Right Wing Fails At Manufacturing Culture War Over Art

Culture Monster at The Los Angeles Times writes that the right wing’s attempts at a fake culture war over the arts have not been successful:

When it comes to art, the right-wing anti-Obama crowd hasn’t had a very good year. Repeated efforts to gin up outrage in a manufactured culture war have either fallen flat or proved downright embarrassing. (You can see some of them here, here and here.)

The latest fiasco is the Great Christmas Ornament Scandal.

On Tuesday, Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government blog got its knickers in a twist over one of the Obama White House’s myriad Christmas trees. (Big Government is a sibling to Breitbart’s Big Hollywood blog, which cranked up a paranoid fantasy about the National Endowment for the Arts a few months back.) The blaring “EXCLUSIVE” led with a blurry photo of a decoupage Christmas ornament adorned with the face of Chinese Communist dictator, Mao Zedong.

“Of course, Mao has his place in the White House,” Big Government wailed about the GCOS, taking the Obama-as-socialist meme out for a yuletide spin.

Except, it wasn’t exactly Mao. It was Andy Warhol’s “Mao.”

The image is one of a very large series of silkscreen paintings and prints the late Pop artist made of Mao. Warhol’s parody transformed the leader of the world’s most populous nation into a vapid superstar — the most famous of the famous. The portrait photo from Mao’s Little Red Book is tarted up with lipstick, eye-shadow and other Marilyn Monroe-style flourishes.

If Only We Had A Serious Opposition Party

Jonathan Chait explains how the Republicans have committed a real blunder on health care reform:

The United States is on the doorstep of comprehensive health care reform. It’s a staggering achievement, about which I’ll have more to say later. but the under-appreciated thing that strikes me at the moment is that it never would have happened if the Republican Party had played its cards right.

At the outset of this debate, moderate Democrats were desperate for a bipartisan bill. They were willing to do almost anything to get it, including negotiate fruitlessly for months on end. We can’t know for sure, but Democrats appeared willing to make enormous substantive concessions to win the assent of even a few Republicans. A few GOP defectors could have lured a chunk of Democrats to sign something far more limited than what President Obama is going to sign. And remember, it would have taken only one Democrat to agree to partial reform in order to kill comprehensive reform. I can easily imagine a scenario where Ben Nelson refused to vote for anything larger than, say, a $400 billion bill that Chuck Grassley and a couple other Republicans were offering.

But Republicans wouldn’t make that deal. The GOP leadership put immense pressure on all its members to withhold consent from any health care bill. The strategy had some logic to it: If all 40 Republicans voted no, then Democrats would need 60 votes to succeed, a monumentally difficult task. And if they did succeed, the bill would be seen as partisan and therefore too liberal, too big government. The spasm of anti-government activism over the summer helped lock the GOP into this strategy — no Republican could afford to risk the wrath of Tea Partiers convinced that any reform signed by Obama equaled socialism and death panels.

The same logic is true of many issues besides health care. For example, If Republicans were smart they would offer their own ideas about dealing with climate change as opposed to denying the science. Instead of providing any ideas, they have decided to simply vote against taking action on virtually everything.

I don’t go along with the Democrats on everything and I do wish we had a real opposition party. A serious opposition could provide meaningful meaningful checks and balances on the power of government. That would mean an opposition party which presented other ideas–not one which votes no on anything and which claims that anything done by government is bad (unless it involves invading other countries or torture)

The passage of this bill does show that we have moved beyond Reaganism. Matthew Yglesias writes, “Among other things, it represents a return, after fifteen years, of the idea that congress should be trying to pass major legislation that tackles major national problems. And even beyond that, it restores an even longer-lost tradition of congress trying to pass major legislation on specifically progressive priorities.” Paul Krugman sees this as an historic advance as, “it represents a rejection of the view that the solution for all problems is to cut some taxes and remove some regulations.”

Big government solutions are not always the best answer–which is one reason why we need a sensible opposition party. However there are some problems, such as health care, which the free market cannot handle without at least a large amount of government regulation. The Republicans cannot be taken seriously when they refuse to participate responsibly in the process when there is need for the government to act.

Update: Ross Douthat disagrees with Chait, and Jonathan Chait responds.

Senate Democrats Get Enough Votes To Keep Health Care Bill Alive, But Futher Revisions Needed on This Bill

It appears that the Democrats now have the sixty votes necessary to keep consideration of the health care reform bill alive. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is the 60th Senator to agree to at least keep the bill alive to debate it even though she says she doesn’t agree with everything in the bill and might not vote for the final bill.

