Stray Thoughts on the Deficit Politics

I’m giving a talk here at Johns Hopkins in 15 minutes, as part of a panel on The Deficit and American Politics. These are my notes–my very quickly and only moderately systematic thoughts on whether a deficit deal is actually possible in the near-term.

Deficit reduction is almost always a matter of the politics of blame avoidance. While deficit reduction as a general matter may be popular, the specific cuts or tax increases that it requires are rarely popular, and usually attract the ire of concentrated, mobilized groups. Those groups, and the diffuse populations whose benefits are cut or taxes are raised, will want to punish those responsible for damaging their settled expectations for government action. Consequently, deficit reduction almost always requires cutting what Douglas Arnold called the “traceability chain” between the actions of specific members of Congress and the impacts those actions have on citizens and groups.

The “American way” of doing so requires cross-party deals, which make it difficult for citizens to detect who was responsible for the actions they disliked. This is not only a characteristic American pattern, but also characterizes, for instance, the politics of pension reforms in most of the world—they generally turn out to be cross-party conspiracies against the voters. (I would also note that these same cross-party conspiracies can sometimes be seen in hot-button social issues where there is elite consensus against popular opinion, as with the abolition of the death penalty in the UK in the 1970s). I should note that the condition that are most propitious for cross-party deals is divided government, when each party has sufficient institutional control to protect itself against the risk of being “bait and switched.” We did not have that in the last Congress, but we will have it in the next.

The important—maybe, in a sense, the ONLY—questions in thinking through the politics of deficit reduction, are: a) whether the parties believe that deficit reduction is sufficiently important to engage in a cross-party conspiracy and; b) whether the parties are able to get sufficient space from their supporters to engage in it. I think there is reasonable evidence that the answer to (a) right now is yes, but in any case if it wasn’t there would be nothing left to talk about, so I’ll assume it for purposes of argument. So the real question is, can the parties get away with it, where their base is concerned?

One thing to note here is that the two American parties are not, in fact, parallel where the question of the autonomy of their elected politicians is concerned. The party base has significantly more leverage over elected officials in the Republican than the Democratic party. The chance of being successfully “primaried” if you are a Democrat is low, and in any case there is not the kind of organized, mass base that is capable of exercising discipline over those who carry the party label. So assuming that Democratic elected officials think that it is important to engage in a cross-party conspiracy for deficit reduction, they will generally be able to get away with it (even if it means imposing uncomfortable changes, up to a point, on their base). That, therefore, narrows the question to whether Republican elected officials believe they can get away with entering into negotiations

The first thing to say, before getting to the real final answer, is that there is a slight complication here that I did not hint at before. While Republicans might be willing to negotiate a deal on deficit reduction, they of course want that deal to include as much of what they want as possible, and as little of what the Democrats want. That means heavier on cuts in domestic discretionary spending, and relatively weak on increases to taxes and cuts to defense. Republicans might conclude that, while they could get a deal now, they might get an even better deal with a unified Republican Congress after 2012, negotiating with a Democratic president—and they’d probably be right. On the other hand, there is a perverse risk here—one advantage of cutting a deal now is that they an avoid generalized blame for the specific details of the proposal, blaming them on the Democrats. If they get a unified Congress in 2012 AND somehow win the presidency, then they’ll be stuck doing it all themselves, and won’t be able to share the blame. That is, divided government facilitates blame avoidance, and they might calculate that it would be better to get some of the ugly business out of the way now, when they can share the blame, than in 2013 when it will be all on them.

That gets us to the final question, which is, assuming that Republican elected officials want to cut a deal, do they believe that they could plausibly get away with it where their base is concerned? This is where I have severe skepticism. The Republicans, as I noted above, are a party under severe base constraints. Their base is mobilized, and thus capable of something like collective action if they believe their interests are being violated by their representatives. And most important, the Republican base is today characterized by intense, nearly paranoid mistrust of their politicians. They believe, perhaps not unreasonably, that the party is full of potential sell-outs, but the problem is that they don’t know with certainty who they are.

