The first part of the speech, justifying his economic stabilization efforts, was mere housekeeping. The economic crisis is to Obama a technocratic puzzle that needs to be solved because otherwise he loses all popular support.
Unlike most presidents, however, he doesn’t covet popular support for its own sake. Some men become president to be someone, others to do something. This is what separates, say, a Bill Clinton from a Ronald Reagan. Obama, who once noted that Reagan altered the trajectory of America as Clinton had not, sees himself a Reagan.
Reagan came to office to do something: shrink government, lower taxes, rebuild American defenses. Obama made clear Tuesday night that he intends to be equally transformative. His three goals: universal health care, universal education, and a new green energy economy highly funded and regulated by government.
(1) Obama wants to be to universal health care what Lyndon Johnson was to Medicare. Obama has publicly abandoned his once-stated preference for a single-payer system as in Canada and Britain. But that is for practical reasons. In America, you can’t get there from here directly.
Instead, Obama will create the middle step that will lead ultimately and inevitably to single-payer. The way to do it is to establish a reformed system that retains a private health-insurance sector but offers a new government-run plan (based on benefits open to members of Congress) so relatively attractive that people voluntarily move out of the private sector, thereby starving it. The ultimate result is a system of fully socialized medicine. This will probably not happen until long after Obama leaves office. But he will be rightly recognized as its father.
(2) Beyond cradle-to-grave health care, Obama wants cradle-to-cubicle education. He wants far more government grants, tax credits and other financial guarantees for college education — another way station to another universal federal entitlement. He lauded the country for establishing free high school education during the Industrial Revolution; he wants to put us on the road to doing the same for college during the Information Age.
(3) Obama wants to be to green energy what John Kennedy was to the moon shot, its visionary and creator. It starts with the establishment of a government-guided, government-funded green energy sector into which the administration will pour billions of dollars from the stimulus package and billions more from budgets to come.
But just picking winners and losers is hardly sufficient for a president who sees himself as world-historical. Hence the carbon cap-and-trade system he proposed Tuesday night that will massively restructure American industry and create a highly regulated energy sector.
These revolutions in health care, education and energy are not just abstract hopes. They have already taken life in Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, a huge expansion of social spending constituting a down payment on Obama’s plan for remaking the American social contract.
Obama sees the current economic crisis as an opportunity. He has said so openly. And now we know what opportunity he wants to seize. Just as the Depression created the political and psychological conditions for Franklin Roosevelt’s transformation of America from laissez-faireism to the beginnings of the welfare state, the current crisis gives Obama the political space to move the still (relatively) modest American welfare state toward European-style social democracy.
In the European Union, government spending has declined slightly, from 48 percent to 47 percent of GDP during the past 10 years. In the United States, it has shot up from 34 percent to 40 percent. Part of this explosive growth in U.S. government spending reflects the emergency private-sector interventions of a Republican administration. But the clear intent was to make the massive intrusion into the private sector temporary and to retreat as quickly as possible. Obama has radically different ambitions.
The spread between Europe and America in government-controlled GDP has already shrunk from 14 percent to 7 percent. Two terms of Obamaism and the difference will be zero.
Conservatives take a dim view of the regulation-bound, economically sclerotic, socially stagnant, nanny state that is the European Union. Nonetheless, Obama is ascendant and has the personal mandate to take the country where he wishes. He has laid out boldly the Brussels-bound path he wants to take.
Let the debate begin.
Forget all of this. This is run-of-the-mill budget trickery. True, Obama’s tricks come festooned with strings of zeros tacked onto the end. But that’s a matter of scale, not principle.
All presidents do that. But few undertake the kind of brazen deception at the heart of Obama’s radically transformative economic plan, a rhetorical sleight of hand so smoothly offered that few noticed.
The logic of Obama’s address to Congress went like this:
“Our economy did not fall into decline overnight,” he averred. Indeed, it all began before the housing crisis. What did we do wrong? We are paying for past sins in three principal areas: energy, health care and education — importing too much oil and not finding new sources of energy (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf?), not reforming health care, and tolerating too many bad schools.
The “day of reckoning” has arrived. And because “it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we’ll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament,” Obama has come to redeem us with his far-seeing program of universal, heavily nationalized health care; a cap-and-trade tax on energy; and a major federalization of education with universal access to college as the goal.
