Is Barack Obama a Moral Cretin?

It sure looks like it.

It sure looks like it — in addition to being transparently cynical and a lousy negotiator.

President Obama announced a two-year pay freeze for civilian federal workers on Monday as he sought to address concerns over sky-high deficit spending and appeal to Republican leaders to find a common approach to restoring the nation’s economic and fiscal health.

“The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifice and that sacrifice must be shared by employees of the federal government,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference.

Mr. President, it is not park rangers’ fault that Wall Street decided to gamble with the global financial system and lost.

It is not FBI agents’ fault that the Republican Party wants to give tax breaks to billionaires and get them to pay for it.

It is not USDA food inspectors’ fault that you and your advisors have not bothered to tell the American people why your program is good and have gone out of your way to alienate your base.

It is not VA nurses’ assistants and caregivers’ fault that Larry Summers was so infatuated with his own economic models that he didn’t give you the right options for the stimulus or that Tim Geithner can’t figure out that this unemployment is cyclical.

Mr. President, you said at your news conference today that “this is not just a line item on a federal ledger. These are people’s lives.”  You are right.  They just happen to be lives that you don’t really care about.

Go ahead, Mark: defend this one.

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.

22 thoughts on “Is Barack Obama a Moral Cretin?”

  1. Sigh, cosigned. Normally I tend towards being a White House apologist but I can't see what on earth they think they're getting out of this.

  2. This was a dumb move. I know a low level federal employee who's pissed about this, and she blames Obama. Federal employees like her should be natural democrats because that's who butters their bread. Meanwhile, small government conservatives will dislike Obama as much as ever.

  3. Right, it's not their fault. Nonetheless, when managing an organization with declining revenues, one normal step to take is to not give out raises — raises — until the bleeding is stemmed.

    And as we're often reminded by esteemed economists of the left like Prof. Krugman, inflation is near zero, so what cause would there be for COLAs.

    Government employees grumbling about pay freezes in this economy — and their special pleaders — will get precisely no sympathy in the rest of the world. And I know, like and admire the work of many of them.

  4. Pay increases are not just for COLA's, they also occur for recognition of a job well done. As to the original question, Why yes, the president is a moral cretin – umm no, he's just a cretin, or m0re simply, a Republican. The latter label is simply based on his behavior. Of course if he were interested in getting the country moving, he would be looking for all possible ways to get more money circulating – the bleeding in the government's coffers is not going to be fixed by reducing government – the confusion between what mus be done by a government and what a family or a company must do in difficult circumstances is at the ehart of the lack of understanding of Keynsian principles (and their denial, in spite of tremendous evidence to the contrary).

  5. Wow……. this post is just stunning…. stunning. One can argue the wisdom of the decision but "moral cretin"? That's absurd. Of course its not the fault of government employees that Wall St. ran amok, it also isn't my fault that Bush passed his tax cut, but guess who's on the hook for it? All of us, that's kind of the point of living in an organized society, so giving voice to the very simple truth that we are all going to have to ante up to one degree or another hardly makes one a cretin or a lousy negotiator. You're out over the tip of your ski's here. Must we never freeze someone's pay if we care about their lives? Please…. you scarcely have a point to begin with and overstating your case isn't helping.

  6. The worst aspect of this is not even the $ damage to the [many] individuals involved — the employees, their families, the firms they patronize, their employees and ownership, the revenues of the affected states and municipalities, and everyone and everything else the economists refer to as the "multiplier" effects — great as that damage might be.

    It's the fact that, once again, a big-name Dem — the biggest, as of now — is going out of the way to reinforce some of the biggest and most foundational (and thus most important) of all manifold the Publican lies, when they could instead be fighting the lies, and explaining the more complicated realities.

    I'm sorry, but this is completely indefensible on any level.

  7. I haven't had a raise in 8 years. My husband hasn't had one (other than COLA) for 22 years. I fail to see why being a public employee exempts people from pain during economic crises. Yes, I want a government workforce that is fairly compensated, and I want Wall Street to suffer more than it has. But get a grip, this is not even remotelyh a moral issue.

  8. td, how does this "giv[e] voice to the very simple truth that we are all going to have to ante up to one degree or another"? It's an administrative decision to make a narrow group of people ante up. By contrast, taxes could in principle be raised on everybody. If federal payrolls were an important part of the deficit, of course, that would be another story, but they aren't.

  9. EB, it's true that lots of people's incomes have been falling behind in real terms. I don't see how denying raises to another group of entirely middling workers (federal employees don't earn more than average for their level of education) does anything to help this situation.

    Unless, of course, your resentment is gratified by news of others being set back. This freeze does make sense on those terms, but I don't think that's a worthy basis of policy.

  10. As a local government worker who had a 10% pay cut due to furloughs last year, I understand that budgets can not be balanced on the backs of government workers. But jeez, a federal pay freeze? We're not seeing any pay increases (merit increases OR COLAs) for two more years. A pay freeze is not the worst thing in the world. Get a grip.