Consequently, the base has been converging on litmus tests so extreme that only people who REALLY are not sell-outs would agree on them. The base has gravitated toward iron-clad commitments because of this worry of selling-out. That is, they are trying as much as they can to tie the hands of their elected officials—to make them “delegates” instead of representatives who are supposed to exercise some sort of discretion. And the leadership of the parties knows that—they can exercise discipline over their members, but only to enforce what the base already wants. The vote on TARP, I think, was the last time that the Republican leadership will have been able to make their members eat, in John Boehner’s terms, a “shit sandwich.”

A “shit sandwich” would almost inevitably be what members would have to eat if they entered into a deficit reduction deal. But my point is that Republican members would find it exceptionally difficult to cut a deal even if it was, by historical standards, extremely beneficial to them. Imagine that Boehner cut a deal with the White House for a plan that was 80% spending reductions, and 20% tax increases. Could he get his members to swallow it? I doubt it. The path of least political resistance for members is to vote no, and the leadership could not make them do it—what discipline they have operates in only one direction today (that is, discipline toward the right).

I think Boehner is aware of this and will not want to enter into negotiations that will lead to him being ultimately rebuked by his base. The likely scenario, therefore, is that Republicans will find some reason not to enter into negotiations with the Democrats (most likely the hope of getting a 100% spending cut solution as of 2013), and nothing will get done.

So that’s the negative scenario, which is what I’m good at. It is based on a more or less rational actor form of analysis. But we’re Johns Hopkins, so we can manage more than one form of analysis at a time. If one wanted to construct a feasible scenario for deficit reduction—by which I mean one that Republicans would be capable of signing off on—then one would have to concoct conditions under which they would be able to get away with agreeing to a tax increase. I think this is where the analysis stops being about rational actors and starts becoming semiotic—that is, about the meaning of signs. Here, the question is, what is the meaning of a “tax increase?” What would the actors involved in these interactions interpret as a tax increase?

The simplest, rational form of analysis would say that a tax increase is anything that raises government revenue on net over what it would have been in the absence of a change in policy. But I’m not sure that is exactly how the Republican base might see it. Consider the Bowles-Simpson proposal from yesterday. It raises taxes, on net, but it does so in the context of comprehensive tax reform. So tax rates actually go down, because the tax base is expanded (by eliminating deductions). What would the “meaning” of that policy act be? I think that would be up for grabs. It may be, however, that the success of deficit reduction rests entirely on the answer to that question, and in particular on what Republican elected officials believe the answer will be (which is not the same)—in essence, on elected officials beliefs about the potential beliefs of a large, non-hierarchically organized and still inchoate group.

Julia Child, Conservative

Five years ago, before the current Julia Child mania, I wrote the following reflections on the woman on another blog. I still think there’s a lot to this, so here it is, followed by the original link:

I just got finished watching a program on Julia Child on PBS. Made me think (as most things do nowadays) about conservatism. It occurs to me that Julia Child was, in a funny way, a conservative–in the most authentic and serious meaning of that term.

First and foremost, she stood for the importance and primacy of domestic life. At the time she was writing, large corporations were expending enormous effort to convince women that cooking was drudgery, and they could get around all the effort and time involved with it by using frozen and canned food. Julia Child attacked this idea directly, arguing that cooking was not drudgery, but a soul satisfying, meaningful human activity, and that something profound is lost when we lose our connection to food–and with it the deep human desire to feed others food that we ourselves have prepared. Domestic life is meaningful only to the degree that the home is the site of production–once nothing is produced in the home, it becomes simply a place where people sleep, not a place where real family life is possible. I think this also shows, once again, the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” that Daniel Bell pointed out, the way that markets can eat away at important–and conservative–mediating institutions like the family.

Second, Julia Child was an elitist, and connected to this, an anti-postmodernist. That is, she believed that there was a right way to do things, that some people knew how to do these things, and that if you wanted to do things right you should look to the people with serious training and understanding. Her programs were fun and seemingly unrehearsed, but she studied carefully in French cooking schools and worked hard to figure out exactly how particular dishes should be cooked. That is, she believed that there was a way to cook a chicken, and a wrong way–and that people ought to take the time to learn the right way. Cooking was a discipline, and even though she was a populist, in the sense that she believed that anyone COULD learn how to cook French food, learning involved time and a willingness to submit to authority (her!).

