Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Misery Index

Economists use a large number of statistical measures to gauge the economic health of a nation. The 'misery index' is among these, and attention paid to this index from the 1960's through the 1980's was responsible for a shift by policy-makers in Washington - a shift from an emphasis on fiscal policy to an emphasis on monetary policy. Fiscal policy concerns how, and how much, the government taxes and spends the people's money. Monetary policy concerns how much money is in circulation in the economy.

Starting roughly with FDR, influenced by John Maynard Keynes, fiscal policy was seen as the best way for the central government to help the economy. That would change, in part because of ideas advanced by economist Milton Friedman. Phillip VanFossen writes:

The use of monetary policy to stabilize the economy was put to the test in the late 1970s. Early in that decade, the economy received a shock when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo on the United States and other oil-importing countries. Supplies of oil dwindled, driving up the price of gas. The inflation rate, which had already reached worrying levels, soared into double digits. As the economy struggled with rising prices, business activity slowed, and the unemployment rate climbed. The result was an unhappy economic situation known as stagflation.

Such situations often tempt leaders to violate the simple principle of free markets. Rather than reducing regulation and allowing the economy to organically work its way back toward equilibrium levels, governments often hope to intervene and nudge the economy quickly back to health. But by violating the free action of the market, things are made worse by these well-intentioned regulations.

President Nixon tried to curb inflation by imposing temporary controls on wages and prices. As soon as the controls were lifted, however, prices shot up again. In 1974, President Gerald Ford launched an anti-inflation crusade called Whip Inflation Now, or WIN, but inflation remained a problem. While running for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter scolded Ford for letting the "misery index" rise to more than 13 percent. The misery index is the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates. But after taking office, Carter watched helplessly as the index climbed to more than 20 percent.

Nixon's wage and price controls failed to make things better, and succeeded at making things worse. Ford, although criticized by Carter, actually succeeded in nudging the "misery index" lower by the end of his brief time in office. Carter's actions, in retrospect, seem confused and erratic. Carter encouraged Americans to use less energy and simply adopt "lower expectations" - the voters were unimpressed, and refused to give Carter a second term in office.

In contrast to Carter's attempt to simply persuade the American public to get used to a lower standard of living, get used to using less energy, and get used to having less wealth, Ronald Reagan was chosen by the voters in the 1980's. Seeking economic solutions, Reagan worked with

Paul Volcker as chair of the Federal Reserve Board to bring inflation under control. Influenced by Friedman's writings on monetary policy, Volcker set out to slow the growth of the money supply. The result of his slow-growth policy was a far faster reduction in the inflation rate than most economists thought possible. Inflation dropped from 13.6 percent in 1980 to 3.2 percent in 1983.

Reagan orchestrated a shift from fiscal policy to monetary policy. The result was an era of prosperity for the nation. Volcker's work used a short-term contraction in the money supply - or at least in the growth of the money supply - to lead to long-term growth in the economy. The 1980's were an era of rising incomes for all Americans and a rising standard of living for all demographic groups. By creating wealth, the Reagan economy created more employment at higher wages.

Politicians, more than economists, fall prey to fallacy of the "zero-sum game" view of wealth. In calculating and projecting the possible impacts of various policy options, one must remember that the total amount of wealth can, and should, increase. The objective of policy should be to create an environment - by reducing regulations - which allows for maximum wealth creation. An economy can grow the most wealth by getting the government out of the way - and maximizing the market's freedom.

To be sure, neither fiscal policy or monetary policy is a panacea; neither is the perfect solution to cure all economic woes. Reagan's prosperity, while enriching Americans at all income levels, took longer to come into effect. At first, under Volcker's contraction of the money supply, interest rates rose, business activity stalled, and unemployment actually increased. After this transitional effect, however, inflation fell, unemployment fell, and business activity created rising wages.

Policy makers and economists continue to ponder the mix of fiscal policy and monetary policy. The ideal mix is to reduce government intervention in both areas and let the economy find its own organic equilibrium. But political realities often trump economic common sense.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Pretending to Be a Professor

A number of significant political leaders in the history of the United States have been academics: President Garfield was a professor, as were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to name just a few. But others have found ways to attach themselves to universities or colleges without actually pursuing scholarship; among these would be Barack Obama.