Amazing. As an explanation of our current economic difficulties, this is total fantasy. As a cure for rapidly growing joblessness, a massive destruction of wealth, a deepening worldwide recession, this is perhaps the greatest non sequitur ever foisted upon the American people.
At the very center of our economic near-depression is a credit bubble, a housing collapse and a systemic failure of the banking industry. One can come up with a host of causes: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pushed by Washington (and greed) into improvident loans, corrupted bond-ratings agencies, insufficient regulation of new and exotic debt instruments, the easy money policy of Alan Greenspan’s Fed, irresponsible bankers pushing (and then unloading in packaged loan instruments) highly dubious mortgages, greedy house-flippers, deceitful home buyers.
The list is long. But the list of causes of the collapse of the financial system does not include the absence of universal health care, let alone of computerized medical records. Nor the absence of an industry-killing cap-and-trade carbon levy. Nor the lack of college graduates. Indeed, one could perversely make the case that, if anything, the proliferation of overeducated, Gucci-wearing, smart-ass MBAs inventing ever more sophisticated and opaque mathematical models and debt instruments helped get us into this credit catastrophe.
And yet with our financial house on fire, Obama makes clear both in his speech and his budget that the essence of his presidency will be the transformation of health care, education and energy. Four months after winning the election, six weeks after his swearing-in, Obama has yet to unveil a plan to deal with the banking crisis.
What’s going on? “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” said chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. “This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”
Things. Now we know what they are. The markets’ recent precipitous decline is a reaction not just to the absence of any plausible bank rescue plan, but also to the suspicion that Obama sees the continuing financial crisis as usefully creating the psychological conditions — the sense of crisis bordering on fear-itself panic — for enacting his “Big Bang” agenda to federalize and/or socialize health care, education and energy, the commanding heights of post-industrial society.
Clever politics, but intellectually dishonest to the core. Health, education and energy — worthy and weighty as they may be — are not the cause of our financial collapse. And they are not the cure. The fraudulent claim that they are both cause and cure is the rhetorical device by which an ambitious president intends to enact the most radical agenda of social transformation seen in our lifetime.
By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, March 6, 2009
Five minutes of explanation to James Madison, and he’ll have a pretty good idea what a motorcar is (basically a steamboat on wheels; the internal combustion engine might take a few minutes more). Then try to explain to Madison how the Constitution he fathered allows the president to unilaterally guarantee the repair or replacement of every component of millions of such contraptions sold in the several states, and you will leave him slack-jawed.
Despite these astonishments, I remain more amused than alarmed. First, the notion of presidential car warranties strikes me as simply too bizarre, too comical, to mark the beginning of Yankee Peronism.
Second, there is every political incentive to make these interventions in the banks and autos temporary and circumscribed. For President Obama, autos and banks are sideshows. Enormous sideshows, to be sure, but had the financial meltdown and the looming auto bankruptcies not been handed to him, he would hardly have gone seeking to be the nation’s credit and car czar.
Obama has far different ambitions. His goal is to rewrite the American social compact, to recast the relationship between government and citizen. He wants government to narrow the nation’s income and anxiety gaps. Soak the rich for reasons of revenue and justice. Nationalize health care and federalize education to grant all citizens of all classes the freedom from anxiety about health care and college that the rich enjoy. And fund this vast new social safety net through the cash cow of a disguised carbon tax.
Obama is a leveler. He has come to narrow the divide between rich and poor. For him the ultimate social value is fairness. Imposing it upon the American social order is his mission.
Fairness through leveling is the essence of Obamaism. (Asked by Charlie Gibson during a campaign debate about his support for raising capital gains taxes — even if they caused a net revenue loss to the government — Obama stuck to the tax hike “for purposes of fairness.”) The elements are highly progressive taxation, federalized health care and higher education, and revenue-producing energy controls. But first he must deal with the sideshows. They could sink the economy and poison his public support before he gets to enact his real agenda.
The big sideshows, of course, are the credit crisis, which Obama has contracted out to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and the collapse of the U.S. automakers, which Obama seems to have taken on for himself.
That was a tactical mistake. Better to have let the car companies go directly to Chapter 11 and have a judge mete out the bitter medicine to the workers and bondholders.