The bill is far from perfect and hopefully there will be some changes made as the Senate debates the bill, followed by reconciliation with the House bill if the Senate bill does pass. My fear is that, to appease the conservatives, more of the benefits will be reduced while many of the negative aspects might remain.

As I wade through the legislation, beyond portions previously discussed, one item I’m concerned about is the power of the Medicare Advisory Board. Previously I heard proposals to make it more independent and to give Congress only an up or down vote on its proposals, similar to decisions on military base closures. The Senate bill goes far further than this. As Ronald Brownstein explains, “Under the Senate bill, that board would be required to offer cost-saving proposals when Medicare spending rises too fast; Congress could not reject its proposals without substituting equivalent savings.”

I fear this might provide too much power to an unelected group. It is one thing to give Congress an outright up or down vote. Putting restrictions on the ability of Congress to reject their recommendations might leave the Medicare Advisory Board in the position of too easily making decisions without meaningful Congressional oversight.

It will be interesting to see the reaction to this from both the right and the left.  This might be a proposal which conservatives who talk about cutting costs might support, but supporting it would contradict their earlier rhetoric on the subject. The stereotypical “big government” liberals might see increased bureaucratic control of Medicare as a good thing, or some might question if this might lead to inadequate spending on the elderly. Sarah Palin might even argue that we are at risk of the Medicare Advisory Board setting up death panels to cut costs with Congress would not be able to stop.

Doctors Support a Public Plan Because Our Chances of Actually Getting Paid Are Better Than From Private Insurance

Big Government claims that, in supporting a public plan, doctors are endorsing the largest denier of health care claims. The selected data they cite is misleading and the blog’s argument is contrary to our actual experience. The chances of getting paid is far better from Medicare than most private insurance companies assuming Medicare was correctly billed as primary insurance. Such personal experience is what is going to influence physician support for a public plan–not selective quoting of statistics by conservative blogs.

The post lists a column on percentage of claim lines denied but doesn’t account for the reason. In real world experience, the number of denials is a small fraction of this. Another number which is far more consistent with my real world experience is percentage of claim lines reduced to zero. By this measurement Medicare is far more likely to actually send payment.

When my office does have Medicare claims rejected, by far the most common reason is that the patient was enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan but is unaware that their coverage was changed. When physicians support a public plan we are supporting a plan based upon the original government Medicare program before it was screwed up by George Bush and the Republicans. I have also seen far more incorrect rejections of claims from Medicare Advantage plans, often taking multiple phone calls and faxes to fix, than I see from the government Medicare plan.

The second most common reason for denials I see is when a patient has Medicare but the patient or a spouse are working and another policy is actually primary. Medicare for All would fix that problem.

There are also situations where Medicare is pickier than other insurances on technical matters, but these rejections are easy to fix. The most common rejection of this type I experience is when an employee makes a mistake in typing in the Medicare number.

When a claim does need to be corrected, it is generally a simple matter to correct and resubmit the claim electronically. In contrast, if many private insurance plans initially reject a claim they will then reject fixed claims as duplicates, making it more difficult (and time consuming for physician offices) to actually get payment.

Medicare also has a number of rules by which they pay for certain services but their rules are all posted on line. It is generally easy to figure out what it takes to get a claim paid, but I’m sure that some physicians fail to pay attention to this and might be responsible for a larger number of rejections. In contrast, private insurance plans often reject claims without providing any good explanation. Often private plans will require prior authorization, taking up more staff time and increasing office overhead.

Private plans reject claims due to preexisting conditions. Medicare never does this. Private plans sometimes also find ways to drop a patient when they become too expensive, but this is not a problem with Medicare. Once a patient is dropped by private insurance plans, no more claims are submitted and this is not reflected in their percentage.

The bottom line is that in general Medicare pays us more reliably than private plans. It is also less expensive to bill Medicare as they don’t play the types of games private insurance plans often do in order to get payment. It is no surprise that so many doctors support a public plan as part of health care reform, with many also supporting Medicare for All.

Update: Another important factor is that there is a fair system of appeals and due process when Medicare claims are rejected. On rare cases where I have had rejections because of Medicare claiming that something was not necessary I have been successful in appealing their decision and receiving payment. If an appeal is not successful it can be taken to an administrative law judge. This is far less likely to be successful with private insurance.

