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Anis Shivani

Anis Shivani

Posted: May 3, 2010 01:37 PM

Obama the Visionless: Flogging the Four Horsemen of the Bureaucracy

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We are stuck with the checklist president -- the to-do-list president, the carry-over president, the regulation president -- when what we needed was a vision president.

What was the fundamental problem with the country when Bush left office? It was that we had lost track of our basic optimistic philosophy, and were running scared, shunning openness, innovation, risk-taking, extroversion, and future-orientedness in every dimension of life. Our culture reflected that; our politics reflected that; our personal lives reflected that.

That was the basic philosophical problem, not that we had the colossal unaddressed policy challenges of health care, finance, immigration, and energy. But these were the four policy issues candidates were talking a lot about during the election campaign, and since coming to power Obama, lacking any vision for the future, has simply tried to ram these policies through in lieu of a true agenda. He substitutes policy success for vision, and these are not even policy successes -- what he has accomplished in these areas and wishes to continue to accomplish -- but mere Washington boilerplate being dusted off and presented as "practical solutions" to long-festering problems.

The four horsemen of the bureaucracy we might call them.

It was fashionable to bash Bill Clinton when he was in office for lacking vision (likewise with Bush the father). Ronald Reagan no one could charge with that offense, because his vision was large and clear: downsize government and delegitimize it as the solution to problems the world over.

Bush the father didn't do too badly on the vision thing, in retrospect, but it was Clinton who turned out to be one of the most visionary modern leaders. More than anyone else, he was responsible for globalization, the best thing that ever happened to the world since the end of outright colonialism. In his first year, NAFTA was his (and Al Gore's) biggest passion, and rightly so. Clinton understood markets, mobility, and movement. He was governor of Arkansas, a poor state trying to compete for employers and jobs in a global economy. His head hadn't been messed up with whatever constitutional law professors and young, self-conscious memoir-writers like to have their heads crammed with.

What fundamentally went wrong in the Bush years? We turned inward, and if we do this in the globalized world, we are a lost cause, headed surely for faster decline.

Obama doesn't get that. You would think he would be smart enough to get that given his Ivy League pedigree, but he really doesn't. His is the mildest of reformations of Bush's last two years in office, and that's about the best you can say for him.

What he has done in every policy step of his is to institutionalize varieties of close-mindedness, inwardness, staleness, and obsolescence.

What was the big problem with our health care industry? That it is ossified, that it treats diseases rather than encourages wellness, that it is reactive rather than preventive, that it is predicated on a terrible dependency of the patient toward modern medical science. It encouraged medications, machines, and magic rather than liberating the patient to take charge of his own health.

The problem with the health care industry is that it is an industry; essentially, it needed to be deindustrialized. There could have been many ways to do that in the information age. Instead, what Obama's almost indecipherable patchwork policy does is to institutionalize some of the worst tendencies of the health care industry. It entraps rather than liberating the citizen. It forces you to be part of an already sick industry. It takes the complexity of insurance to another dimension altogether, instead of simplifying it. The simplest of all solutions is to guarantee health care for everyone, no exceptions. Obama's plan is the perverse opposite of this. What incentive is there in his complicated plan to innovate our way toward greater wellness?

So what happened is that Obama, instead of setting a visionary course on healthcare, took the best bureaucratic input from the greatest bureaucratic minds of the era, and solidified them into a plan. Always the plan must please existing industry, and so the pharmaceutical companies and the major health insurers are all pretty much happy with the plan. How can the plan be any good if the sickness industry is so content?

What was the problem with the financial industry? It wasn't that they somehow fooled Americans into buying houses they couldn't afford. It's been fashionable in the progressive blogosphere to bash Wall Street, yet hasn't this act gone too far already? Suspicion of Wall Street always arises in times of cultural and economic stress. Somehow they're trying to pull a fast one over us. Shouldn't we be at the cutting edge of financial innovation in the world? Yet we want to abolish derivatives! We scorn hedge funds, as if we knew the first thing about hedge funds. We make fun of complicated securities because somehow, we believe, they led to the economic collapse. Obama bought into this simplified story. He's basically Wall Street's man, but he's not visionary enough to believe in Wall Street's mission--unlike, say, Clinton--and so he's willing to be led by it, making certain concessions to the populist media as he gives us financial regulation.