By sacking GM’s CEO, packing the new board, and giving direction as to which brands to drop and what kind of cars to make, Obama takes ownership of General Motors. He may soon come to regret it. He has now gotten himself so entangled in the car business that he is personally guaranteeing your muffler. (Upon reflection, a job best left to the congenitally unmuffled Joe Biden.)
Some find in this descent into large-scale industrial policy a whiff of 1930s-style fascist corporatism. I have my doubts. These interventions are rather targeted. They involve global financial institutions that even the Bush administration decided had to be nationalized and auto companies that themselves came begging to the government for money.
Bizarre and constitutionally suspect as these interventions may be, the transformation of the American system will come from elsewhere. The credit crisis will pass and the auto overcapacity will sort itself out one way or the other. The reordering of the American system will come not from these temporary interventions, into which Obama has reluctantly waded. It will come from Obama’s real agenda: his holy trinity of health care, education and energy. Out of these will come a radical extension of the welfare state; social and economic leveling in the name of fairness; and a massive increase in the size, scope and reach of government.
If Obama has his way, the change that is coming is a new America: “fair,” leveled and social democratic. Obama didn’t get elected to warranty your muffler. He’s here to warranty your life.
By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, April 17, 2009
Franklin Roosevelt gave us the New Deal. John Kennedy gave us the New Frontier. In a major domestic policy address at Georgetown University this week, Barack Obama promised — eight times — a “New Foundation.” For those too thick to have noticed this proclamation of a new era in American history, the White House Web site helpfully titled its speech excerpts “A New Foundation.”
As it happens, Obama is not the first to try this slogan. President Jimmy Carter peppered his 1979 State of the Union address with five “New Foundations” (and eight more just naked “foundations”). Like most of Carter’s endeavors, this one failed, perhaps because (as I recall it being said at the time) it sounded like the introduction of a new kind of undergarment.
Undaunted, Obama offered his New Foundation speech as the complete, contextual, canonical text for the domestic revolution he aims to enact. It had everything we have come to expect from Obama:
The Whopper: The boast that he had “identified $2 trillion in deficit reductions over the next decade.” It takes audacity to repeat this after it had been so widely exposed as transparently phony. Most of this $2 trillion is conjured up by refraining from spending $180 billion a year for 10 more years of surges in Iraq. Hell, why not make the “deficit reductions” $10 trillion — the extra $8 trillion coming from refraining from repeating the $787 billion stimulus package annually through 2019.
The Puzzler: He further boasted of his frugality by saying that his budget would reduce domestic discretionary spending as a share of GDP to the lowest level ever recorded. Amazing. Squeezing discretionary domestic spending at a time of hugely expanding budgets is merely the baleful residue of out-of-control entitlements and debt service, which will increase astronomically under Obama. To claim these as achievements in fiscal responsibility is testament not to Obama’s frugality but to his brazenness.
The Non Sequitur: “To make sure such a crisis [as we have today] never happens again,” Obama proposes his radical health-care, energy and education reforms, the central pillars of his social democratic agenda. But Obama’s own words contradict this assertion. Notes The Post: “But as his admirable summation of recent history made clear, these pursuits have little to do with the economic crisis, and they are not the key to economic recovery.” Obama rarely fails to repeat this false connection. A crisis — and the public’s resulting pliability to liberal social engineering — is a terrible thing to waste.
The Swindle: The Obama administration is spending money like none other in peacetime history. Obama is smart. He knows this is fiscally unsustainable. He has let it be known privately and publicly that he intends to cure the imbalance with entitlement reform.
An excellent strategy. If it takes throwing nearly $1 trillion of “porky” (to quote Sen. Charles Schumer) stimulus spending to soften up a Democratic Congress and make it amenable to real entitlement reform, then fine. Reforming Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would save tens of trillions of dollars, and make the current money-from-helicopters spending almost trivial by comparison.
In the New Foundation speech, Obama correctly (again) identifies the skyrocketing cost of Medicare and Medicaid as the key fiscal problem. But then he claims that Medicaid and Medicare reform is the same as his health-care reform, fatuously citing as his authority a one-day meeting of handpicked interested parties at his “Fiscal Responsibility Summit.”
Here’s the problem. The heart of Obama’s health-care reform is universality. Covering more people costs more money. That is why Obama’s budget sets aside an extra $634 billion in health-care spending, a down payment on an estimated additional spending of $1 trillion. How does the administration curtail the Medicare and Medicaid entitlement by adding yet another (now universal) health-care entitlement that its own estimate acknowledges increases costs by about $1 trillion?