Finally, and connected to this, was a belief in civilization. Julia Child believed that classical French cooking was one of the great accomplishments of human endeavor, something that had evolved over a long period of time. While progress was possible, it was only possible once one inherited the accumulated knowledge of centuries of gradual development. That is, Julia Child was no Cartesian–no “I think, therefore I cook” kind of building off of nothing but raw rationality. One had to immerse oneself in a particular tradition before anything like real creativity was possible. This cut against the grain of powerful trends in American culture, but, in the American context, so does any real conservatism. She believed that high could be distinguished from low, and that to acheive great things one needed to begin, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, with the “best that had been prepared and cooked.”

So let us pay tribute to Julia Child, a woman who, as much as anyone of the last half-century, helped to civilize America.

Even More Bill Bratton

Like Mark, I’m exceptionally impressed with Bill Bratton. Given the state of the LA police department before he hit town, the city really ought to erect a statue to him somewhere. I mean, a BIG statue.

The weirdest part of Bratton leaving, however, was his stated reason for doing so. According to the New York Daily News, “He said he was about to get hit with a big interest-rate bump on the seven-year adjustable mortgage on his Los Feliz home.” What? LA is losing the best police commissioner they ever had because he took out an ARM rather than a fixed-rate mortgage?

If Mark is right, Bratton was a major addition to the well-being of LA not just in his time in office, but also in the future. That is, Bratton was an investment that will continue to pay off in the future, because he so effectively restructured the department that it now has a strong pipeline of people ready and able to take over his job. LA was paying Bratton around $300,000 a year–is there any doubt that the value he added to the city, and the value that will continue to be produced by his time in office–will be some fantastic multiple of the amount the city paid him?

Which raises the question–how aggressively should cities be able to pay the most talented civil servants? With Bratton, it sounds (if the NY Daily News is to be trusted) like they could have held on to by just buying him a house. Could there be any efficiency calculation by which the city would not be better off for having done so? I think a lot of multi-city civil servants (like school superintendents) are massively overvalued. But Bratton has very solid evidence in multiple cities for his capacity to fundamentally fix up police departments that needed fixing up. So the question, I think, is whether we could come up with a rule whereby we were able to pay retention wages for someone like Bratton without creating a compensation arms race that would just push up the salaries of your average, not so incredible, head of the police department?

I’m also skeptical, as is Mark, that the FBI is the right place for Bratton. The right place for him is in DC. A department that has been underperforming forever, but in a city that is fundamentally on the upswing economically. If Mayor Fenty got Obama on the case, could Bratton really say no? I for one would accept an increase in my city taxes to pay for whatever Bratton demands.


A friend said that my argument for Bratton sounds suspiciously like the one made for bringing in Michelle Rhee, a “great man theory” of public administration. I responded that:

I think there’s a basic difference between Rhee and Bratton. Rhee didn’t really have any background in fundamentally restructuring a large bureaucracy, and lacked a lot of authority with the troops. A lot of the problems she has had come from the fact that she had a (short!) track record doing something completely different, and thought she could come into DC and get what she wanted because the mayor supported her. That’s not the case with Bratton. He would have a great deal of authority with the troops themselves, and he’s got a track record in other cities testifying to his ability to effect genuine transformation in the quality of public services. He’d be given leeway that Rhee wasn’t given. Bratton’s track record shows that he understood the politics of fundamental public service reform. He made common cause with the reforming faction of the police, and developed effective alliances with key constituencies outside of the department. Again, this was not something that Rhee did very well.

I have a lot of sympathy for Rhee, and I do feel like she’s on the side of the angels. But she didn’t really ever have a plausible political strategy for pulling off what she was doing (beyond mayoral support), and has had a tendency to attack the beast directly, which was sometimes but not always the right way to play the hand she was dealt.

Budget Reconciliation and Health Care Reform: Round Three

If this is the best that the Beltway savants can do in asserting that you can’t use budget reconciliation for health care, then it’s even clearer that you can.

“There is only one worse thing than being talked about,” Oscar Wilde noted. “And that is not being talked about.”

So I suppose that I should be happy that Ezra Klein trashed my most recent post on how the Democrats can use reconciliation to get health care reform, from his elevated perch at the Washington Post. (Although you could have bothered to let me know, Ezra. Jeez.). At least Yglesias has got my back.

