liberal news network, one that would combat the conservatron Fox News in a similar way that the reasonably successful Air America radio counteracts Rush “Hillbilly Heroin” Limbaugh and his demon-spawn. Another denizen of combative talk show, point-counterpoint television, however, will not provide the changes necessary to further progressive causes and points of view. Air America radio has given the underserved left-wing audience a place to hang its hat, but it has not pushed issues and points of view the way the right-wing media was able to. The conservatrons were able to put Kerry’s out-of-context, “global test” statement into the ether after the first debate, whereas Air America and whatever other “liberal media” that exists was not able to nip the slanderous Swift Boat Veterans For Truth brouhaha in the bud.

The model that progressives should look to is not the Fox News Network. It is HBO. Network news is right now where network entertainment was about seven years ago. For the networks then the suppression of creativity forced by the mandates of advertisers and the FCC had created bland, repetitive program that was generally a dull copy of original shows that had established themselves in the late 80s and early 90s. For the networks now, decades of bitching by Republicans with a ridiculous victimization complex, reduced news budgets, and the demands of advertiser and “if it bleeds it leads” has created timid programming with almost no content save for varying degrees of repetition of the Republican party line.

In the late 90s the networks abandoned scripted television for game shows and reality shows. Free of the constraints of networks, HBO concocted daring, high-quality programming such as “Sex and The City” and “The Sopranos.” HBO proved that audiences had not left intelligent television – thousands of new customers subscribed to HBO just for its original programming and not its movies. Conversely, the networks have not had a new scripted hit until this years’ “Desperate Housewives,” which could be aptly titled “Sex and The Suburbs.”

Right now the only people who watch the nightly network news are senior citizens who developed the habit of watching the news before it devolved into inchoate right-wing blather. I posit that citizens have not left the idea of the evening news. Indeed, the growing popularity of the CBC news and The Daily Show – which analyzes issues better than network news does – is a testament to the utility of evening news.

A pay cable, commercial-free news network whose flagship program would be a half-hour telecast that competes directly with the networks’ broadcast, along with other intelligent, investigative programming would be to the news what “The Sopranos” was to scripted television. By doing research and making investigations, this news network would influence the rest of the media in the way a lefty Fox clone could not. By uncovering and highlighting unpleasant truths, it would break stories that the rest of the media would avoid to its peril. Other programming could include documentaries, and news directed towards underserved audiences such as the young.

HBO would be the logical place to do this. It already has an established brand, “Real Time with Bill Maher” is an infinitely better talk show that any of the others on TV, and “Real Sports” runs laps around ESPN and the Fox Sports empire. If they won’t do it than a wise progressive with money should. The network would not have to be officially liberal – Fox is not officially conservative – but suffice to say, I believe that more truth in reporting could only help the progressive cause.

Now They Expect Results?

I’ll be oh so happy to say I told you so.

Evangelicals are staging a “pray-in” to prevent Arlen Specter’s elevation to the chairmanship of the Senate judicial committee. Of course, that’s not just a symbolic post, but he would have to take fairly egregious steps to single-handedly thwart any Bush nominee. It remains to be seen whether he would vote against an anti-choice nominee, especially if that nominee is replacing a Justice that is already anti-choice.

But this furor over Specter may signal an interesting change in the relationship between radical Christian groups and the GOP. For so long, their brazen strategy was to court religious groups by promising to fight unwinnable cultural battles and ignoring the rest of those peoples’ needs. Now, after the reelection of Bush and the widening of his majority in the Congress, they are finally demanding results after 30 years.

I don’t believe the path to the White House for a Democrat lies through courting one-issue anti-abortion voters. I believe there are plenty of people who vote Republican for reasons of security, and the misconception that their economic fortunes are better handled by less government regulation and taxes. Fewer forms and an easier tax system would go a long way to convincing a lot of these folks, who are often culturally liberal is much, much easier. But you would certainly have more time to focus on these voters if the Evangelicals don’t motivate as highly the next time.

You might even be able to chip away at them by promising to reduce abortions without banning them. This isn’t hard, especially in tandem with a tax, wealth, and education fairness platform.

Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think, that the homophobia-manic folks have been getting screwed with their pants on for 30 years by corporate, Paris Hilton promoting GOP Reverse Robin Hoods.

Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think, that it is bloggers and journalists who provide the building blocks for this insight, and not those of the Kerry campaign.

All the more reason, I think, to support Dean for DNC chair.

The Da Vinci Code

I see today that Tom Hanks will play the lead in the movie version of The Da Vinci Code (Or, “Foucault’s Pendulum for Dummies”).

I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, though everyone tells me it would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, my sense is they are “misunderestimating” my intellectual snobbery.

Having said that, I probably should check it out and make notes, because I’ve become interested in writing a book review not about books like this, including Illuminatus!, Foucault’s Pendulum, and (I guess) The Da Vinci Code.

I’d like to explore the “secret group that controls civilization” myth — it’s fascinating, almost a form of deism.