Trust in Government and Belief In Health Care Distortions

Charles Blowattributes the widespread belief in many of the false claims about health care reform being spread by Republicans on increased distrust in government, arguing that “it stands to reason that many people probably don’t trust Washington on health care reform because, right now at least, they just don’t trust Washington.”

There is logic to distrusting Washington. While the Democrats are far from perfect here, the dishonesty coming from government increased tremendously during the Bush years. If Blow is right, Democrats are now suffering from the distrust in government which increased during the Bush years.

Blow also writes:

These fluctuations highlight a peculiar quirk of recent American politics — according to an analysis of The New York Times/CBS News polls from the past 33 years, Americans seem to trust the government substantially more after a Republican president is elected than they do after a Democratic one is elected — at least at the outset.

The comment about “at the onset” is key. Americans trusted government when Republicans were elected but often have been burned by this trust. Therefore it makes sense that they showed distrust of government at the same time as they voted in Democrats.

Blow repeats a common but erroneous stereotype in writing:

It seems curious that the same party that believes in big government doesn’t trust that government to do the right thing when Democratic leaders control it. But Democrats are a curious lot.

Republicans are actually the party of big government at least as much as the Democrats.  Despite the tremendous amount of growth in government under Republicans, they have fooled some into thinking of them as opposing big government because of their rhetoric, not their actions.

People vote for Democrats for a variety of reasons–not necessarily because of support for government programs. The differences in Democratic voters are similar to the differences among liberals which I have previously discussed. There are certainly some liberals and Democrats who tend to support big government, but there are also many liberals and those who vote Democratic because of concern over civil liberties and restoring the checks and balances on government which were eroded under the Republicans.

With health care reform, assuming can still be passed, it might come down to getting the program through first and then earning trust. Once people see that the actual plan is nothing like it is being misrepresented by Republicans their view of it will change.

Campaigns based upon such distortion have become standard operating procedure for the Republicans in recent years. The big question is whether Americans will figure this out, forcing Republicans to stop relying on such tactics.

Defining Progressive and Libertarian Views

With August generally being a slow news month Arnold Kling has set up a discussion which could keep bloggers busy for the next several days. Kling asks what progressives believe and gave a few ideas. Tyler Cowen took the bait and gave a much longer list which presents views which I doubt very many actual progressives will identify with. See, for example, the responses by Matthew Yglesias, Tristero, and Ezra Klein.

Kling defined progressive beliefs around views of the market:

1. Unfettered free markets nearly always produce sub-optimal outcomes.

2. When economists or other technocrats know how to use public policy (taxes, spending, regulation) to improve outcomes, they should be given the authority to do so.

3. Technocrats know how to improve outcomes in many areas.

4. Therefore, it would be wise to cede authority to technocrats in many areas.

5. Conservatives and libertarians disagree with (1) and (2)

I might be the wrong person to respond with regards to progressive beliefs as I personally avoid that term. One problem with defining political labels is that a wide variety of people tend to fall under the handful of labels in common use. I tend to divide liberals and progressives into at least two groups (with considerable overlap and some who this division doesn’t work well) as I discussed in this post.

In general I would use progressive more for those on the left who are stronger proponents of big government projects (and market intervention) while I use liberal for those of us who concentrate on issues such as individual liberty and turn to government more as a necessity than something we inherently support.Therefore my first problem with the definitions by Kling and Cowen is with making views on intervention in the economy as the defining factors. Other areas, such as protecting civil liberties, limiting the power of government (as opposed to dwelling on size of government), and protecting separation of church and state are of greater significance to me.

Besides a stress on liberty (while allowing for some restrictions which libertarians might not support), I would also define liberalism as primarily a reality-based view of the world which encompasses a wide variety of views in contrast to the anti-scientific biases of the current conservative movement which relies upon religion as opposed to science and reason to explore the universe and solve problems. While conservatives are often blinded to reality by their fundamentalist theological views and other delusions,  many libertarians treat the free market in a similarly religious manner.

With regards to markets I view the entire issue different from how Kling attempts to divide progressive and libertarian views. Kling seems to lean more towards the Adam Smith invisible hand view of the market in opposing government intervention, thinking markets work just fine on their own. Liberals and progressives are more likely to see markets as being a human creation, not something with mystical powers of its own.