Anyway, I feel a little like saying what Muhammed Ali said to George Foreman in the 7th round of the Rumble in the Jungle: “Is that all you got, George?” This is all pretty weak tea. Here’s Ezra:

It may be that the rules of the reconciliation process makes much of health-care reform ineligible for reconciliation, and it may be that the Senate parliamentarian will say that explicitly to the chair of the Senate, but the chair of the Senate can simply, for the first time ever, ignore the parliamentarian’s rulings and break what everybody understands to be the rules and pass heath-care reform that way!

It won’t work.

The problem with breaking the rules — or, more to the point, using them in unintended ways — is that anyone can do it. Remember when minority Democrats were threatening to “shut down the Senate” when Bill Frist eliminated the filibuster for judicial nominees? It wasn’t an idle threat. They could well have shut down the Senate. Nearly all Senate business requires unanimous consent to proceed. Republicans are no less aware of this fact than Democrats were. If Democrats try to invoke reconciliation and then override the parliamentarian and rewrite the Senate rulebook on the fly, the GOP will quickly and easily close down the chamber.

(Italics in original). First, Ezra’s assertion that the reconciliation rules ban health care reform is at best unproven and contrary to the plain language of the law. Those rules bar putting things in a reconciliation bill that have only an “incidental” effect on the budget. But, say, prohibiting discrimination against pre-existing conditions would have more than an incidental effect. Such a move, for example, could save billions from Medicaid, because it would allow people to get insurance in the private market who might otherwise have to go to Medicaid. To be sure, as I have acknowledged, the Senate has traditionally interpreted this “incidental” language very conservatively; it has, for example, struck provisions raising the Medicare eligibilty age as “incidental,” which they surely are not. But that interpretation is just that: an interpretation. And it’s a pretty bad one.

Second, Ezra cites nothing for his assertion that a ruling allowing reconciliation would be for the first time ever that a presiding officer of the Senate overruled the parliamentarian. But let’s assume that he’s right: what of it? Historians have characterized the last 50 years of US politics in many ways, but “The Era of the Imperial Parliamentarian” is one of those that has not made much of a dent in the literature. The Senate President has that authority. In any event, the standard use of the filibuster by the minority is also one of those things that has never been done before Mitch McConnell. Things change. As a progressive, Ezra surely knows this. In any event, this is hardball: you guys filibuster everything, we jam something down your throats.

Third, Ezra claims that the real reason why the Dems cannot do this is why the nuclear option failed in 2005: the then-minority Democrats threatened to shut down the Senate if they did it. That’s far less clear than Ezra makes it out to be. What really worried the Senate Republicans was that they would not be able to filibuster Democratic nominees once they were again in the minority. Yes, there was also talk of shutting down the Senate; but since Newt Gingrich, it is generally not seen as great politics to shut down the government. Reid knew that: that’s why the nuclear option gambit, contra Ezra, succeeded. At the end of the day, the GOP got every one of its nominees (including the egregious Jay Bybee) voted on, except for William Haynes, whom many Republicans didn’t want anyway.

In any event, there is a counter-move to this: a point of order to the chair to overturn the unanimous consent rule for purely procedural motions, entering documents in the record, etc. Again: they send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue. (Come to think of it, this wouldn’t be a bad idea anyway.).

And this is really what leads to Ezra’s last, and in my view, his weakest point. After using reconciliation, he claims:

you face the added impediment that the media is kicking the hell out of you for cheating, and Republicans can argue — accurately — that you just attempted a thuggish takeover of the Senate.

That’s a joke, right, Ezra? Because we all remember all the heat the Republicans took for threatening the nuclear option? And of course we all know how much press criticism they got in the 110th Congress for doubling the amount of filibusters any minority party had ever used. Anything but: in fact, the media started saying that the term “nuclear option” was solely a Democratic term, and Chip Reid even said that the term meant the Democratic threat to shut down the chamber!

As one of Ezra’s commenters noted:

You think the public will be up in arms because the US Senate passes health care reform with a 55 vote majority? You think the phone lines will be burning up with support for the minority of senators who will bring the senate to a halt over the filibuster?

