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Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency 1st Edition
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Richard Parker on Obama's Challenge
Richard Parker is the author of John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. He is an Oxford-trained economist and senior fellow of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he also teaches a course on religion and public policy. A cofounder of the magazine Mother Jones, he writes extensively on economics and public policy.
This is a vitally important book--one which should be read whether you support Barack Obama or not.
It's a concisely reasoned and elegantly written essay on how a truly courageous president could lead us forward. A slender volume, it very usefully sweeps us past the often-overwrought speculation about whether this will or won't be a "transformative" election--akin to Lincoln's, Roosevelt's, JFK's, and even Ronald Reagan's--and on to the real questions of what such an election might accomplish, how, and why.
Obama's Challenge assumes Obama will be elected, but its author is hardly a captive partisan. As a highly regarded journalist and deft policy analyst, Robert Kuttner has been covering presidential elections--as well the politics of governance in the four years between them--for more than three decades. Experience has convinced him that the size and complexity of the problems America and the world are facing today requires an extraordinarily gifted leader--and he is willing here to affirm that Barack Obama might well be that person.
The book's unique contribution, however, is to shows us that the sheer magnitude of those problems will require a President Obama to use his gifts for specific ends--and what those ends should be. We must repair, Kuttner persuades us, the enormous damage that's been done over the past 40 years by heedless business deregulation, careless globalization, massive deficits, environmental neglect, arrogantly unilateral use of military power, increasingly regressive tax system, and most important, by a relentless denigration of the clear value of government itself by those in the highest public offices--even though democratic government has always been and is now, the precondition, not the enemy, of America's past achievement and future hope. In doing so, he cogently explains how derelict conservative ideology, combined with a deformed bipartisanship, led to this situation, how presidents of great potential have in the past became transformative leaders--and how President Obama could take up the promise he offers now, and shape it into the world we need.
Kuttner is refreshingly realistic nonetheless about the roadblocks and pitfalls ahead. Hardly utopian himself, he urges Obama--and his supporters--to grasp the full requirements for transformative change in terms of leadership and values.
In the past, Kuttner has shown himself to be highly adept at parsing complex policy alternatives, but he somberly cautions the new president away from such a path by quoting Lincoln's dictum, "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed." What he elegantly demonstrates instead is that Obama must mobilize the country by helping us take the imaginative steps forward that will allow us together to remake--and redeem--the nation. And if Obama takes time to read this essay before November, it will significantly enhance his prospects of first reaching the White House.
No one can possibly know what lies in store for an Obama presidency--or whether he will in fact reach the White House. This is the only book, however, to cogently explain why and how we must tackle now the great problems that have been so so carelessly created, and by reflecting on earlier transformative presidencies, offers us the map by which President Obama (and we) might chart a truly tranformative presidency.
From Publishers Weekly
In the latest from Kuttner (The Squandering of America), the liberal author and commentator correctly anticipates the economic failures only recently unfolding, and proposes a bold, transformative plan he believes can only be carried out by presidential candidate Barack Obama. Following the dubious tradition of pre-election expectation-raising, Kuttner proposes a veritable wish list for liberal economists-like permanent investment in public infrastructure, energy independence, active labor market policy (good jobs at good wages), professionalization of human services work like elder- and child-care, housing subsidies, universal health insurance-and why they'll pay off in jobs, health and wealth. Estimating the cost of all these programs at $600 billion until 2010, Kuttner finds convincing reasons to hope for these changes. Comparing Obama's role to FDR and Lincoln's, Kuttner believes the Illinois senator has the ability to inspire the public, and Congress, to carry out this agenda; as timely and apt as it is, left-leaning readers may be energized, or they may be in for quite a bit of disappointment.
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In Kuttner's view, each of these Presidents entered office without an agenda of dramatic change, but the circumstances they found, once in office, forced each of them to transcend politics to become the kind of leaders the nation desperately needed.
The Republican, Abraham Lincoln, had no plans to abolish slavery when he ran for office in 1860, but grew in his realization that slavery was immoral - and must be addressed. His eloquence and his political gifts, along with the Civil War itself, allowed him to end that blight on the nation's conscience.
Franklin Roosevelt was committed to budget balancing and budget cutting when he campaigned in 1932. What he found upon assuming office was a deepening economic depression and a nation demoralized. He used his gifts of optimism and communication in a dramatic search for practical - not ideological - solutions.