Liberals and progressives believe markets require a certain amount of regulation to work. Of course this isn’t purely a liberal belief. For example, some conservatives such as Richard Posner have realized that the current economic crisis is a result of insufficient regulation of the financial sector. While markets are the best way of handling most tasks, there are areas where markets do not work. While the most extreme libertarians would turn the police and military over to the market, most of us fear that this would lead to abuse of power and would prefer to leave these functions in the hands of government (while also monitoring the government closely for abusing their power). Health care has provided another example of where the market has failed requiring the government to step in. Markets have led to a situation where insurance companies increase profits not by providing service but by finding ways to deny claims and eliminate their most costly beneficiaries, requiring government action to reform the system.

Tyler Cowen concluded his off target attempt to describe progressives with this challenge: “It would be interesting to see a progressive try to sum up an intelligent version of libertarianism.” This is difficult not due to a lack of understanding of libertarianism but because of the the wide variety of views which fall under that label.

Classically libertarians could be defined as opposing the initiation of force. To the most extreme/consistent libertarian this included taxation which is seen as theft. Such libertarians were divided between anarcho-capitalists who would rely on the market for everything and limited government libertarians. Many limited government libertarians continued to oppose taxation, turning to everything from user fees to lotteries to finance the very limited government functions they supported.

The problem with supporting limited government once you support some degree of taxation and restrictions on the individual (beyond restrictions on the initiation of force) is that it is possible for many to support a wide degree of government action while justifying this as libertarian. Those who use the libertarian label tend to concentrate more on economic issues as Arnold Kling and Thyler Cowen did in their posts. Many libertarians were fooled by Republican free market rhetoric, leading to the stereotype of libertarians as Republicans who have smoked marijuana. Other libertarians have seen through this rhetoric. This includes Will Wilkinson who wrote, “the great success of the GOP over the last eight years has been to destroy the reputation of free markets and limited government by deploying its rhetoric and then doing the opposite.”

Over the past few decades I have noted a wide range of acceptance of (generally) limited government activity by different people who call themselves libertarians. In general libertarians tend to support limited, if any, government intervention in the economy while (sometimes as a secondary position) also support civil liberties. Some who might be called libertarian stray further from a pro-liberty position. This was seen during the Ron Paul campaign as Paul, and to an even greater degree many of his supporters, backed portions of the agenda of the religious right. An even greater divergence from classical libertarian views is seen with some who call themselves libertarian while supporting the Iraq war and the associated restrictions on civil liberties in the Bush “war on terror.” The most extreme example of this are the “Libertarian Republican” views of Eric Dondero (aka Rittberg) who supports what would amount to a military dictatorship with elimination of civil liberties in order to fight the threat to liberty from “Islamo-Fascism.” (To be fair to libertarians, most libertarians I know laugh at the idea that he is a libertarian).

My real point in discussing the difficulty in defining libertarianism by noting the wide variety of views which it encompasses is to demonstrate the problems with such labels in a way which libertarians such as Cowen might acknowledge. Just as libertarianism contains a wide variety of views, the same is also true of progressivism and liberalism. To define liberal and progressive views based upon intervention in the economy misses gist of what liberals and progressives really believe in.

Taxation and The Battle over Health Care Reform

While it is still difficult to predict the final outcome, momentum for passing health care reform has slowed. Republicans have launched their typical misinformation campaign to scare voters. They continue to confuse the fact that the real changes are over how insurance coverage is handled. This is not a “government takeover of health care” or anything resembling “socialized medicine.” It certainly does not help matters when Republican politicians make uninformed and dishonest statements such as  claiming reforming health care coverage is comparable to placing health care under FEMA as Bobby Jindal does today in The Wall Street Journal.

Besides the endless number of dishonest Republican claims, there are also real concerns about the complexity of the plan and the cost. First Read points out a major problem in passing health care reform:

One of the bigger, but more under-reported, sea changes in American politics is how any kind of tax increase — whether in war or peace, good economic times or bad ones — has become absolutely unacceptable. After all, Ronald Reagan raised taxes. So did every modern American president involved in war, until George W. Bush. But not anymore. Indeed, as one of us pointed out on Nightly News last night, only 29% (or 157) of the 535 and House members and senators serving in Congress were around the last time — 1993! — the federal government raised taxes, and that was on gasoline. Think about that for a moment: Congress hasn’t really had a TOUGH vote in 16 years, if one defines a “TOUGH” vote as the government asking for a financial sacrifice from the American people. This is the political climate that President Obama faces in trying to pay for health reform. Republicans and some Democrats are opposed to a tax on the wealthy, and unions and Obama’s political strategists are against taxing health benefits.