Bush and Bill Frist did not suffer one iota from the threat of going nuclear. Reid’s threat to shut down the Senate never materialized because the GOP would have loved to have seen the Democrats try to shut down the government in the middle of a crisis. Indeed, according to a fine journalist, one Ezra Klein:

Under George W. Bush, Republicans managed to ram tax cuts, oil drilling, trade authority, and much else through reconciliation. But they were as often disappointed: The GOP leaders fired two successive Senate parliamentarians whose Byrd rule rulings angered them.

Still waiting for the public uproar about those — and the Democratic shutting down of the Senate, The Republicans nowadays know that: that’s why they are squealing about the possibility of using reconciliation in the hopes that they can somehow persuade the DC savants that of course “everyone knows” that you can’t do that.

And then, of course, the coup de grace: that obviously reconciliation cannot be used because if you could, then “the senators of one party or the other would have thought of it, and at least a couple of radicals would have loudly advocated for it.” Except that the senators of one party already did think of it: That’s why it’s already in the reconciliation instructions voted on in the Senate. And while I am rarely (although sometimes) called a radical, that’s what the web is for, right?

This is sort of like that old joke about the economist seeing a $20 bill on the street and refusing to pick it up; it must not exist, he reasons, otherwise someone would have already picked it up. Well, a few weeks ago, my wife and I were walking along the street, and she saw three $20 bills just lying there. And to make economists’ heads spin even more, she then donated the money to charity.

Ezra, you’re getting Beltway fever! Come back to California!

L’Affaire Gates and Honor

We’re so far into this Henry Louis Gates thing that almost everyone has ceased to really care about what actually happened, or to try to understand both sides. At this point, the conflict is tribal–the side you end up on is determined by norms of appropriateness (whose side does a person like me support in a situation like this), not the facts of what happened.

For what it’s worth, however, my take is that this little micro-dispute in Cambridge was fundamentally a conflict about “honor.” This whole thing would have been a big nothing if either man were willing to swallow his pride. The cop could have defused it by letting Gates call him a racist and have it roll off his back. He couldn’t because, I think, he has a self-conception as precisely not a racist cop (given that he does racial profiling seminars). To back down would have been to accept what Gates was accusing him of–to be dishonored. Gates couldn’t back down and say “yes, officer, whatever you ask, officer” because he believed he was being treated in a way that was inappropriate to his status as a Harvard professor and because he thought he was being hassled because he was black. To back down would have been untrue to his idea of himself–as a race man and a part of America’s elite. Again, he would have accepted being dishonored. So they both stood their ground, and the guy with the gun won.

And so Gates retaliates in the media, and with the president–where HE was, in effect, holding the gun. Now the Cambridge cops think that they are being dishonored, because they believe that they run a comparatively professional police force that tries to treat black and white citizens fairly (“we’re not like LA!”), especially compared to what was the case in the past. To accept what Gates and the president said would have been to swallow being dishonored–to accept that what they believed about themselves was not the case. So they opened up on the president and Gates in this press conference.

The question is, is there any way for everyone involved here to retain their honor? That is, can they back out of this thing with the way they understand themselves, and that they want others to understand them, intact? Had the president used his press conference to make the quintessentially Obama move of explaining both sides to each other, then maybe. But in what was up to this point a zero-sm conflict of honor, he took the side of Gates and dishonored the cops (rubbing it in by saying they acted “stupidly”). Maybe the cops deserve to be dishonored, but I think that as the president–as the “head of state” in our system of government–it would have been a better move to try to cauterize this particular wound rather than inflame it. For good or ill (and there is ill, because the role requires you to lead the country, and not just speak truth about it), that is what it means to be “presidential.”

Today, however, Obama seems to have realized that taking sides in this zero-sum conflict was not the right move, at least given his office. Which is why this is so refreshing. Whatever his flaws, Obama knows when he messed up and he knows how to find the right way to clean up his mess. Whatever his flaws, I do believe this is a man who has a touch of greatness–not from being flawless, but from being able to recognize his flaws and counteract them.

What Makes a Compromise Good?

