What Is a Moral Cretin?

And why Obama is one.

Several commentators asked what I meant by saying that President Obama’s salary freeze for federal workers indicates that he is a moral cretin.  To me, it is simply this. 

Obama must know that this does virtually nothing concerning the budget deficit, either long- or short-term.  As a substantive matter, it is fundamentally unserious.

Similarly, Obama must know that there are literally tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of low-level federal employees — secretaries, nurses’ assistants, data entry clerks, letter carriers, phone operators, bus drivers, etc. — who are not well-paid in the least.  He must also know that the vast majority of federal employees are not fat cats.

He must know as well that, as Mark says, federal employees as a group are subjected to a “continual barrage of hatred” simply for that status.  The popular myth has grown up that they are lazy, overpaid, and useless.

And for the sake of a couple of days of the news cycle he has decided to reinforce these myths as well as substantially disrupting their career paths.  He’s not even pretending that this is about making government perform better.  Yes, yes: a freeze isn’t a cut.  I know: I’ve been furloughed.  But people make plans based upon expected earnings.  They have no right to those earnings, but if you are going to disrupt the expectations of people making at or below the median wage then there should be at least a halfway decent reason for it, a reason that isn’t laughable on its face. 

Obama isn’t even bothering to do that.  To my mind, that is being a moral cretin — essentially picking on people who will have a hard time fighting back simply because it will make you look good among the elite.

Look: federal workers aren’t Jews in Nazi Germany.  They aren’t Blacks under Jim Crow.  At the Victimization Olympics, low-level and underpaid federal workers won’t make it anywhere close to the medal round.  But they sure as hell aren’t the favored class, either. 

This reminds me a little of President Clinton’s decision to sign the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.  Essentially, he decided to sign the thing because he didn’t want to take the political risk.  But at least there, it was in the middle of an election season.  At least there, Clinton’s signing statement didn’t make an argument for the bill; in fact, he went out of his way to restrict its meaning, and he certainly didn’t hold a press conference to announce it.  Even then, signing it was one of the most cowardly things that Clinton did as President.  IIRC, he didn’t even mention it in his autobiography.

One of the central principles of the Law Of The Schoolyard is: pick on someone your own size.  If he wanted to make a symbolic statement, he could have agreed not to take a salary himself: he’s earned millions from his books.  Or he could have proposed cutting Congressional salaries.  Or he could have even said that he would freeze all federal salaries over $250,000 (which would have been a nice touch given the tax debate).  Or rented out Camp David.  Or whatever.  He didn’t do that. 

Instead, he decided to take it out on tens of thousands of people who are not at fault, who don’t make a lot of money, for no decent policy reason, just so some Very Serious People would say that he is being Serious Just Like Them.  Except that, of course, they won’t: they will say that it’s a gimmick.  But he won a news cycle.  Maybe.

To me, that is being a moral cretin.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

25 thoughts on “What Is a Moral Cretin?”

  1. Your points aside, he must be tired of getting his a** handed to him by focusing too much on those things that are good and just, and expecting that the larger narrative will come around to appreciate that.

  2. "moral cretin" is awfully strong language. Your description here is more in the range I would call "tone deaf". I think there's been quite a lot of tone deaf in this administration. In some ways I think the birthers are on to something – not in where the guy was born, I am as sure as I can be not having been there that it was Hawaii. And I don't even support the idea that someone should have to be native born to run for President, I think Jennifer Granholm would be a perfectly okay candidate, and I would be okay with the Governator as a candidate, too. But this seems clumsy, and he does seem to miss some things which someone who grew up in the rough and tumble here would get. Even if President Tip O'Neill had decided that this was something he had to do, he would have done it differently.