While I am generally not a fan of big government programs and opposed HillaryCare, the situation with health care coverage has deteriorated to the point where government action is necessary. This is also something which costs money despite the claims of the Obama administration that health care reform can largely pay for itself. It costs money to provide coverage to those who cannot afford it, increase the delivery of preventive care, and improve health care information technology. We will not see the savings from improved preventive care and information technology for many years.

As I’ve noted before, reforming health care coverage is something which benefits everyone, not only the near one hundred million who are currently uninsured or under-insured. Having a society in which nearly everyone has health care coverage and nobody has to fear losing coverage due to developing a serious illness, losing a job, or desiring to change jobs is worthwhile but we must be willing to pay for it.

The chances of raising enough money to both achieve these goals and avoid the types of restrictions on care which Americans would not want to see imposed is greatest if the money for this can be raised by a broad based tax as opposed to pretending we can get all the money by taxing the rich alone. Unfortunatley this probably is not politically feasible as there would be protest over a tax increase on the middle class, even if it would be largely offset over time by both lower insurance premiums and ultimately lower costs from a more efficient health care system.

Earlier in the year polls did show that voters were willing to accept a tax increase to pay for health care reform. We are not seeing as many support this now. Some of this is for unavoidable reasons, such as belt tightening during a time of economic crisis and due to the scare tactics of the right wing. This is also due to a missed opportunity by Barack Obama to show true leadership.

If Obama had proposed a health reform plan and honestly discussed both the costs and benefits, he might have received support for the taxes needed to pay for this. Obama has done an excellent job of receiving support from groups which opposed health care reform in the past such as the American Medical Association. He could have further demonstrated a willingness to respond to the crisis by going beyond traditional partisan concerns by taking an even stronger position on malpractice reform. While Republicans do greatly exaggerate the role of malpractice on health care costs, the fact remains that reducing costs on defensive medicine does remain one of the easier ways to reduce costs without negatively impacting quality or patient choice.

Republican Comeback?

Politico is talking about the possibility of a Republican comeback, starting out with reasons why it sounds far-fetched:

For the first time since their 2006 election drubbing, top Republicans see signs — however faint — of a political resurgence over the next year.

At first blush, this sounds absurd. After all, polls show the GOP more unpopular than ever, and the John Ensign sex scandal serves as a vivid, real-time reminder of why many see the party as a collection of hypocrites.

But several trends suggest this optimism might not be as far-fetched as it seems.

Polls show that the GOP is wise to focus most of its attacks on spending, government intervention and job losses. (Those same polls show the public has low regard for Republicans on these issues, but it’s a significant development that President Barack Obama’s numbers are slipping in these areas, too.) And just as importantly, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill privately recognize the need to distance themselves a bit from George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich — even though they’ve done poor job of doing so thus far.

They think the Republicans have a chance if they concentrate on government spending:

Polls show that Obama’s chief vulnerability is public concern over the soaring deficit. And as the sticker shock of a trillion-dollar-plus health care plan takes hold, these concerns are only likely to grow.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — long used to hearing complaints about Bush — says his moderate constituents have finally found something else to gripe about. “Now the dominant thing I hear from them is: ‘What is all this government spending?'” said Kirk, who is mulling a Senate run next year.

Squabbling over much else, Republicans are emboldened and united on this issue. In the House, they banded together last week to oppose a supplemental war funding bill because it included $5 billion for the International Monetary Fund — what one GOP member called a “global bailout.” They are gearing up to oppose Democratic plans to increase domestic spending this summer and fall.

Yes, this approach is more than a tad hypocritical. Under Bush, Republicans vastly expanded the size of government and whacked Democrats when they opposed war funding. But memories fade fast in politics, especially in this era of turbo-charged media.

The last paragraph shows one problem for the Republicans. While they love to talk about small government, the Republicans are every bit as much a party of big government as the Democrats. It is hardly a surprise that in a two-party country with a big government both parties are equally guilty of promoting this.

The key difference is that while both parties support big government, the Republicans support a government with less limitations on its power and increased interference in the lives of individuals. In order for the Republicans to try to win on the economy and government spending they have to hope that the voters forget everything else the Republicans stand for.