The health care debate is getting to the point where a large number of the important actors involved are starting to lay down their bottom line. Put another way, they are figuring out what constitutes a minimally acceptable compromise. For what it’s worth, I thought I’d throw out what I see as the fundamental criteria for evaluating whether a compromise is good or bad.

The fundamental point to keep in mind is that this health care debate is not the battle of Armageddon, the health care war to end all wars. It is a large fight in a multi-decade long war. So the question isn’t how to get as much as you can now, because you’ll never get another shot. Health care policy–like all politics–is a game with multiple iterations.

If we think of this as a game with multiple iterations, then it becomes clear that you need to evaluate policy change by two criteria–is the change you’re getting now going to be politically sustainable (that is, will you be able to hold whatever territory you’re gaining) and politically generative (will the changes you’re making now make your side comparatively stronger when the game is played again in the future).

My gut tells me that, when judged by this standard, the real bottom line in health care is the structure of the exchanges, rather than the amount of subsidy or the presence or absence of a public plan. It is relatively easy to imagine incrementally adding to the level of subsidy each year, much as Henry Waxman did with Medicaid expansion in the 80s and 90s. That costs money, but there isn’t a huge amount of built-in organized opposition. So if you’re thinking about living to fight another day, leave the easiest battle for later. In addition, expanding the subsidies is the politics of credit claiming–members of Congress will happily vote to put more money in their middle-class constituents pockets, and the employee mandate will probably put pressure on them to do so.

It is the exchange, however, which seems to me like the thing that you really have to nail right now. That’s true for policy reasons (having to do with cost control), but most important, for my purposes, for political reasons. Consider for comparison purposes the politics of airline deregulation in the 1970s (I’m drawing here on Eric Patashnik’s excellent Reforms at Risk). The strongest opponents of deregulation were the weakest airlines, who most needed regulated prices and routes to stay in business. They fought tooth and nail, and lost. So then the issue was, would deregulation stick? Well, the first thing that happened when you deregulated prices and routes was that the weakest airlines were pushed to the wall, into bankruptcy. Critically, that meant that they were no longer around to fight to undo deregulation–the policy itself shifted the constellation of interests in a way that was supportive of the new status quo.

So the question for health care reform, in my view, is what is the component of the final deal with the greatest capacity to weaken the anti-reform coalition in the future? In my judgment, that’s the structure of the exchanges. The stronger (in the sense of being national and mandatory for the largest number of employers) the exchange is, the more pressure you put on the more marginal, bottom-feeding insurers who depend upon creaming the best risks, or charging huge sums to those who can’t get insurance through large group plans. A strong exchange that gives the upper hand to the largest insurers (whose cost structure is also superior to the smaller firms) will almost certainly kill off a large part of the health insurance industry. Those health insurance lobby groups in Washington will have a smaller constituency, and won’t have the same need to balance the interests of their larger and smaller members. The smaller insurance firms won’t be around to invest (both at the state and federal level) their money in political campaigns.

It may be the case that a public plan will have some of the same effects. But I’m more confident that a properly structured exchange will do so, with less of a risk that the public plan will simply become the dumping ground for the worst risks (thereby driving up budgetary costs). I may be wrong, but where advocates of health care reform are concerned, I think that this is the question they should be asking themselves–if there is a political trade-off between the structure of the exchange and a (already pretty watered-down) public plan, which will get reformers the most bang for the buck where the next battle is concerned.

Republicans for the Carbon Tax

Two Republicans–Bob Inglis Jeff Flake–and one Democrat, Dan Lipinksi, have just introduced legislation that would seek to reduce global warming by imposing a carbon tax, all of the revenue from which would be used to reduce the payroll tax. It appears that the level at which the tax would be imposed would produce the same amount of reduction in carbon as current proposals for cap and trade. While I have serious questions as to why Republicans like Inglis and Flake are proposing this plan now (obviously one has to suspect it’s just because cap and trade seems to finally be getting legislative traction), I have to say that in my judgment their approach makes much more sense than cap and trade.

There are substantive reasons why I think a carbon tax (CT) is better than cap and trade (C&T), the main reason being that global warming is a long-term problem, and thus even large fluctuations in the emission of carbon don’t really matter so long as they even out over time. You can solve this problem with C&T (by allowing “banking”) but only at the price of additional complexity, which introduces greater opportunities for gaming. In addition a CT is more transparent than a C&T, which I also think makes gaming more difficult.