Lyndon Johnson assumed the Presidency after John Kennedy's assassination, and found a highly segregated nation. His awakening to the plight of African-Americans was nothing short of remarkable for a Texas politician. His compassion and tenacity - with the passage of the Voting Rights Act - finally made possible the fulfillment of the promise of Lincoln.
Kuttner believes that the current crisis gives Obama this opportunity to grow into this kind of transformative leader we need to move forward in economic equity, health care reform and education. Obama is not there yet. His health care plan, for example, is not transformative to the degree we need. But of the two choices, Obama has the intellect, the character and the temperament to become a great leader.
Leaders, after all, do compromise and collaborate and understand politics; however, they also take us to places we have not imagined previously. They aspire us to rise above our old ways. They lead us to a new vision.
Not every President has the talent to lead us in this transformative way. George W. Bush, for example, when faced with a growing concern about global warming - decided to ignore the evidence. Entering office to decades long stagnation of middle class wages - he cut taxes on the wealthy and boosted deregulation. Following the tragedy of 9-11, he pushed for the invasion of a weak country and promoted the torture of prisoners. His leadership didn't call out our better selves - it exacerbated our weaknesses.
Kuttner promotes a number of transformative ideas for consideration. One that deserves consideration is the professionalization of the service employees of the nation's social service sector. We can all agree that the nation's children and elderly deserve high quality care, but current policies and regulations push the service equation towards lower prices, not higher quality.
The front line staff of America's nursing homes, residential treatment programs and day care centers are largely poorly trained, poorly educated, short-term employees. Private children's homes in KY face frighteningly high turnover rates every year. Higher governmental standards could force the hiring of better educated and more intrinsically motivated workers. In turn, as higher skilled workers demand higher wages, these good jobs could become a decent wage option for workers displaced by globalization and the decline of manufacturing.
Our vulnerable children and aging population would receive better care, and these newly enhanced jobs could not be outsourced to other nations.
Kuttner leaves us where Obama entered the race - with the possibilities of hope. Heaven knows we need it.
Even more than when Robert Kuttner wrote this superb book (which follows other very fine analyses of the economic situation of our economy like EVERYTHING FOR SALE: THE VIRTUES AND LIMITS OF MARKETS and THE SQUANDERING OF AMERICA: HOW THE FAILURE OF OUR POLITICS OUR PROSPERITY), the current economic situation demands and calls out for the kinds of solutions proposed in this book. Unfortunately, 30 years of strongly held self-regulting market ideas have done immense damage to the economy (and it has to be remembered that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also held versions of the same economic ideas made more popular by Reagan and made ridiculous by George W. Bush -- and before the increasingly heard defense of Reagan be made that while Reagan was a true conservative, Bush is not, please recall that Reagan undersaw larger increases in spending as a part of GDP than Bush, most of it on military spending -- though to his credit, when Reagan saw the massive deficits his economic policy was building up he did the responsible thing and raised taxes). One one-star reviewer of this book mentioned Kuttner's appearance Colmes and Hannity's show. I strongly urge people to go to Youtube and view it. Yes, they called each other names (though Sean Hannity truly is an idiot and he truly does merely ape GOP talking points), but what that reviewer neglected to mention is that Hannity took great exception to Kuttner's claims that the economy was in a dire mess. Hannity insisted that the economy was in great shape, that Bush had performed miracles. This was a couple of days before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and AIG had to seek a $70 billion line of credit from the Fed. My point is that Kuttner absolutely nailed what was wrong with the economy; if anything, the economy was worse than Kuttner said. Hannity was refuted by the events of the next couple of weeks more thoroughly than any TV interviewer (Hannity is right in describing himself as an "interviewer" and not a journalist). Kuttner was completely and utterly vindicated.
The brute fact is that our economy is -- and actually has been -- a mess. Wall Street is collapsing right now, but the quality of life for the bulk of Americans has been gradually eroding for decades. It was not, as Reagan optimistically crowed, dawn in America, but dusk. The next president will come on the scene at one of the most critical moments in American history, not merely at the end of eight miserable years overseen by the worst president in American history, but three decades of government that ignored or neglected the middle class and privileged instead crackpot free market economic pablum. Some take exception that Kuttner assumes that it is only Obama who can be looked to as the bringer of changes; McCain, after all, might win (though that seemed far more likely a month ago, before the implosion of the economy and before Sarah Palin gave a vast number of Americans another reason to vote for Obama). But the brute fact is that McCain truly is just more of the same thing we've seen since Gerald Ford. Though he acknowledged at one point that the knew nothing about economics, what he has said has persistently been the free market party line. Before the collapse of Wall Street, McCain never found a regulation that he liked. For McCain there was no such thing as too much deregulation. So if we want change, Obama is the only game in town. But not just that; he has often spoken of solutions and gestured towards directions that would be definite departures from the past three decades. He has talked of the kinds of ideas that drove United States policy from the beginning of the New Deal until the onset of deregulation and Reaganism, decades that saw some of the greatest decades of economic growth in American history and the greatest expansion of the middle class. We need to go back to what worked and what worked was government using its power to assure that the middle class has a share of the American dream just as the wealthy do. Like Roosevelt put it, America is not better off unless all Americans are better off.