    As to Federal salaries – and I get one, and I would keep doing my job for ten per cent less, and I would be thrilled and it wouldn't put me onto easy street if I got ten per cent more – they were set in a time of greater (at least apparent) prosperity. It's plausible that they should go down, in a period when employment is difficult. When we advertise a job, we get dozens to scores of applicants, and they look generally qualified, which is some evidence that wages are at least adequate. I've banged the drum in comments here before (Johnny One-Note, at your service) for the idea that we are entering a time of relative decline, and that managing decline in a way that doesn't discourage people too much, and is fair, is one of the big challenges of the next fifteen years. Detroit auto workers can't be maintained making a whole lot more than Ulsan auto workers – at least, not without putting an enormous burden on Chillicothe burger-flippers, and how is that fair or desirable? The feds actually don't have a whole lot of "secretaries, nurses’ assistants, data entry clerks, letter carriers, phone operators, bus drivers, etc" – many of those jobs have been contracted out, the post office is a (hah!) stand-alone enterprise, which is supposed to support itself. My office is cleaned by a contract service, and much of our data is entered by a contractor, as well. Secretaries are increasingly rare, and professionals do their own typing.

    Mike O'Hare had a great line about energy, that there was no magic silver bullet which was going to save us and we have to be looking for silver birdshot. Probably re-levelling what we see as success, and relative prosperity of different people in society is a birdshot effort, too.

  3. ¨Moral cretin¨ is a nice insult, but an oxymoron. Cretins (originally a disparaging term for severely mentally handicapped persons) are too dumb to be morally responsible.

    I think the word here is coward.

  4. I don't know about "moral cretin" but I'll buy "cretin": if he "won a news cycle," he did it not only by tacitly endorsing the view of federal workers (and collectively the entire government) as moochers, he did it with an action that reinforces the fundamental confusions that many people have about the economy and the government's budget.

    This hints almost of panic to me. The administration needs to get its feet under it and quickly. More people with post-1994 Clinton administration experience in the White House would be a good start.

  5. @JW: Iirc, "cretin" was derived from "Chretienne" (apologies for approximate orthography)–"Christian". It wasn't a disparaging term: it connoted sympathy. Of course, like all such terms, it quickly became disparaging, because humans are pretty horrible creatures.

    @JZ: Low-paid federal civilian employees are a bit overpaid, in market terms. Their salary might be no more than competitive, but folk at that salary level usually have miserable benefits, rather than government benefits (which are adequate, although not gold-plated.) You are still free to make a moral judgment that they're underpaid. But it is not an economic judgment. The bad underpay (in market terms) at the Federal level comes near the top, around GS-13 or 14 or so. There is compensating psychic income and human capital improvement, but retention is difficult, especially at the elite government agencies from which the private sector is constantly poaching for talent.

    However, I agree with you that the bashing of public employees, which started in the Nixon era, is a very bad thing for this democracy. America has always had excellent natural antibodies to a French or Japanese civil service mindset, so there is no need to denigrate public service any further. Our public employee bashing resembles a nasty autoimmune disease.

  6. Also @JZ: I'm not sure that there are any federal salaries at appropriated agencies over $250 K. Most salaries at appropriated agencvies top out at Congressional pay–about $180K, IIRC. There are a few appropriated agencies that go higher–the NIH and maybe the SEC. But I doubt that much higher, although I'm not sure. There are a few unappropriated agencies (e.g., the OCC) that might have a few people over $250K. I don't think so, but maybe.

    Of course, if you wanted to nuke benefits packages worth over $300K or so, you could start with the 3- and 4-star flag officers. They live like pashas, although their salaries are not very high.

  7. 1779, from Fr. crétin (18c.), from Alpine dialect crestin, "a dwarfed and deformed idiot" of a type formerly found in families in the Alpine lands, a condition caused by a congenital deficiency of thyroid hormones, from V.L. *christianus "a Christian," a generic term for "anyone," but often with a sense of "poor fellow." Related: Cretinism (1801).