Douglas Baird, who has held the posts of both Dean and Professor at the University of Chicago's Law School, can reasonably be understood as a an academic, having passed up opportunities to make more money in private-sector law practices, or wield more power in government posts. Historian Edward Klein reports Baird's first encounter with Barack Obama:

"I made a cold call to the Harvard Law Review and spoke to Barack," recalled Baird, who is no longer the dean of the Chicago Law School but is still a member of its faculty. "I asked him, 'Do you have an interest in teaching law?' and he said, 'No. My plan is to write a book on voting rights.' And I said, 'Why don't you write that book here at the University of Chicago. I can give you an office and a word processor and make you a Visiting Law and Government Fellow.'

Merely because he was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, he was offered a cushy position at the University of Chicago (were unions involved, the term would be 'feather-bedding'). To compound the superficiality, he was not the first person of color to be president of the Harvard Law Review; Edward Klein that this

distinction belongs to Raj Marphatia, who was born and raised in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), India, and who had become the Review's president four years earlier. But while Marphatia's presidency went largely unnoticed, Obama's attracted a great deal of attention.

The distinction between Marphatia and Obama merits consideration: while Marphatia faced at least some obstacles, and so his narrative contains at least some element of overcoming, Obama was essentially transported into the Harvard Law Review. To be sure, Marphatia was not a barefoot and starving villager in India, but nonetheless, his appearance at the Review in the 1980's was still something of an overcoming. By contrast, Obama had already been identified as a telegenic young man who might be groomed into a political figure; his handlers and funders had begun directing his path. They had grander visions for the young Barack than he could have had for himself - given his damaged psyche and an identity as a child abandoned by a variety of father-figures.

Aside from Obama's personal formation, however, Douglas Baird might have thought that someone who'd taken the job of president of the Harvard Law Review had some interest in legal scholarship. But Obama, despite holding a job as head of an academic publication, had no desire to do research or teach. He did, however, take the job at the University of Chicago:

"He accepted," Baird continued, "and several months after he arrived, he came to my office and said, 'Boss' - he called me boss - 'that book I told you about - well, it's taken a slightly different direction. It's my autobiography.' I was astonished. He was all of thirty years old and he was writing his autobiography!"

Even if we imagine for a moment that a twenty-nine year old had both cause and substance to write his memoirs - a huge assumption - the fact soon become very clear that Obama had no interest in being part of the university. On the contrary, he had an interest in projecting the image that he was part of the university:

For the next twelve years, Obama taught at the Law School - first as a Lecturer, then as a Senior Lecturer. He earned about $60,000 a year and was given an office, a secretary, and health benefits. He was, by all accounts, a ghostly presence on the faculty - rarely seen and virtually never heard from.

Obama was happy to absorb a salary and benefits from the university, and happy to wear the title 'lecturer' - but not to engage in the life of a scholar.

"You just never saw him at a lunch or at a workshop," said Richard Epstein, who was made interim dean of the Law School in 2001, while Obama was still there. "I did not see any signs of intellectual curiosity or power. He did not have a way of listening to you that drew you in. But it was rarely the case that you could figure out what he thought. An inaccurate story was published that claimed Obama was given a tenured offer to join the faculty. But it never came to the faculty for approval. How could make a tenured offer to a man who had never written a scholarly article?"

To be a faculty member of a major university and never write a scholarly article - to never be published in peer-reviewed professional journal - is either career suicide, or it is an indication that one has no interest in an academic career. The latter is clearly the case with Obama. But despite his lack of interest in an academic career, he - or his handlers - wanted him to have the trappings of an academic career. To have the University of Chicago on his resume, and to have the ability to mimic the professorial tone, would be assets in a political campaign. To which extent Obama wanted the University of Chicago on his resume, and to which extent he was talked into it against his will, we may never know.

"At the time," Epstein continued, "Obama saw himself as a serious intellectual, which he definitely was not. His course was very popular and he was an engaging teacher, but not one with a serious academic set of interests. The members of the faculty reserved a round table for ten in the Quadrangle Club, where we had lunch and engaged in an intense intellectual exchange. We had a no-sports and no-politics rule and a single-topic rule. Everybody bashed everybody. You put yourself once more into the breach and prepared to have the guillotine come down on your head."

Part of the academic life is debate. Scholars love debate. Intellectual disagreement does not entail personal animosity. Often harsh intellectual combatants enjoy personal friendships. Obama, however, was not interested in ideas. Richard Epstein recalls:

"But Barack Obama never attended these lunches. I firmly believe that his systematic withdrawal from engagement with other members of the faculty stemmed from his not wanted to put himself at intellectual risk. He was always a political actor with many irons in the fire."

