Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 March 2008

Racism versus Self-Preservation


What happens when a mild, largely unconscious racism meets the instinct for self-preservation? We’re about to find out.

Mississippi and Ohio illustrate the problem. Older, less flexible white voters and white Joe and Mary six-packs shunned Obama in droves. Hillary and her surrogates are exploiting this demographic phenomenon. They count on the least well educated and informed among us giving her a shot at the White House.

You would think that Joe and Mary six-pack might have learned their lessons. In 2000 and 2004, they forsook basic competence to elect a man they thought they’d like to have a beer with.

That “nice guy” turned out to be the least competent president in a century, maybe our least competent ever. He trashed our economy, our military, our infrastructure, our diplomacy, our international reputation, our national finances, our currency, plus Iraq and a few other obscure places. The only things he served well were his beloved oil and gas industry, the Saudis, and people making half a million or more per year.

The six-pack set didn’t care much until Bush’s cataclysmic incompetence came home to bite them where they live. Now it has.

We have a deflating real-estate bubble, a mortgage meltdown, a credit crunch, an unregulated derivatives debacle, and a crisis in our national currency and international credit—all at once. Millions of people are losing their homes, hundreds of thousands their jobs, and all of us the chance to travel abroad at a reasonable price for the foreseeable future.

Conservative Pollyannas still pray for a soft landing or a short recession. But 70% of economists think we are already in recession. The hard times that Dubya’s blunders have built for seven years are now upon us. As their homes, jobs and children’s futures evaporate, Joe and Mary are just waking up.

The Democratic contest and the general election depend upon how soon their understanding crystallizes. If Joe and Mary wise up and draw the appropriate conclusions, our next president will be Barack Obama. If not, we will have John or Hillary, and our economic problems will get considerably worse. The handwriting is on the wall for anyone to read.

Take John first. A few weeks ago, in a moment of characteristic candor, he confessed that he “doesn’t really understand economics.” Now, of course, he’s trying to prove the contrary. How? He trots out the same stale Republican nostrums that got us into this mess: an allergy to regulation, a reluctance to disturb “free markets” even as they succumb to greed, abuse and incompetence, and a fundamental faith that “trickle down” from the wealthy will sustain us. If you believe that sort of philosophy will clean up a mess of this magnitude, then you deserve the hard times that await you and your children.

Hillary’s charade is bit harder to unmask. She’s a Democrat, so she believes in intervening. The trouble is she’s too interventionist. She wants to try the same sort of price controls that failed Richard Nixon and every leader in Soviet Russia and are now failing Hugo Chavez. She believes that she can order the economy about like some campaign flunky. She doesn’t realize that our sophisticated, specialized, technological economy of 300 million people is a gigantic precision instrument. You can’t fix it like a cheap clock just by moving the hands. Contrary to her bluster, it is she, not Obama, who offers “quick fixes” and airy solutions with no track record.

Obama is the only candidate who understands economics. He knows how complex and delicate our economy is, and how likely “quick fixes” are to have disastrous unintended consequences. His solutions are prudent, cautious, reasonable, and consistent with current economic learning.

Every step that Obama has proposed is tried, tested and reliable. For the housing crisis, he proposes subsidies to keep people in their homes, mortgage renegotiation under government pressure, and strong regulation to prevent further predatory lending. For health care, he proposes subsidies for people who cannot afford insurance. He couples them with sophisticated measures to reduce inefficiency and waste, give patients more information about quality, automate medical records and make them more available, and increase competition among health-care providers and producers of drugs and medical devices.

For the economy generally, Obama proposes to put people back to work repairing our national infrastructure and converting our energy sources from foreign oil. That’s exactly how FDR got us through the Great Depression. His Work Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps gave us our national park system, many a dam and levy, and the basis of our current transportation infrastructure. With today’s dilapidated infrastructure and our crying need for energy independence, Obama can do the same thing, while relying far less on direct government employment and more on the private sector.

Obama’s approach to foreign policy is similar: prudent, reliable, thoughtful and solid. His much-neglected terrorism speech was mostly about simple and solid precautions that Dubya and the other candidates so far have neglected. Obama proposed six steps to reduce our vulnerability at home, including implementing the 9/11 Commission’s neglected recommendations and hardening vulnerable infrastructure like chemical and power plants. Long term, he proposed replacing the madrassas, which teach only the Koran and hate, with real schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He proposed shifting at least two brigades to Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda central and its Taliban allies. Finally, he proposed going after bin Laden and Zawahiri in Pakistan. Does anyone think our war against terrorists will end while they live in freedom?

If you compare programs and proposals—not speeches—you come away with the firm conviction that much depends on Obama’s victory. Certainly Joe and Mary six-pack’s economic future does. Obama already understands economics, and his proposals reflect that understanding. Hillary and John will have to learn on the job, as Hillary’s mandates and price controls fail and John’s philosophy of “benign neglect” accomplishes nothing.

As for foreign policy, Obama’s comprehensive plan is infinitely more thoughtful, specific, and prudent than his rivals’ approaches. Hillary has nothing more than her track record of poor judgment and her “Day One” mantra. McCain has only commitment and resolve, enough to stay in Iraq for a century. But what we do while there and how we pay for the adventure he doesn’t say. If we have anyone who can direct our limited military resources intelligently to capturing or killing our worst enemies, Obama is the one.

The trick is getting Joe and Mary six-pack to understand. Hillary and her brilliant PR people are throwing up every possible smoke screen for the benefit of a woman who has never solved a foreign crisis, has failed in solving the single economic problem she addressed (health care), and has shown miserable judgment on all four major issues of our time: Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and health care.

But PR is not all that stands between us and a competent president. There is also race.

That’s why recent statements by David Brooks and Mark Shields are so absurd. Both, in different ways, opined that race actually helps Obama. They reasoned that many white voters support Obama because they know that having a president with black African genes will help solve intractable social problems.

That’s no doubt true, and I feel the same way. But it’s a stupid reason to elect a president. It’s just as stupid as electing a female because doing so will help reduce gender discrimination. Anyone smart enough to understand the social benefits of a competent African-American president is also smart enough to know that competence, in itself, is more important by far. Electing a less competent person for “social” reasons will backfire.

In any event, David Brooks, Mark Shields and I are not Joe or Mary six pack. We don’t think like them. We don’t understand how images of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and nameless, fanciful TV hoodlums and criminals swim through their minds when Hillary reminds them—as she and her surrogates do constantly—of Barack Obama’s black Kenyan father.

Most of this racism is unconscious, not conscious. But it is real nevertheless. And Hillary and her crew are trying to exploit in a way more subtle—but no less cynical—than Dubya’s father did in his “Willie Horton” ad in the late 1980s.

To the extent our future depends upon electing the most competent candidate for president, it depends on Joe and Mary six-pack overcoming their unconscious racism. Somehow, the Obama campaign has to make them understand, before it’s too late. Our national rate of decline has now turned so steep that a mere eight years more of incompetent or marginally competent governance will likely forfeit our global leadership forever. Then we’ll all be losers, and Joe and Mary six-pack, as usual, will hurt the worst.

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