What will financial regulation accomplish in terms of preventing another economic crisis? And should that even be the first concern? Can't we even live with the vicissitudes of the economic cycle anymore? Have we become that risk-averse? So what if companies and people and even banks go bankrupt. Let them. If they make errors, the market should punish them. Again the error being made is in institutionalizing obsolescence. Only the gales of creative destruction lead us to the next best thing, and government can never predict what the next best thing is, only private initiative can. This is how far the populist bashing of Wall Street has gone, that one finds oneself nostalgic for honesty about the virtues of the marketplace.

What is the main problem with immigration? It's not that we need border security--meaning more militarized security measures both at the border and inside the country--and it is certainly not that we have too many immigrants. We can never have too many immigrants. Our only advantage, before the Bush years, relative to Europe and Japan, and even China, was our openness to immigration. We have totally compromised that, and in every respect, the utterly retrogressive plan Obama endorses--the 26-page Schumer outline--institutionalizes the worst excesses of the Bush years. That proposal is premised on suspicion of the immigrant. That is no way to succeed in the twenty-first century. Again, one is nostalgic for the phrase "the bridge to the twenty-first century," a favorite of Clinton's.

Climate change and energy present the same problem, and Obama is addressing them with the same lack of vision. The first thing he ought to have done is to question the very premises of the hysteria surrounding global warming. Climate has always changed under human impetus, and it is not something we necessarily ought to prevent. Some of the most racist, primitivist, imperialist, Malthusian fears are embodied in the current international climate change consensus.

Climate change is an industry now, and seeking to become a bigger one--perhaps the biggest in the world--if it can have its way. We completely need to rethink what energy is, what climate is, and what we need to do to ensure a prosperous future for all of humanity. I see absolutely no indication that Obama's mind can grasp hold of such a visionary outlook. He'll mildly follow the climate change industry's establishment consensus--tweak it a bit here and there, probably take away any sting from even the conventional wisdom of that group--and present the outcome as yet another milestone in his great presidency.

Meanwhile, everything important about the changing world goes unaddressed because of his lack of vision.

We are locked in the same self-destructive pattern with regard to terrorism. Obama and his administration let go of no opportunity to institutionalize and solidify the basic philosophical premises of the 'war on terror." On Day One of his administration, he should have rescinded, by executive order, all the violations of civil liberties committed in the name of terror--wiped the slate clean in one package deal, and moved on. But of course he is mortally afraid that something reeking of a terrorist incident might occur on his watch and he will be finished. So what if some act of terrorism does occur? He ought to have acknowledged the possibility from the first moment, admitted that it could happen, and preemptively put it into perspective. Terrorism happens everywhere. We cannot become terrorists ourselves--as we did in the Bush years, and as, for instance, the federal government continues to be with regards to immigrants, giving Arizona its cues--for fear of terrorism.

America needs to regain the enlightenment philosophy that is so rapidly slipping out of its possession. We ought not to worry about manufacturing industries lost due to globalization. Good riddance to them, we're all better off because of it. We ought to aspire to again attract not only the world's best and brightest, but also the bulk of immigrants, the lower-skilled ones, who come with extended families and always form the social backbone of this country in due course of time. We ought not to be afraid of newfangled financial instruments--we invented and perfected them, for heaven's sakes. We ought not to buy into the pessimism--smoothly merging into anti-globalization--of a handful of prestigious climate change popularizers. We ought to rethink the economy so that it rewards youth, inventiveness, and energy, and simplify our economic institutions to support such a vision. We ought to become radically more egalitarian.

We ought to seize the future, accept its risks, and do everything possible to connect ever more closely with the world, acknowledging the growth of China, India, and other economies. I see absolutely no sign of that from Obama. He's beholden to the past. He's bankrupt and empty and dangerous in that sense. Yet he'll blithely go on committing his policy successes, condemning us to the straitened faith that this is all that's possible, in a world following 9/11 and George Bush. It's not true, but unfortunately, progressives are the last people one finds these days willing to be optimistic about the future.

The world is shutting down around us. Horizons are narrowing, plans scaling down. Obama is on the leading edge of this movement. It could well be the onset of a frightening new America. A darker, more realistic, black-and-white America. A horrible, unlovable, demented America yearning for false security. That's what happens when you have absolutely no vision.