  11. I think most people who have a government job should be thankful we're in one of the few industries that hasn't completely sold us out.

    That said, a federal pay freeze is meat for conservatives who would flush us down the toilet in a second, with zero consideration for the tremendous good we do for society. (Unless of course we're their favorite playthings – the "troops").

    Despite increasing income disparity, and a continued lack of evidence for anything like "trickle down" economics, they refuse to pay for the basic services that society needs to thrive. Unless they aren't using it, they don't want to pay for it. And there but for the grace of God goes he who does not appreciate the role of fortune in his own successes.

  12. I guess the fundamental problem that I have with an across-the-board pay freeze is that it is unnecessary if our government leaders would stand up to unions, show some leadership, and make the tough decisions of letting lazy unproductive government employees go. I work in state government and see the same thing here. We've had our pay frozen for more than the past two years (I believe it's something like 5 years, I gave up on keeping track). From what I see every day, I would argue that probably at the very least 10 to 20% of state employees are either totally unneeded or completey lazy and unproductive. But instead of letting them go, our governor does what he thinks is the "fair" thing, which is an across-the-board freeze in COLA pay increases. This gets at part of what is wrong with government fundamentally. It's inefficient. No private business would run like this in this economy. You get rid of the dead weight and you reward your good employees. Across-the-board pay freezes is the wussy way out. On top of it, with the deficits we face, this is really nickel and diming it; this isn't even a drop in the bucket.

  13. Bux, I can tell you work for government because you think private businesses are run well. Well, many may be, but there are still lots that keep dead wood, punish their good employees and in general, follow the eating-the-seed-corn model. It's just harder to know about because private businesses are well, private.

  14. Jonathan, I'm not sure I understand the primary argument you're trying to make with this post. Is it your belief that Obama's announced two-year pay freeze for civilian Federal workers is bad policy or that the President is a moral cretin? I ask because if your primary objective was to argue that the policy announced by the President today is unjust, immoral or some combination of the two, I think you underminded that objective by highlighting the latter (and I'd argue childish) argument at the expense of the former. I reference the word "childish" not to make light of your obviously strong feelings regarding this particular issue, but to highlight an apparent need on your part to express those feelings through overly dramatic (and I believe inaccurate*) name calling, rather than to engage in a thoughtful, but still highly critical, argument outlining several possible different reasons why it should be viewed as bad policy (e.g. morally, economically, politically etc).

    I'd also argue that the post suffers from excessive certainty or lack of doubt; a finding that more often than not reflects a poorly thought out and/or insufficiently reasoned argument. Most arguments benefit from the recognition that, unless a person is an expert on the issue and privy to the private deliberations between the President and his staff when they debated whether or not to support the policy) a person rarely has all the information that certainty requires. Your argument might also have benefitted from a discussion, or even brief mention, of what the President might be trying to achieve with this policy, even if you disagree wholeheartedly with that (possible) reasoning.

    I mention all of this because I think most people who care about effective public policy and pay close attention to what this president has done up to this point (taking into account both the good and bad), would certainly not characterize Obama as a moral cretin. A president who from time to time makes mistakes and/or supports policies with which they disagree, sometimes strongly? Sure. But a moral cretin?

    And then, in addition to all of that, you end the post daring someone with, whom I guessing you often disagree, to defend something that you've already made clear cannot or should not be defended. This type of challenge is rarely meant to encourage serious debate, but to instead diminish or discredit the pereson being challenged: first, by insinuating that he or she has been repeatedly (and obviously) wrong in the past (e.g. "go ahead, defend THIS one"), and second, by insinuating (intentionally or not) that any person who even attempts to defend such a policy is hopelessly biased, niave, or a hack.

    In addition to undermining what could otherwise be an interesting and important argument, I think the over-the-top name calling and lack of doubt expressed in the post ends up harming your credibility as a person whose thoughts on such matters (public policy) should be taken seriously. Not that there aren't numerous people who'll find value in this post and/or agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments- I'm very sure that there are (and perhaps they'll make their voices heard in this comments section). But I have to believe that many who visit this site do so to read not only strongly held and expressed positions, but also insightful policy discussions and expert political commentary- particularly since there seems to be so little of it in the traditional print and electronic media.

    Finally, please note that none of what I've written above is/was meant as a personal attack, so please don't take it as such. I rarely write comments on blogs or in response to individual posts with which I disagree, mostly because I rarely find myself surprised anymore by what I read on other blogs (neither by the quality of their arguments or the reasonableness of their positions). I guess I hold "The Reality-Based Community" to a different standard; and while my criticisms (whether accurate or wildly off-the-mark) do relfect some frustration on my part, that frustration only exists due to the respect and admiration I have for this site and everyone who contributes to it. So thank you. A

    * In light of the many more good/effective policies the president has supported and signed to date

  15. Vance if you cannot appreciate the political calculus in play here then Im not sure why you're reading this blog and if this kind of realpolitik rises to the level of moral cretin-hood I shudder to think how you and Jonathan react to the rest of reality. The taxes you pay aren't a serious part of the deficit either but if you're under the impression that they wont be going up I have some news that's just going to blow you away….