Kuttner lays out a broad and ambitious program of new government programs that would go a long ways towards undoing the unremittant harm inflicted over the past few decades. These include such programs as universal health care and a dramatic increase in the expansion of alternative energy sources.
What has been lost in the unceasing criticism of government by Reagan and his followers is that government has done a vast number of extraordinarily fine things. It has done far less in the past few decades because it has not been allowed to. If people merely reflected a bit instead of succumbing to brainless anti-government rhetoric they would easily think of dozens of tremendous successes by government. Just a few examples of government at work: the national highway system; most of America's bridges; social security (which even Reagan promoted as a very great thing); clean air and clean water; the national park system; medicare and mediaid; food stamps (so people without money will not starve); guaranteeing civil rights, so that blacks voting today don't have to guess how many jelly beans are in a bowl to be able to vote; the space program; the Bill of Rights; consumer protection (that bans products like the over the counter medical product that in the late 1890s killed over a hundred people in about a week); the G.I. Bill; various programs that have enabled most people in American history to own their own homes; the control of the national water supply (otherwise there would be no one living in California); the National Institutes of Health; the breaking up of the Mafia; and a vast number of other programs and achievements. Anti-government ideologues want to pretend that there are no options other than an all-inclusive totalitarianism and a do-nothing libertarianism, but all of the countries in Europe and Canada that enjoy a better quality of life than we do in the United States (every year the U.S. slips further and further down the list of the countries with the highest quality of life) prove them otherwise. We need government officials that actually believe in government again. We need to get back on track.
Many will be resistant to the kinds of ideas that are put forward in Kuttner's book because they have been steeped in the simplistic and easy-to-digest and parrot ideology put forward on the right from Reagan to the present. One of Reagan's most dubious achievements was convincing people that there were simple answers to complex problems. Yet the world remained complex while people's thinking about it became increasingly simplistic and out of touch. The free market mantra was an incredibly easy one to understand and apply. That it never worked successfully in any country in which it was tried never bothered these people. As Karl Polanyi presciently pointed out in 1944 in his great book THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION (directed at the Viennese School economists who were the teachers of Milton Friedman and other U.S. free marketers and still one of the best and most relevant books ever written about economics), a belief in the virtues of a radically free market is essentially utopian: it does not describe a world that ever has or ever could exist, but one that they could only imagine to exist. We need to get back to a nuanced way of thinking about politics and economics that addresses the way the world actually is, not the way that people imagine it should be. It is only a matter of time that the free marketers resume their mantra of laissez-faire and deregulation. Polanyi said that their response to any economic failures, even when the policies were put forward by true believers in the free market, would be to insist that the principles had not been sufficiently adopted by society, that the markets hadn't been sufficiently free, that there had still been too many regulations. It is pure hogwash, but a position that anyone with a high school education can adopt and apply.
If it sounds like I'm angry, I am. I hate that most of my adult life has been lived in a country that has become the testing ground for so many hare-brained ideas and crack pot nostrums. Not everything was perfect in the United States from the early thirties to the seventies, and there were times when there was a tremendous suppression of individual liberties in the country (though mainly by people who later would be most seduced by the kinds of thinking I've been criticizing in this review). But the middle class was expanding and for a huge number of Americans life made far more sense economically than it does today. What I would like to see is an America with the kinds of social and cultural progress made in the past three decades (with far greater racial tolerance as well as acceptance of all kinds of difference, whether religious or sexual orientation, and a true embrace of gender equality) with the kind of growth of the middle class that took place in the decades before Reagan. Like Roosevelt said, America isn't well off unless most Americans are well off. That is Obama's challenge, to put America back on the path down which we were led by Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, and even Nixon. The pro-big business, anti-middle class policies of Carter, Reagan (especially Reagan), Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 have got to go.