Which is why in his March 24 news conference, Obama could not explain how — when the near-term stimulative spending is over and his ambitious domestic priorities kick in, promising sustained prosperity and deficit reduction — the deficits at the end of the coming decade are rising, not falling. The Congressional Budget Office has deficits increasing in the last seven years of the decade from an already unsustainable $672 billion annually to $1.2 trillion by 2019.
This is the sand on which the new foundation is constructed. Obama has the magic to make words mean almost anything. Numbers are more resistant to his charms.
By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, April 24, 2009
Unified theory of Obamaism, fifth (final?) installment:
In the service of his ultimate mission — the leveling of social inequalities — President Obama offers a tripartite social democratic agenda: nationalized health care, federalized education (ultimately guaranteed through college) and a cash-cow carbon tax (or its equivalent) to subsidize the other two.
Problem is, the math doesn’t add up. Not even a carbon tax would pay for Obama’s vastly expanded welfare state. Nor will Midwest Democrats stand for a tax that would devastate their already crumbling region.
What is obviously required is entitlement reform, meaning Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. That’s where the real money is — trillions saved that could not only fund hugely expensive health and education programs but also restore budgetary balance.
Except that Obama has offered no real entitlement reform. His universal health-care proposal would increase costs by perhaps $1 trillion. Medicare/Medicaid reform is supposed to decrease costs.
Obama’s own budget projections show staggering budget deficits going out to 2019. If he knows his social agenda is going to drown us in debt, what’s he up to?
He has an idea. But he dare not speak of it yet. He has only hinted. When asked in his March 24 news conference about the huge debt he’s incurring, Obama spoke vaguely of “additional adjustments” that will be unfolding in future budgets.
Rarely have two more anodyne words carried such import. “Additional adjustments” equals major cuts in Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.
Social Security is relatively easy. A bipartisan commission (like the 1983 Alan Greenspan commission) recommends some combination of means testing for richer people, increasing the retirement age and a technical change in the inflation measure (indexing benefits to prices instead of wages). The proposal is brought to Congress for a no-amendment up-or-down vote. Done.
The hard part is Medicare and Medicaid. In an aging population, how do you keep them from blowing up the budget? There is only one answer: rationing.
Why do you think the stimulus package pours $1.1 billion into medical “comparative effectiveness research”? It is the perfect setup for rationing. Once you establish what is “best practice” for expensive operations, medical tests and aggressive therapies, you’ve laid the premise for funding some and denying others.
It is estimated that a third to a half of one’s lifetime health costs are consumed in the last six months of life. Accordingly, Britain’s National Health Service can deny treatments it deems not cost-effective — and if you’re old and infirm, the cost-effectiveness of treating you plummets. In Canada, they ration by queuing. You can wait forever for so-called elective procedures like hip replacements.
Rationing is not quite as alien to America as we think. We already ration kidneys and hearts for transplant according to survivability criteria as well as by queuing. A nationalized health insurance system would ration everything from MRIs to intensive care by myriad similar criteria.
The more acute thinkers on the left can see rationing coming, provoking Slate blogger Mickey Kaus to warn of the political danger. “Isn’t it an epic mistake to try to sell Democratic health care reform on this basis? Possible sales pitch: ‘Our plan will deny you unnecessary treatments!’ . . . Is that really why the middle class will sign on to a revolutionary multitrillion-dollar shift in spending — so the government can decide their life or health ‘is not worth the price’?”
My own preference is for a highly competitive, privatized health insurance system with a government-subsidized transition to portability, breaking the absurd and ruinous link between health insurance and employment. But if you believe that health care is a public good to be guaranteed by the state, then a single-payer system is the next best alternative. Unfortunately, it is fiscally unsustainable without rationing.
Social Security used to be the third rail of American politics. Not anymore. Health-care rationing is taking its place — which is why Obama, the consummate politician, knows to offer the candy (universality) today before serving the spinach (rationing) tomorrow.
Taken as a whole, Obama’s social democratic agenda is breathtaking. And the rollout has thus far been brilliant. It follows Kaus’s advice to “give pandering a chance” and adheres to the Democratic tradition of being the party that gives things away, while leaving the green-eyeshade stinginess to those heartless Republicans.
It will work for a while, but there is no escaping rationing. In the end, the spinach must be served.