  16. td, unsurprisingly I believe that I do appreciate the "political calculus in play here". If it looks to you like I'm missing something, let me know.

    As for the taxes, naturally I do believe that they will go up. What I would like to hear from the president is a forceful public argument in favor of their going up explicitly for everybody bnow — instead I fear the raise will be regressive, and belated, and ineptly sold.

  17. Bux: "…if our government leaders would stand up to unions…"


    By now, anybody whose first comment is 'stand up to unions', and opposed to 'do unto Wall St what the Mongols did to Baghdad' is autmatically a liar.

  18. Inflation is supposedly near 0%.

    If there is no increase to the cost of living, then there should be no cost of living raise in pay.

  19. Sorry Obama is too bright for you to keep up. Things have changed. We elected a real leader who could offer us the hope of transcending the petty pie politics you are entangled in. You accuse our elected leader of something that requires some moral arguments to back up – not simply bureaucrats want their money.

    It is not the bureaucrat's fault that their livelihoods are contingent on the discretion of a democracy that has made the momentous step to provide everyone the same level of health care, but they are there to serve and enact the people's laws and intent, not whine and complain about their obscene paychecks and benefits that they get to take away from the collective pile.

    I'm sorry bureaucrats can't format the whole procedure and make sure everyone gets just enough, but like I said, they are bureaucrats hired by America to do its bidding. If they don't like to serve the public they should look into the profit-sector where their pay will be cut or raised according to other arbitrary standards of value.

    Health care is not cheap. The new system requires a lot more than one law, and will only deliver on its promise with cuts to all other expenses and reorienting our society and its priorities toward enhancing health and welfare rather than private earnings.

    Seems like you are stuck in the Bush years, out to get your own and ready to call anyone cretin who would dare get in your way for the sake of the common good.

    This is a very mild and symbolic first step to the many changes and tough decisions we must now make over the next ten years as we transform ourselves from the unbounded prosperity of free-range capitalism to a more modest and authentic community of equals, and you are already complaining as if we have an infinite money supply and that a more socially just community can be a rich one as well, full of bureaucrats with indiscriminate guaranteed pay-raises every year?!?!?

    Who do you think Obama is? Your personal champion who will only demand noble sacrifice of your enemies in the banks? We need the banks to keep that money for now on hold for us. It is ours, not theirs, and not the bureaucrats. Sorry that causes you to blurt out names and fume, but pay-raises depend on a growing economy that coarsens our morals (like those you tried to express) and goals, and drags down the whole world into the dirty, polluting work of exploiting each other. The evil partnership between the bankers and bureaucrats depended on everyone having more money every year, so eventually, we could afford to pay those who regulate and clean up after the exploiters. That condition is now removed and we have chosen a new course, away from ever-greater gains to ever-greater fairness and purity of character.

    And this is just the beginning; and if all the old fogies stuck in 2007 are going to cry cretin every time Obama or the next president follows up on the necessary transformative steps of reforming our government to build up the people into a community rather than using them as the economic suppliers of their institutional fiefdoms. then it is going to be a very loud and annoying decade, characterized by the ignorant and selfish money-grubbers and ninnies who did not seem to notice their embarrassing era of squeaky wheels getting more grease is at an end and that pay-freezes, declines, and frugality are the new norm for a better, stronger, less whiny America.

    Do you not understand this new era that your fellow citizens chose yet? Were you too blinded by other superficial factors or something? No matter. There is no going back now. Your 1930s rhetoric sounds cute but so passe now, so you can drop it. No one wants to get so riled up and outraged over the fake victimization of privileged government employees living in the richest Western nation in the world. No one who has had or knows someone with a government job can believe you even believe that there is nothing improper or unjust about government pay raises for a government that was unable to prevent, stop, or correct the bank crisis while so many real victims are without jobs oor health care or health this winter. Do you even see why your abuse of our president and the word 'moral' is so morally outrageous in this instance?

    Your name-calling undermines your own presumed moral standing as a self-righteous judge, since you seem to think politics is all about taking and giving. It is no more. We are now all in this together and what was private is now a public good and interest: that includes your health, lifestyle, and paycheck. These are not just yours anymore – evenmoreso, they are our country's and our children's. I'd say thanks, but I assume you are an American so you must be so full of gratitude and graciousness at just being able to live here and enjoy all that we have and share with you.

    Next time you want to call my president a moral cretin for following up on implementing what he promised in the election (to those of us actually listening and not chanting like a bunch of brainless bush-haters), please consider a moral argument that is not premised on the private property rights of noble public servants whose service is just not noble enough for them.

Comments are closed.