  8. This is simply not an intellectual position and its not particularly defensible as a petulant outburst either…. I'll say again that its well and good to question the wisdom of the policy but this empty huffing and puffing are just silly. I guess this is a point that needs to be revisited but the situation is this: Public employees are insulated from virtually all of the market swings relative to their job security and that insulation comes at the cost of somewhat lower pay than their more tenuous private fellows earn. The inherent bargain is that pay will not be directly equal to performance in the same way the market typically rewards performance and that bargain is freely understood by every public employee who accepts a job yet one will easily note that their is no shortage of workers willing to trade the upside in pay for long term job security. This proposed freeze is a natural extension of that bargain, nothing more and nothing less. It is the downside of the deal but its still part of the deal. It is not a signal that their lives are not cared about and they are not being picked on or put upon or treated unduly in way shape of form. It is precisely this kind of empty moralizing that the right has fallen into and it has everything to do with why they cannot govern.

  9. I think the best argument for the pay freeze is that the Republicans were going to propose it anyway, and it would be popular enough to be hard to oppose. So why not do it first and take the credit?

  10. Everything going forward for Obama hinges on his oft repeated campaign promise of rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

    If this action gets him closer to that accomplishment then fair enough…

    If it doesn't…

    The only republican he can beat in 2012 is Palin.

    And I wouldn't even be willing to bet on that.

  11. Pls identify the "low-level" federal employees that you view as being underpaid relative to what they could command in the private sector.

  12. "This proposed freeze is a natural extension of that bargain, nothing more and nothing less."

    Bull-crap. It's your rationalization. Nothing more, nothing less.

  13. @SL:

    My starting salary a few years ago, fresh out of college at a government contractor with only average salaries for a contractor, was more than that of a GS-5 employee at most agencies, which is the equivalent level of federal employment. And we pay our new hires more now than we did when I was hired. So there's that.

  14. By the way (or BTW), IIRC means "if I recall correctly" (if I consult internet slang dictionaries correctly).

  15. Ragout says:

    "I think the best argument for the pay freeze is that the Republicans were going to propose it anyway, and it would be popular enough to be hard to oppose. So why not do it first and take the credit?"

    Because (a) they'll take the credit and (b) he could have given it up for something, as opposed to tossing the GOP a(nother) freebie.

  16. Constituents want their governments–local, state, and federal–to look within before being asked for new taxes. Perhaps the end will justify the means (would you find the pay cuts morally justifiable if it lead to higher marginal income tax rates for the wealthy?). Either way, it's too soon in the budget game to label Obama a moral cretin.

  17. Clinton probably doesn't hate and fear gays. It would be more accurate, therefore, to say that he is no better than a homophobe, rather than that he is one.

  18. Barry says "he could have given it up for something, as opposed to tossing the GOP a(nother) freebie."

    Because the whole issue is mainly symbolic, I don't think it can be used as a bargaining chip. The Republicans would probably be happy if they could pass the pay freeze and have it vetoed or killed by the Senate. They get just as much symbolism, if not more, by passing it and having it killed by the Democrats.

  19. Politicians are great equivocators. It goes with the territory. It is simply not possible to appeal to more than about 40% of the electorate with consistency. To get to 50% + 1, you need artful inconsistency. The difference between President Clinton and President Obama, in the making of strategic concessions to the conservatives, is not a matter of personal character, but of political dynamics.

    Clinton's conservative gestures belonged to the tail-end of the long decline of the New Deal coalition, when merely arresting the erosion of northern union votes, or southern white populist votes, was Democratic deliverance. His very persona — a white southern bubba, concerned and sympathetic to blacks — was the fulcrum of political leverage, aimed at reviving the ghost of a fading political coalition based more in social identity than ideology. The core of Clinton's appeal was always an affirmation of a traditional Democratic Party, a kind of political nostalgia.

    Liberals, including me, remember, of course, the tactic of triangulation, in which liberals were scorned, as a way affirming solidarity with more populist or moderate elements, but these populist or moderate elements had some traditional relation in support of the Democratic Party.

    Obama's position is a remarkable one, for lacking, entirely, any hope of attracting a residue of the white, populist vote, for the simple reason of race. The Appalachian South is Obama's region of weakest appeal. A significant aspect of the Right's political tactics is a very broad appeal to forms of racial and religious bigotry, while Obama's support is partly predicated on the desire of many to reject such political appeals. That's a measure of how far American politics has evolved away from both the Civil War and the New Deal.