Obama's engagement with the University of Chicago Law School was purely mercenary. Following the ideas of his mentors, Saul Alinsky and Frank Marshall Davis, Obama - or his handlers - decided that wearing the university label would be helpful to his eventual campaign. Devoting any effort to university work would be a waste of time, and committing any ideas to paper would leave evidence that could later resurface to be used against him.

Douglas Baird concurs that Obama was AWOL as a faculty member:

"I should also say that, like Richard, I'd have liked it if Barack had been more involved," Baird said. "But that wasn't what he was about."

To be sure, Obama was somewhat popular as an instructor - students were thankful to have a lecturer who was fun, who easily gave good grades, and who didn't take the whole thing too seriously. Having an occasional interesting classroom discussion does not equal serious legal scholarship; students may find the class enjoyable, and learn to mimic the instructor's convictions, but they have not been challenged to engage in higher-level critical thinking. On the contrary, they have learned, like their instructor, to imitate the verbiage of those who think critically.

"Of course, I grant you that it's one thing to be a charismatic figure and walk into a room and excite students, and quite another thing to be a leader - to hire people, motivate people, and manage decision-making. That's not something Barack experienced or learned at the Chicago Law School. I know people in the White House, and I don't get a sense from my conversations with them that there's anything in Barack's experience as a law professor that prepared him for the leadership part of the presidential job."

In sum, although Obama has been ceaselessly marketed as an 'intellectual' by his campaign staffs, he made no measurable impact on the academic community among either students or fellow faculty members.

Obama's Personal Physician

Every person who comes into contact with a famous person becomes a source of historical data - classmates or teachers from school, neighbors and family members, coworkers, even barbers. Thus historian Edward Klein interviewed David Scheiner, and reports that

Scheiner was Obama's personal physician for twenty-two years - from the mid-1980's, when Obama was a community organizer, until he was elected president of the United States.

In addition to caring for Barack Obama's physical health, Dr. Scheiner had some informal contact with Obama on policy matters. Scheiner belongs to an

organization that lobbies for single-payer national health insurance - or, in Dr. Scheiner's own words, "socialized medicine." He had great hopes for Obama in the White House, because when Obama was his patient he made no secret of the fact that he favored the kind of socialized medicine that is practiced in Canada and Western Europe.

Like many who supported Obama, David Scheiner had high hopes for Obama as president. But by 2012, Scheiner had a different view. Given Scheiner's political views, Klein

expected him to be a champion of his former patient. To my surprise, however, he turned out to be one of Obama's most severe and unforgiving critics.
One of Obama's challenges has been trying to keep his base happy and fulfill the agenda of his handlers. His base - the left wing of the Democrat Party and others who voted for him - hoped that his first four years in office would constitute a quicker move toward socialism than he has in fact produced. His handlers - the people who discovered him at a young age, recognized his telegenic potential, obtained degrees and credentials for him, and moved him through a career path designed to make him nationally-viable candidate - hoped that he would be able to inflict even greater damage on America's economy and global diplomat stature than he has in fact been able to wreak. Thus a longtime supporter like his personal physician is vocal:

"I look at his healthcare program and I can't see how it can work," Scheiner said. "He has no cost control. There would be no effective cost control in his program. The [Congressional Budget Office] said it's going to be incredibly expensive ... and the thing that I really am worried about is, if it is the failure that I think it would be, then health reform will be set back a long, long time.

In some mysterious political harmony, disaffected elements within Obama's base agree, at least on this one point, with elements of his opposition: his healthcare plans focus of who's paying for healthcare, but fail to address ways in which the price of healthcare might be reduced.

"When Barack Obama planned this health program, he didn't include on his healthcare team anyone who actually practiced medicine in the trenches the way I do," Dr. Scheiner continued. "I'm an old-fashioned doctor. I still make house calls. I still use the first black bag that I got out of medical school. My patients have my home phone number. It's true that Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the brother of Rahm Emanuel, was on the healthcare team, but Ezekiel is a medical oncologist, not a general physician."

