Dear Reader (including members of my federal family),
I’m still getting my sea legs, or more accurately my low-altitude legs, after my trip out West with the wee-one (who, sadly, ain’t so wee anymore).
Shortly after my real family was reunited, the only institution with a legal monopoly on violence came up with a new term for itself: “the federal family.” Actually, according to this write up, it’s not actually new so much as newly overused.
While this happy-smiley-cutesy branding is certainly the sort of thing that would have gotten at least a brief mention in Liberal Fascism had I known about it, I don’t actually think it’s that big a deal. It’s one of those government branding euphemisms that is so absurd that people either immediately discount it or laugh at it. If your doctor offered you an “inner tickle” instead of a colonoscopy, odds are you wouldn’t fall for it.
The Speech Cometh
Quick: Can you think of a domestic-policy speech Obama has given that has worked? His post-Tucson massacre address is the only clearly successful speech I can think of on a domestic issue, and that was pretty much policy-free. It also did him no lasting good, in large part because he and his party violated its “new tone” prescriptions almost immediately.
The reason I ask is that I have a very hard time imagining how his speech next week can possibly succeed. No one will believe it’s not a campaign speech, not even the Shrummian creatures who will spin their political looms to depict it as the greatest example of oratorical statesmanship since Churchill promised to fight the Nazis on the beaches. If he “goes big” the way the Left wants him too, it won’t seem bold; it will seem desperate, and it will increase the likelihood his agenda fails to pass Congress, which in turn will make him seem ineffectual. If he goes small or “bipartisan,” people will wonder why he wasted everyone’s time with a joint-session address.
TV critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun writes, “Not only isn’t Obama the gifted TV performer he seemed to be during the 2008 campaign, TV is now one of his worst enemies.” The formerly Obama-smitten writer continues:
My first fuzzy notion of this idea came while I watched Obama address the nation after the debt ceiling compromise with its crackpot, kick-the-can centerpiece of a so-called Super Committee. Obama had performed pitifully during the crisis, and yet, here he was on TV thinking he could spin the economic embarrassment as “Good President Battles Bad Congress” or Responsible Adult reins in Mean, Selfish Children.”
But as I looked at the screen, I couldn’t help thinking how diminished Obama looked and how thin his voice sounded. I wondered if there actually was something happening physically with him.
He re-watched President-elect Obama at Grant Park and grew wistful, but then:
Viewing him now on TV in his promise-not-realized persona made me both sad for what might have been and angry for letting myself believe in the TV imagery of a night in Grant Park in November.
Having never been all that smitten with the man, I’ve been waiting for this moment for quite a while. (I’d link to all the different times I’ve tried to make this point, but why bother?) I don’t say that with glee, rubbing my hands together as the bunny rabbit hops into my steel trap. I just mean that Obama’s act was always an act, and eventually people will see through any act. In February of 2010, during the White House health-care conference, I wrote in the Corner:
I think one of the great explanations for the mess the Obama administration is in — the whole cowbell dynamic — is that he, his advisers, and many of his fans in the press cannot fully grasp or appreciate the fact that he is not as charming to everyone else as he is to them (or himself). Hence, they think that the more he talks, the more persuasive he will be. Every president faces a similar problem which is why, until Obama, every White House tried to economize the deployment of the president’s political capital. The Obama White House strategy is almost the rhetorical version of its Keynesianism: the more you spend, the bigger the payoff.
The hidden cost of this strategy is that the more he talks, the more pronounced or noticeable this tendency becomes for the average American. Eventually, it could come to define him. Presidents — all presidents — get caricatured eventually because certain traits become more identifiable over time. That’s one reason why parodies of presidents on Saturday Night Live get more convincing and funnier at the end of their terms — everyone can recognize the traits and habits by then. The more instances where Obama grabs all of the attention while acting like an arrogant college professor — particularly as memories of Bush fade — the more opportunities the White House creates where people can say, “Hey, I finally figured out what bugs me about this guy.” Not long after that, it becomes a journalistic convention, a staple of late-night jokes and basis of SNL parodies.