The main reason I prefer a CT, however, is that I deeply believe that the political transaction costs (PTC–the costs that are paid in order to buy off sufficient opposition) of C&T are higher than a CT. Here’s the argument for why something like what Inglis, Flake and Lipinksi proposing might have lower PTC than C&T (over and above the transparency issues). The narrower the potential supporters of a proposal are, the higher the PTC, since you end up having to pay more to put together a majority. If you’re starting with a larger potential base of support, the leverage of marginal supporters is lower. So, I’d be interested in what would happen if the Dems were to call the bluff of the Republicans who support this. Say: we kind of think C&T has some advantages, but we’d rather do this in a bipartisan way, and a carbon tax has roughly similar potential to control carbon emissions (I honestly believe that CT will actually work much better, but that’s water under the bridge and I don’t want to revisit the issue). If you (Republicans) will agree to impose the CT at a level sufficient to get as much GHG reductions as the C&T we’re talking about, we’ll take it and call it a day.

The Republican plan also uses all the CT revenue to offset the payroll tax. I think this has some real power, because workers would see the benefit directly in their paychecks. But it’s arguably not as good as a straight per-capita payment right before Christmas (which would also go to non-workers). But that said, it’s a lot better than what some Republicans have talked about before, which was using it to cut the corporate tax. You could also divide the proceeds of the CT and put some percentage of them in a trust fund to pay for green infrastructure, like trains, light rail, buses, etc. This is especially important because given our current transportation system, it will be hard to get people to reduce their carbon footprint. In addition, putting some of the money into a green infrastructure trust fund would give some concentrated interests (states, cities, infrastructure firms) a strong interest to maintain the level of the carbon tax once it starts to bite (which combined with the diffuse public interest in maintaining the reduced payroll tax would give it a fighting chance at political sustainability).

I know that this might just be a political gambit–but it may be one that Dems can take advantage of. I think we’ve already seen massive rent seeking in the C&T proposals currently under discussion, as I think was easily predicted. I think it’s worth seeing if a CT could be negotiated with lower PTCs. There may be a possibility to box the Republicans in now, since they’ve actually put a proposal with their names on it on the table.

Circular Firing Squad of Rivals?

I am not at all sure that I understand Obama’s reasoning in considering HRC for Secretary of State, but my gut tells me that we may be seeing an instance where politicians get in trouble through the misplaced use of historical analogy, in this case the “team of rivals.” Abraham Lincoln really had to have a highly inclusive cabinet because: a) the Republican party was still not a completely institutionalized entity, and to keep it together in its first shot at power Lincoln needed all the major figures in the party to be represented and; b) the country was at war–a real war–and that almost always calls for inclusivity, even to the point of having governments of national unity. Neither of these factors apply in this case. Obama has massively more control over the Democratic party than Lincoln did, and while we are in an economic crisis, it’s not nearly as bad as the Civil War or WWII. So the conditions that necessitated a “team of rivals” don’t apply. I’m increasingly wondering if this will turn out to be a “circular firing squad of rivals.”

Fundamentally, the president always faces a “principal-agent” problem where his cabinet is concerned. The work of cabinet departments is sprawling, impossible to oversee effectively from the White House. The only way to really make the national government work is to have pretty effective ideational agreement between the president and the people in the power departments, so that the president doesn’t need to be looking over their back to see if they’re screwing him over. Those people don’t have to be friends, but they need to be people who the president knows agree with him on the fundamentals, so that he has confidence they’ll do what he wants without the president needing to supervise them.

The Gates idea makes sense, for example, if Obama has gotten some sort of prior agreement about what it is Gates is expected to do in the (limited) time he’ll be in office. But that’s as much of a risk as I’d be willing to take. And frankly, I just don’t trust Hillary. There is no evidence based on the historical record that she is a competent manager (and plenty of evidence to the contrary–her campaign and the Clinton health care process are only two examples), or has the best interest of our chief executive at heart. So given that the structural conditions that necessitate a “team of rivals” approach don’t apply, I find the argument for this idea extremely weak.