The mention of Rahm Emanuel - an expert at political corruption, bribery, extortion, and organized crime, to name only a few of his skills - highlights another question about Obama: was Obama's health program the sadly mistaken and incompetent product of a genuine goodwill - a naive progressivism yielding the failed social experiments usually produced by such progressivism? Or was Obama's healthcare program the result of a cynical calculation to direct power and funding to those who manage him, and to fulfill their desire to weaken the United States? There are substantive arguments on both side of this question.

"My main objection to Barack Obama is that he is a great speaker and a lousy communicator," Dr. Scheiner said. "He isn't getting his message across to people. He isn't showing that he really cares. To this day he hasn't communicated with members of Congress."

Obama can give stirring vocal performances. But lacking a rehearsed script to present, he lacks substance. His lack of press conferences - he gives fewer than the average modern president - and his granting of interviews only to those reporters who toss "softball" questions to him - indicate that the real thought is taking place behind the scenes, and Obama is functioning as the mouthpiece for the group which has financed and managed him for many years now.

"He's got academic University of Chicago-type people around him who don't care. Where is our Surgeon General, the obese Dr. Regina Benjamin? Why hasn't she said anything during this healthcare debate? Ronald Reagan had C. Everett Koop as his surgeon general. Believe me, Regina Benjamin is no Everett Koop. In fact, Obama's whole cabinet has been a disappointment. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is a joke."

Obama's advisors are often pulled from academia, but are sadly not the professors and researchers who made breakthroughs there. Rather, they were administrators, political hacks who got adjunct faculty positions as payoffs for political favors, future candidates being groomed for campaign by spending a semester or two lecturing, or remnants from the hippy days of the 1960's and 1970's. In short, these advisors and appointees have lots of academic-sounding credentials on their resumes, but are not scholars.

So it is Michele Obama, not the Surgeon General, who scolds and nags the American public about eating properly. The nation's comedians would doubtless be delighted with the plethora of material which would result if Regina Benjamin would make public statements on the topic. But more substantively, why was she essentially out of the loop in the formation of the Obamacare program, and largely silent during the public debate about it? Apparently, she either had nothing to say on the matter - revealing that she was a purely political appointment lacking competence - or her comments were not welcomed by Obama's handlers, meaning that they prefer to keep the decision-making and power-wielding behind the scenes, and allow the official cabinet-level appointees exist merely as figureheads.

Obama can project a personality in a speech, but whether he in fact has one is a different matter. He would not be the first; there have been many people who made good candidates but incapable leaders. David Scheiner muses on Obama the man:

"I can really relate to people, but I never really related to him. I never had the closeness with him that I had with other patients. It was purely a professional relationship. He was always gracious and polite. But I never really connected with him. He was distant. When I think of why he's had problems in the White House, I think there is too much of the University of Chicago in him. By which I mean he's academic, lacks passion and feeling, and doesn't have the sense of humanity that I expected."

Having been parked in university by his handlers - ostensibly as adjunct faculty, but the record shows that he devoted minimal effort to teaching, and even less to research - Obama adopted the airs of academia. He learned to appear professorial without being an actual scholar. He learned to appropriate the tone of a lecturer without having devoted himself to textual research.

The chameleon-like ease with which Obama can wear a persona - modulating quickly from the lecture-hall docent to the street-corner community organizer - points to a deeper lack of self. Being in very real ways a damaged person - abandoned by his biological father, impacted by a string of short-term father-figures during his childhood, steered by his mother into an identity of her choosing - Obama perhaps never developed a sense of self incubated in the stable, secure environment of unconditional love and of a solid family culture. Abandoned by various adult men who might have been step-parents, and enrolled by his mother into a variety of educational institutions which carefully avoided the common public school, he became able to conform to various environments, but unable to reliably identify himself. Unable to clarify himself to himself, he was and is unable to clarify himself to others.

"Obama has an academic detachment," he continued. "I treat many patient from the University of Chicago faculty, and I've been able to crack through their academic detachment. Not Obama. We never got to the point where we'd discuss intimate things. For instance I never heard anything about his family life. Other patients invited me to dinner and their homes, but Obama never did. Obama invited his barber to his inauguration - his barber! But I wasn't invited. Believe me, that hurt."