    Race, though, is the sideshow, the past that's never passed. The economic benefits of racism, in slavery or segregation and discimination, are gone, and what's left is psychology and theatre: the tropes of racism are useful propaganda tools to manipulate a minority. A means to an end.

    What end is that? What has American politics evolved *toward* in this time, in the last 20 years? Toward a politics dominated by the interests of the corporate executive class and their allies among the ultra-wealthy. To an extent scarcely dreamt of since the Gilded Age, corporations and financial businesses dominate the economy and politics of the country, driven today not by the representatives of Capital, so much as by the class of professional financial engineers and top corporate executives.

    Our politics is all about the war of the elites on the People, all about being for, or against, the Corporations and the Ultra-Rich. In the dynamics of that political conflict, Obama's function is to prevent an effective reform movement from forming, to prevent change we can believe in. He's sold himself, first his candidacy and then his Presidency, and his leadership of the Democratic Party, as a useful way for the financial and corporate elite to have their neo-liberal program transferring all income, wealth and power to themselves, blessed as "progressive". Obama plays the face of weak, but well-intended, rational pragmatism, and pushes the promise of reform and restructuring to a mirage on the far horizon of a desert of the politically possible.

    Meanwhile, on the Right, the Republican Party plays the scary alternative, the boogeyman that makes Obama's brand look good by comparison.

    Obama has to deliver the goods to his supporters among the banksters and the corporate CEOs. That was part of Clinton's deal as well, as a New Democrat and a DLC-er, but, for Clinton, it was only part of the deal; Clinton was also mediating for large groups of ordinary people, real voters. For Obama, it is the whole deal. Obama's deal with the devil requires that he deliver a health care reform that benefits the health insurance companies, a financial reform that increases concentration of financial power in the largest banks, a continuation of American's war ad infinitum, and on and on.

    For many years, the Republican coalition delivered symbolic red meat to its socially-conservative electoral base, and substantive resources and "deregulation" to its corporate clients and business base. Obama has brought the same kind of symbolic politics to the Democrats and progressives. The electoral base gets the satisfaction of a black President in a post-racial America, maybe repeal of DADT, a health care and financial reform, even if it is name only.

    Delivering symbolic results to the People, while delivering the dollars and the power to the wealthy few, is a rotten, corrupt politics. I don't think the rottenness begins or ends with Obama's personal character. That's a simplistic, naive view of politics, at best. (It isn't Obama, who needs to grow a spine, it's the American People.)

    But, the political dynamic does create a natural split in the Democratic Party, between those, who are "fooled" by Obama, and those, who are not. I wouldn't say "moral cretin", but the Federal salary freeze has been a long time coming. I saw the remarkable intensity of sustained propaganda, aimed at public employees building for many months. It's not exactly the Rubicon, or the shot heard 'round the world. It's just a continuation of a well-established pattern.

    It's us against them. And, Obama is on *their* side. Even if Obama was on *our* side, it wouldn't be nearly enough, against the propaganda resources currently deployed by Corporate America.

    In the "decline of America" required to finance Corporate America in the style to which they've become accustomed, the slight ameliorations promised by Obama may be the best we can hope for. It seems inevitable that the only alternative on the electoral menu is like to be 80 Proof Fascism in the person of, at best, Mitt Romney.

  20. I won't take seriously the idea that government employees are underpaid, taking into account all their benefits, including job security, until we see a significant trend towards people quitting government jobs to enter the private sector. Because if pay, everything taken into account, were at parity, we would see migration in both directions.

    You're basically standing for the proposition that government employees ought to be getting regular pay raises during an economic downturn in the context of negligible inflation, to be paid for by people who frequently have gone years without even COLAs, and who are still quite insecure in their jobs. And you're calling Obama a moral cretin?

Comments are closed.