Last spring, David Axelrod finally admitted that they were overusing Obama. He compared the tactic to how the Chicago Bears relied on running back Walter Payton for everything. It “was Payton left and Payton right and Payton up the middle,” Axelrod told New York magazine. “It became kind of a dreary game plan . . . [In Obama] we have one of the great political performers of our time. But I think we degraded that to some degree by using him as much as we did in the ways we did.”
That’s true — except is he really such a great political performer? I guess I’m willing to concede he’s a very good campaigner (though 2008 was a perfect year for Obama). But again, as president, has he ever — ever! — closed the deal, made the sale, flipped the opposition? I can’t think of a single time. Walter Payton won games for the Bears, right? What games has Obama won? His defenders will say Obamacare and the stimulus. But Obama didn’t win those battles, his party’s big majorities in Congress did. And even then, the way he won those battles hurt him politically and cost him the majority in the House and seats in the Senate.
Obama’s problem is that he never had any conception of the position much beyond the rhetorical presidency. He thinks he fulfills the job description when he juts his chin upward, pointing to the middle distance of history, says some Very Important Things, and then postures as if he’s mildly impatient with the applause he expects.
But that’s not the job.
Speaking of jobs, the news this morning is that the U.S. economy didn’t create any in August. Over on Twitter, I’ve been trying to figure out how the White House spins this.
Some quick thoughts:
This is the first jobs report since 1945 that is carbon neutral.
He may have created zero jobs, but he saved millions.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is racist.
George W. Bush’s chickens are coming home to roost.
I killed Bin Laden!
Hey, what’s that shiny thing over there? [Runs away.]
Happiness v. Regulation
I think happiness research is interesting. I am still thinking through how it should inform policymakers. The idea of a government actively trying to make people happier gives me the willies. I don’t want the federal family getting into that business too actively. At the same time, I’d like to see it get out of the habit of making people less happy.
A couple weeks ago, Bryan Caplan had a good review of a new book on happiness research and economics. This passage stuck with me:
Mr. Powdthavee deserves credit for concluding his book with some of the big questions: “Is happiness overrated?” “Should government force people to be happy?” But he neglects the many ways in which government could sharply increase happiness by intervening less.
For instance, happiness research makes a powerful case against European-style labor-market regulation. For most economists, the effect on worker well-being is unclear. On the one hand, regulation boosts wages; on the other, it increases the probability that you will have no wages at all. From the standpoint of a happiness researcher, however, this is a no-brainer. A small increase in wages has but a small and ephemeral effect on happiness. A small increase in unemployment, by contrast, has a massive and — unlike most other factors — durable effect on happiness. Supposedly “humane” regulations to boost workers’ incomes have a dire cost in terms of human happiness.
This should be such an obvious point, but it’s not. It’s self-evident, to me at least, that America would be better off if millions of people had low-wage jobs if the alternative is for millions of Americans to have no jobs at all. And I don’t just mean that the jobless poor would be happier. America would be better. Employment is a cultural issue almost as much as it is an economic one. Three quick examples:
Across America, lemonade stands run by little kids are being shut down because the kids didn’t get the necessary permits. In Georgia some little girls had their stand shut down after making $5 because they needed a $400 permit. The economic stakes here are beyond negligible. The state will never collect that $400 bucks, and the economy will survive the lost economic activity from the shuttered stand. But culturally, the lessons learned and not learned are really significant. Running a lemonade stand is simply a great thing for a kid to do. Creating a society where even pretend entrepreneurialism is crushed will have consequences. In Detroit, a city which should be throwing flower petals at the feet of entrepreneurs, it took a food-truck owner 60 trips to City Hall to get the permits he needed. That’s horrifying but oddly not surprising.
Work, and respect for work, creates a culture. Disrespect for work creates a culture too.
The other night, my wife watched some special on Dateline about transgender people. One young man (I think) was working as a cross-dressing prostitute in order to save up the money to buy a sex change in Mexico. I’m paraphrasing, but the reporter asked “him,” “Why do this? You don’t have to be a prostitute, you could work at McDonald’s.”
Apparently the kid’s response involved a look of disgust at the suggestion that “he” demean himself by working at a fast-food joint. After all, fellating random dudes has honor. Working for a regular paycheck is shabby.