Although revealing his own Obama-esque egocentrism, David Scheiner identifies a troubling pattern in Obama's symbolic gestures. Scheiner is not an African-American, and Obama failed to invite him to the inauguration. Obama's barber, an African-American, was invited. This is not an isolated incident; it's a consistent pattern. The Obama administration has orchestrated quite a few purely symbolic gestures around African-American citizens. In doing so, they have reduced many situations to over-simplified racial equations. They have also spent enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars (Obama's Chicago barber is flown to Washington regularly, where he stays in a hotel - all at taxpayer expense). To which extent Obama is part of these decisions - he probably requested the barber because of the personal relationship, but other gestures which were less personal were probably arranged for him by his handlers - is not clear, given that he seems to make only a few administrative decisions personally.

In sum, what Obama's former personal physician thinks about his healthcare policy isn't that significant. But in examining that opinion, we begin to see the deeper weaknesses in Obama and his administration. David Scheiner's personal sour grapes are merely that, but the troubling indicators that the damaged individual who is Barack Obama is being surreptitiously managed by shadowy figures gives us an insight into the Obama administration.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Postwar World - a New Mindset

By 1945, not only the United States, but the entire world, had been through three decades of horrifying and amazing events. The First World War had shocked the planet by displaying the full terror of mechanized and industrialized warfare, killing humans on a massive scale never before seen, and fueled by a variety of ideologies which had grown in the soil of a Europe which had abandoned its own spirituality in favor of competing socialist and nationalist drives.

The postwar malaise was expressed in artworks which had their seeds in prewar visionaries like Franz Kafka, Arnold Schönberg, and Georg Trakl. Kafka published as early as 1908; Schönberg in the 1890's, and Trakl in 1912, with During the war, this sense of meaninglessness gave rise to Dadaism, and after the war, grew in a number of different stylistic directions. The hoped-for ideals proposed by progressivist movements were seen as unreachable utopias.

Pounding metaphorical nails into the coffin of a society perfected by technocrats and rationalists, the Great Depression demonstrated that humans could not manage their way out of painful realities.

When the horrors of WWI reappeared in WWII, amplified further by technological advances and by even harsher versions of industrialism, nationalism, and communism - versions which stepped in to fill a spiritual vacuum produced by Europe's failure to embrace and digest its sacred heritage, the stage was set for an intellectual reexamination. Rejecting the naive optimism of rationalist progressivism, postwar thinkers needed a framework which would acknowledge man's inclination toward evil, and yet offer hope for society. A sober realism which would claim that, humans being what they in fact are, a perfect world is impossible, but a better world is within reach.

Describing this "shift in the intellectual climate," historian Ross Douthat considers the example of poet W.H. Auden and other mid-twentieth century artists, noting

that the same feelings that had impelled Auden back to Christianity were at work in society as a whole. After the death camps and the gulag, it was harder to credit the naive progressive belief that the modern age represented a long march toward ever-greater enlightenment and peace, or that humanity was capable of relying for salvation on its own capacities alone. Instead, there was a sudden demand for writers who could revise the story that modernity told about itself - explaining what had gone wrong, and why, with reference to ideas and traditions that an earlier generation's intelligentsia had dismissed as irrelevant and out-of-date.

Auden left England and settled permanently in America, being himself a microcosm of the era's intellectual development: leaving behind his Wilsonian leftism, embracing a more reverent approach to the Judeo-Christian heritage and a less idealized view of human nature. The world was following a similar trajectory, stinging from revelations about Hitler's butchery and Stalin's willingness to kill millions in the gulag. A new mindset for the postwar world was required.

A host of thinkers answered this call. Not all of them were explicitly religious; their commitments ranged from the idiosyncratic European traditionalism of Eric Voegelin to the antitotalitarian liberalism of Hannah Arendt, from the continental socialism of Theodor Adorno to the very American conservatism of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. But they all contributed to a mood of historical and philosophical reassessment, in which the Christian past was mined for insights into the present situation, and the religious vision of a fallen world was suddenly more intellectually respectable than it had been for decades.

America, from the end of World War Two to social upheavals of the mid-1960's, was shaped by this intellectual reassessment. Kafka, Trakl, Dadaism, and Schönberg had cleared away the debris of a sadly failed Wilsonian utopianism, and culture was again being constructed during the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower. Progressivists, stung by their failures, accused the era of superficiality. A view of life as based on norms simultaneously transcendent and immanent - eternal yet concrete - was, however, being constructed: a view which had enough resilience to survive the tumult of the 1960's and later decades, and to provide again a foundation for the reconstruction of civilization after the raging of destructive worldviews.