Even if they do manage to make the next election a referendum on the economy, the Republicans are hardly in good shape. They have to hope that voters have a very short memory and forget that the current economic crisis began under the Republicans and that Republican policies were a major factor in precipitating the crisis. Even long-time economic conservatives such as Richard Posner have acknowledged the problems which were created by deregulation of the financial industry.

You never know for certain how people will vote, and it is possible voters have a short memory. A present polls only show about 20% still supporting the Republicans, with virtually all groups now opposing them. The off-year elections in 2010 should offer advantages for the party out of power, especially as many Democrats are now defending traditionally Republican districts. It is still risky for the Republicans to count on the economy and government spending as issues. Numerous polls have showed public support for health care reform even if it costs more and results in higher taxes.

In general voters will vote Democratic when the economy is their main concern–which certainly makes sense considering the overall track record of the two parties. As they regularly ignore facts when they contradict their ideology and they stick to economic principles which simply do not work, an economic decline seem to be an inevitable consequence of Republican government. A majority of voters seems to feel this way.

Looking back at the 2008 presidential race, John McCain led in the polls after the conventions. I still felt confident that Obama would win, especially as McCain was riding a bounce due to interest in Sarah Palin which I though would eventually back fire against him. While confident that Obama would pull back ahead, it was not until the financial crisis began that Obama took a lead and was never in danger of losing the election. Voters who rejected the Republicans due to the economy in 2008 might be convinced to return, but it will be a very hard sell.

While Obama may or may not be right on individual decisions, a pragmatic president who will change course based upon facts is far preferable to Republicans who govern based upon blind devotion to ideology and deride a necessary change in policy as “flip-flopping.” The problem the Republicans face is that, while the Democrats are far from perfect, most voters feel the Republicans are far worse.

Palinomics and Other Conservative Fantasies

To even consider taking Sarah Palin seriously on, well anything, is laughable. When she was first picked to be John McCain’s running mate my guess was that she was inexperienced but an up and coming conservative who was at least well versed in conservative ideas and had some basic competence in government. It turned out I was wrong and that she is clearly a politician of the George Bush model who knows how to schmooze people to get ahead but is remarkably ignorant when it comes to policy matters. In a recent speech, which I didn’t bother with commenting on at the time because of more important matters to attend to that day (which included happy hour with $2 glasses of Sangria and crab cake sliders) Palin said, “Some in Washington would approach our economic woes in ways that absolutely defy Economics 101, and they fly in the face of principles, providing opportunity for industrious Americans to succeed or to fail on their own accord.” Palin hardly seems to have any understanding of Economics 101, or any other, topic.

Conor Clarke, blaming his RSS reader as opposed to Sangria during happy hour, also didn’t get around to commenting on Palin’s speech until recently. He saw the absurdity in taking Palin seriously as a fiscal conservative, writing “In particular, that line about “industrious Americans” succeeding and failing of their own accord made we want to take a look at the federal dollars Alaska receives per resident relative to its federal tax burden.”

Conor made a chart of the data which is worth glancing at and concluded:

Alaska gets $13,950 per resident from the federal government, more than any other state in the nation. It ranks number one in taxes per resident and number one in spending per resident. It’s also number one in pork-barrel spending. Each Alaska resident receives a check for $3,200 a year from state oil revenues — which Palin bumped up from $2,000 last year. Palin once justified this by saying that the state of Alaska was “set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” (Sounds socialist!) Industrious indeed.

Paliin sure sounds more like a socialist than those she attacks as socialists, as I noted last October. Rather than having a state where people “succeed or fail on their own” Palin brought in more earmarks per capita than any other state (with John McCain having opposed many of these earmarks).

Clarke only hit on one of the absurdities of Palin’s speech but there were more. She warned of big government that will “control the people,” failing to understand both that the current economic crisis is a partially the result of insufficient government regulation of the banking industry and that pragmatic government action rather than blind adherence to ideology is needed to reverse the slide. While Economics 101 is well beyond Sarah Palin, she might check out a book by an economic conservative (assuming she wouldn’t agree to touch a book by a liberal) who has realized the danger in treating conservative dogma as a religion. While it is probably well beyond her, she should read A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 And The Descent Into Depression by Richard Posner.

