The first seven months of the Obama administration seemingly make no sense. Why squander public approval by running up astronomical deficits in a time of pre-existing staggering national debt?
— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal. © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Why polarize opponents after promising bipartisan transcendence?
Why create vast new programs when the efficacy of big government is already seen as dubious?
But that is exactly the wrong way to look at these first seven months of Obamist policy-making.
Take increased federal spending and the growing government absorption of GDP. Given the resiliency of the U.S. economy, it would have been easy to ride out the recession. In that case we would still have had to deal with a burgeoning and unsustainable annual federal deficit that would have approached $1 trillion.
Instead, Obama may nearly double that amount of annual indebtedness with more federal stimuli and bailouts, newly envisioned cap-and-trade legislation, and a variety of fresh entitlements. Was that fiscally irresponsible? Yes, of course.
But I think the key was not so much the spending excess or new entitlements. The point instead was the consequence of the resulting deficits, which will require radically new taxation for generations. If on April 15 the federal and state governments, local entities, the Social Security system, and the new health-care programs can claim 70 percent of the income of the top 5 percent of taxpayers, then that is considered a public good — every bit as valuable as funding new programs, and one worth risking insolvency.
Individual compensation is now seen as arbitrary and, by extension, inherently unfair. A high income is now rationalized as having less to do with market-driven needs, acquired skills, a higher level of education, innate intelligence, inheritance, hard work, or accepting risk. Rather income is seen more as luck-driven, cruelly capricious, unfair — even immoral, in that some are rewarded arbitrarily on the basis of race, class, and gender advantages, others for their overweening greed and ambition, and still more for their quasi-criminality.
“Patriotic” federal healers must then step in to “spread the wealth.” Through redistributive tax rates, they can “treat” the illness that the private sector has caused. After all, there is no intrinsic reason why an auto fabricator makes $60 in hourly wages and benefits, while a young investment banker finagles $500.
Or, in the president’s own language, the government must equalize the circumstances of the “waitress” with those of the “lucky.” It is thus a fitting and proper role of the new federal government to rectify imbalances of compensation — at least for those outside the anointed Guardian class. In a 2001 interview Obama in fact outlined the desirable political circumstances that would lead government to enforce equality of results when he elaborated on what he called an “actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change.”
Still, why would intelligent politicians try to ram through, in mere weeks, a thousand pages of health-care gibberish — its details outsourced to far-left elements in the Congress (and their staffers) — that few in the cabinet had ever read or even knew much about?
Once again, I don’t think health care per se was ever really the issue. When pressed, no one in the administration seemed to know whether illegal aliens were covered. Few cared why young people do not divert some of their entertainment expenditures to a modest investment in private catastrophic coverage.
Warnings that Canadians already have their health care rationed, wait in long lines, and are denied timely and critical procedures also did not seem to matter. And no attention was paid to statistics suggesting that, if we exclude homicides and auto accidents, Americans live as long on average as anyone in the industrial world, and have better chances of surviving longer with heart disease and cancer. That the average American did not wish to radically alter his existing plan, and that he understood that the uninsured really did have access to health care, albeit in a wasteful manner at the emergency room, was likewise of no concern.
The issue again was larger, and involved a vast reinterpretation of how America receives health care. Whether more or fewer Americans would get better or worse access and cheaper or more expensive care, or whether the government can or cannot afford such new entitlements, oddly seemed largely secondary to the crux of the debate.
Instead, the notion that the state will assume control, in Canada-like fashion, and level the health-care playing field was the real concern. “They” (the few) will now have the same care as “we” (the many). Whether the result is worse or better for everyone involved is extraneous, since sameness is the overarching principle.
We can discern this same mandated egalitarianism beneath many of the administration’s recent policy initiatives. Obama is not a pragmatist, as he insisted, nor even a liberal, as charged.
Rather, he is a statist. The president believes that a select group of affluent, highly educated technocrats — cosmopolitan, noble-minded, and properly progressive — supported by a phalanx of whiz-kids fresh out of blue-chip universities with little or no experience in the marketplace, can direct our lives far better than we can ourselves. By “better” I do not mean in a fashion that, measured by disinterested criteria, makes us necessarily wealthier, happier, more productive, or freer.
Instead, “better” means “fairer,” or more “equal.” We may “make” different amounts of money, but we will end up with more or less similar net incomes. We may know friendly doctors, be aware of the latest procedures, and have the capital to buy blue-chip health insurance, but no matter. Now we will all alike queue up with our government-issued insurance cards to wait our turn at the ubiquitous corner clinic.
None of this equality-of-results thinking is new.
When radical leaders over the last 2,500 years have sought to enforce equality of results, their prescriptions were usually predictable: redistribution of property; cancellation of debts; incentives to bring out the vote and increase political participation among the poor; stigmatizing of the wealthy, whether through the extreme measure of ostracism or the more mundane forced liturgies; use of the court system to even the playing field by targeting the more prominent citizens; radical growth in government and government employment; the use of state employees as defenders of the egalitarian faith; bread-and-circus entitlements; inflation of the currency and greater national debt to lessen the power of accumulated capital; and radical sloganeering about reactionary enemies of the new state.
The modern versions of much of the above already seem to be guiding the Obama administration — evident each time we hear of another proposal to make it easier to renounce personal debt; federal action to curtail property or water rights; efforts to make voter registration and vote casting easier; radically higher taxes on the top 5 percent; takeover of private business; expansion of the federal government and an increase in government employees; or massive inflationary borrowing. The current class-warfare “them/us” rhetoric was predictable.
Usually such ideologies do not take hold in America, given its tradition of liberty, frontier self-reliance, and emphasis on personal freedom rather than mandated fraternity and egalitarianism. At times, however, the stars line up, when a national catastrophe, like war or depression, coincides with the appearance of an unusually gifted, highly polished, and eloquent populist. But the anointed one must be savvy enough to run first as a centrist in order later to govern as a statist.
Given the September 2008 financial meltdown, the unhappiness over the war, the ongoing recession, and Barack Obama’s postracial claims and singular hope-and-change rhetoric, we found ourselves in just such a situation. For one of the rare times in American history, statism could take hold, and the country could be pushed far to the left.
That goal is the touchstone that explains the seemingly inexplicable — and explains also why, when Obama is losing independents, conservative Democrats, and moderate Republicans, his anxious base nevertheless keeps pushing him to become even more partisan, more left-wing, angrier, and more in a hurry to rush things through. They understand the unpopularity of the agenda and the brief shelf life of the president’s charm. One term may be enough to establish lasting institutional change.
Obama and his supporters at times are quite candid about such a radical spread-the-wealth agenda, voiced best by Rahm Emanuel — “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid” — or more casually by Obama himself — “My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
So we move at breakneck speed in order not to miss this rare opportunity when the radical leadership of the Congress and the White House for a brief moment clinch the reins of power. By the time a shell-shocked public wakes up and realizes that the prescribed chemotherapy is far worse than the existing illness, it should be too late to revive the old-style American patient.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.