I checked out Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics from my local library this week. Derived from a plethora of interviews, accounts, and documents, the book describes the political negotiations behind the legislations of Obama’s first term. The first 100 pages or so have been about as interesting as I was expecting.
One of my first reactions was how there are powerful incentives for large government legislation to be inherently sub-optimal. It seems like a good chunk of the book involves the political leadership of both major parties doing everything they can to get various bills passed, from the 2009 stimulus to the 2010 year-end tax extensions and so on and so forth (though I’m disappointed that for now it seems to have skipped the healthcare debate). They’re constantly throwing numbers and programs around to try to achieve the necessary votes – $4 billion more for this, several billion cut out of this, etc, etc.
I don’t believe Smart People are smart enough to do optimal things even when they have the power to execute them exactly as they desire. The Federal Reserve might be the best example of this – they can decide to set interest rates at X% or buy Y amount of Z securities until Metric A reaches B points. Their variables may not be set correctly, but they can at least precisely pursue them.
How much more sub-optimal must Congressional legislation be when they’re throwing around billions of dollars worth of every single variable just to get the thing passed? At what point can you no long be sure that the arbitrary result is better than the status quo? And the more massive the legislation, the more variables that are around for greasing, and the greater the opportunity for sub-optimality. It’s no wonder Big Government tends to be so ineffective!
My second reaction was surprise at the number of close Obama officials, and quotes from Obama himself, that identified Obama with fiscal conservatism. I was never quite convinced that Obama’s actions lined up with the conservative populism cries of Marxist or socialist, but I certainly wouldn’t put the words “fiscal conservative” or even “Blue Dog streak” very near him. It is quite astonishing to read or be reminded of many of the small-government-sounding words that have come from Obama’s lips (“I believe so strongly in what you’re saying [about reducing the deficit], I’d be willing to be a one-term president over this”), and then contrast that with many of the other things he has said in front of different audiences and, of course, the things he has actually done.
I suppose it is possible that Obama is a grand conniving manipulator who carefully controls everything he’s doing. When we remember Obama’s inexperience, however, and combine that with the actions portrayed in The Price of Politics, I find it more plausible that Obama is simply very good at trying to identify with people and tell them what they want to hear, but very bad at actually involving himself in the political process or essentially doing anything besides campaigning. I think he may spend more time floundering than scheming. (Not that my opinions on any of this are very relevant or likely to be correct.)
My third reaction was how the book makes it easy to believe that there are no conspirators in control of the world. I already don’t believe that the Illuminati or the Council on Foreign Relations or the Muslim Brotherhood or whoever is really running the show, and this book won’t convince anyone who strongly believes otherwise. I simply mean that the book presents a convincing narrative that the Republicans and Democrats at the top of our government really are at the top of our government, haphazardly struggling to control their own strings and win partisan squabbles without really knowing what they are doing. Of course, I’m not sure if that’s comforting or terrifying.
I still have a lot of pages to go, including the big chunk about last year’s debt ceiling battle. I’m curious how that will affect my expectations and interpretations of this year’s fiscal cliff battle, which closely resembles and was greatly enhanced by last year’s debt ceiling battle. But these are my thoughts so far.
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