I was joking with someone last week that all of us who write about politics should have to state now what we think the 2012 election recriminations story will be, if Obama loses (not that I’m saying he will–I’m saying, if he does, what do we predict will have done him in). Mine is, “Unfortunate Reading of Goodwin Seen By Observers as Cause of Obama’s Downfall. Obama Agrees, Claims, ‘I Should Have Read Cod: The Fish That Changed The World Instead’.”

Picking Obama’s Secretary of Education

I seriously doubt that Secretary of Education will be one of the cabinet positions chosen in the next couple of weeks. That’s good, because I hope that Obama’s advisors take the matter very seriously. The tendency will be to pluck an aggressive K-12 reformer out of the field–someone like Michelle Rhee from DC, or Joel Klein in NYC. This would be a terrible mistake.

As Rick Hess argued persuasively in his book Spinning Wheels, one of the most important reasons why urban schools rarely improve is constant cycling of leadership. This cycling means that leaders of school districts are rarely in place long enough to transform their ambitious plans of reform into durable, institutionalized change. What is worse, this cycle of reform makes teachers cynical and causes them to withhold commitment to change, since they expect the superintendent to leave town in a couple of years, and a whole new set of plans to be put in place. Better to just keep your head down and do just enough not to draw attention to yourself. While Klein has been in place considerably longer than Rhee, both of them took over deeply troubled school systems that need deep, comprehensive reform. This is the kind of task that takes a decade to achieve. Obama should leave these talented people in the field, where they can do some good for their cities’ schools, and set an example for leaders elsewhere.

In addition, much of what the Department of Education actually does concerns higher education. The federal governments programs in higher education are incredibly complex, overlapping, contradictory, badly run, and politically embedded. Fixing them will require a Secretary with an intimate knowledge of their workings.

If the US is to maintain its status as a great power in this century, there is simply no question that we need to get more of our students into math, science and engineering. Despite programs throughout the federal government, fewer students today receive undergraduate degrees in math, science and engineering than they did forty years ago. The Secretary of Education needs to be familiar with the problem and have a high degree of sophistication about strategies for remedying it.

Finally, a substantial portion of the national education agenda, both at the K-12 and higher education levels, concerns closing the achievement gap between African-Americans and whites (especially African-American males). The Secretary of Education only has a relatively small number of levers to pull where this is concerned, but he does have a very powerful bully pulpit, which can help him legitimate unpopular ideas, shine a light on things that work, and in the process help clear a path for reformers at the local level.

There may be a number of people who fit these criteria, but at least one person I can think of is Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Hrabowski has been president of the university for fifteen years, in which he dramatically increased the quality and reputation of the school–and turned down offers to be the president of much more prestigious institutions. He’s been especially successful in producing African-American students who go on to receive advanced degrees in the sciences, and he has published two books on the subject (separating out the issues by gender). He is a really effective communicator, and he has a great story to tell–he’s a black man from Alabama who marched for civil rights as a small child, and got a PhD at the age of 24. His life embodies the slogan of educational reformers, which is that education is the civil rights issue of our time.

Is Hrabowski the right guy for the job? I don’t know him well enough to be sure. What I can say is that he certainly should be on the administration’s list, since he satisfies more of the important criteria for Secretary of Education than anyone else I’ve heard mooted for the position–and choosing him won’t take a soldier for reform off the K-12 battlefield.

The Battle Hymn

I’m not sure why, but this part of the Battle Hymn of the Republic came to me as I was beginning to reflect on this night.

I have read a fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;

“As ye deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal”;

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel,

Since God is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Since God is marching on.

This was a great victory for this particular black man, and for all those who invested their sweat and tears into him, but we should not go overboard. This does not mean that America’s scar of race has healed. The life chances of young African-Americans are still starkly different from those of whites. What this shows is that America has effectively incorporated a considerable segment of African-Americans into its elite, and that a large majority of whites are willing to judge a black man on his (very considerable) merits. But truly getting putting the Civil War and segregation behind us will require that we eliminate their residue, which we can find in every American prison. We can find it in every pathetic inner-city school. We can find it in the number of African-American children who grow up without two parents.

To truly transcend our racial history, the victory of Obama is one very important step. But the “serpent” is still, sadly, very much with us.