In worrying about whether government will “control the people” Palin makes a mistake common among many conservatives and libertarians of confusing the need to limit the power of government with limiting the size of government and taking a knee-jerk opposition to any government economic action. What is important is how much control government has over the lives of individuals. While conservatives dwell on the size of government, liberals are more concerned with limiting the power of government in areas where they do not belong. While the faux libertarian rhetoric of Sarah Palin concentrates on her Voodoo Economic beliefs, she backs increased an increased influence of government in private matters, ranging from her opposition to abortion rights to her support for banning books which offended her supporters who oppose toleration of homosexuals. While liberals have been concerned with restoring the limitations on the power of the executive branch as advocated by the Founding Fathers, Palin has been a supporter of increased government secrecy and wanted to grab even more power than Dick Cheney.

For someone who expresses such concern over whether the government will “control the people,” Palin also displays a rather Orwellian view of First Amendment rights. She believes that the First Amendment was intended to prevent the media from criticizing her, not to protect freedom of the press.

For someone who claims to oppose big government, she supports the two major threats to freedom in America today, the social agenda of the religious right and the “war on terror.” The “war on terror,” along with its associated restrictions on civil liberties, capitalizes on the threat of terrorism to promote a massive increase in the power of the state. Rather than supporting legitimate defense against terrorism (which conservatives have a poor record on), Palin repeated the conservative lines that the Iraq war was about fighting terrorism and their ridiculous mantra that we must fight them there or we will have to fight them at home. In her speech she even said, “It is war over there, so it will not be war over here.” Sarah Palin’s understanding of foreign policy is no better than her understanding of economics–and don’t even get me started on her ridiculous views on scientific research and creationism.

Obama and The S-Word

Despite all the influence of the Chicago School on Barack Obama, with some even labeling Obama a left-libertarian, some on the right have been erroneously referring to Obama as a socialist. This is primarily because segments of the right are heavily into name-calling regardless of the facts, but with the government now owning General Motors some believe this claim has some credibility.

Obama is responding to a crisis by doing things which are contrary to the economic views he would be following if not for a time of crisis, which is far different from running for office on a platform of nationalizing businesses. More significantly, the goal here is to help a company survive which might not survive without massive government involvement. The goal here is to ultimately have a viable private company–which is quite different from the goal of a true socialist.

It’s fair to call the General Motors deal or the AIG takeover examples of socialist policy; government is directly intervening in a private concern. But it’s not fair to say that the Obama administration is socialist per se because socialism is an -ism, a system, a guiding philosophy, and it’s clear that putting the government in charge of private production is not the Obama administration’s guiding philosophy. When some conservatives try to insist otherwise, that’s when they look over the top. Maybe there’s a point when these socialist policies add up to actual socialism (or in the banking system, lemon socialism) but we are far, far from it.

If the Obama administration had come into office without an economic emergency, they wouldn’t be involved in these firms — don’t forget that the first big government takeovers came under George W. Bush and that the management and directors of the auto companies asked for government help. The current administration has made clear they don’t intend to be in the auto making (or banking) business for very long, and voluntarily laid out various guidelines to keep politics out of business decisions. Obviously, lines will be fudged and there are plenty of opportunities for conflict, but this is clearly not an administration whose every answer is “seize the means of production” — see, for instance, this graph, or the administration’s deep reluctance to take over insolvent banks despite a fairly large constituency for such an action. Ultimately, then, I’m not sure it’s productive for conservatives to call the administration’s response to the auto makers “socialism” — although, hey, maybe some political points in that — but rather to harp on the fact that the government has made a pretty unfortunate investment because it thought the collapse of the industry presented a systemic risk to the economy.

More broadly, though, as Henke recognizes, one of the reasons the “s-word” has become somewhat meaningless is that it is used by some conservatives to describe things that just aren’t socialism at all, like regulations or the income tax, rather than recognizing our hybrid economic system and debating within its framework. We can argue over whether more or less regulation is a good thing and what the appropriate income tax rates ought to be, but neither one represents a socialist policy. Another reason that this socialism debate hasn’t taken off is that liberals aren’t really in the business of defending socialism, so my response, at least, to the socialism debate is generally, “yup, that’s not a normatively good idea, but strategy demands it.” I would really have preferred to avoid a government takeover General Motors, but the consequences of not doing so seem catastrophic.

John Henke responds at The Next Right:

…the real question is one of degree.  Obama is not socialist.  But he is more comfortable with centralizing economic power.  As that centralization proceeds, the focus of public interest will shift from “how do we fix the immediate economic problems?” to “how do we fix the problems we created when we tried to fix that temporary problem?”  That is when the pendulum can swing back towards decentralization and individual empowerment.