Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reading Tea Leaves: Predicting Obama's Moves As President

Okay, I'm guilty: I've been looking at the news for indications of what to expect in January. And I've discovered something. There's no telling what we'll get in January.

Aim High
The Second Amendment crowd has been in the news snapping up firearms in the wake of the election that strengthened Democrat control of Congress and placed its legislation in a place of relative safety from Presidential veto. Are they justifiably afraid? Back in February, before the Supreme Court clarified the issue, Obama as the democratic nominee said at a Milwaukee event: "I believe the Second Amendment means something. I do think it speaks to an individual right." The idea that Obama has taken the view of the Second Amendment as creating an individually-enforceable right even before that view was declared to be the clear law of the land is something I doubt came through NRA advertisements about the impact of the election on gun control. Democrats have long worked to create window-dressing legislation to restrict transactions involving firearms, even in the absence of evidence that such laws had any effect at all on anyone except law-abiding collectors and sportsmen. The ban on so-called "assault weapons" (a definition unknown to the world of firearms until Congress created it, entertainingly including weapons with plastic stocks but not necessarily weapons with wooden stocks, for example) was an old favorite of the NRA: it made no sense and helped prevent no identifiable evil, but offended gun collectors. If this article is right, it'll be coming back, with Obama's support. The right to bear arms might mean something to Obama, but apparently not what the NRA thinks it means. The Second Amendment folks worried about Obama's calls while in the Illinois legislature for federal taxation increases of 500% on firearms and ammunition haven't led him to introduce any related bills while actually in the federal legislature. Although Obama mentioned gun control in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination, he didn't confess any particular policy objectives and could easily have thrown that in to mollify those wanting all the party planks polished rather than because it's particularly important for him to address.

My question: if you plan employing Americans in a venture that involves boating into pirate-infested waters, or territory perilously near drug runners, is there some reason Congress doesn't want you to have high-powered automatic weapons with which to repel would-be attackers on the high seas? Granted, this isn't the general case. But it is a case I've had to deal with recently, and it was entertaining to learn that the accepted solution was to buy a weapon on the black market in the vicinity of the work area. Buying one in the U.S., paying taxes on it, and lawfully exporting it seems too fraught with red tape to bother with. European manufacturers will be getting this security business.

The good news? "With the U.S. economy in a tailspin, however, the president-elect's advisers say gun legislation is not a high priority." Well, thank goodness for that!

Order Up
One quick thing to do is to obsolete offensive Executive Orders.

Abortion: Under Reagan, a "Mexico City" abortion policy was attacked through an executive order prohibiting funding organizations that perform or promote abortion overseas. The order was dropped under Clinton and re-instated under Bush. I want to hail pro-choice movement, but I hesitate to cheer a move like the one Obama is believed to support. My question is this: given our tight economic situation, and ignoring the question of whether abortions are or are not appropriate for any particular case, why would we use federal dollars to help send people abroad for medical interventions available virtually everywhere in the United States?

Birth Control: Another executive order brings crazy funding into sharper focus. An executive order bans federal funding to organizations like the U.N. Population Fund that operate in countries that practice forced sterilization. Exactly why does the United States need to solve foreign public health problems when we have a desperate need for public health programs in this country? Forced sterilizations are vile, period. Sure. But why do we need to single them out for special treatment, and to fund some alternative? Unless it's a national security issue to promote stability, and therefore a justifiable part of the budget of the Department of Defense, why on Earth would be be involved in other nations' family planning programs? We need some education and immunization right here, and we could fund it better if the local money for these interventions weren't taxed away to the federal level then exported to some distant land and squandered where it will create no U.S. jobs and improve the quality of life of no U.S. families. Oh, I get it: visiting Africa is nicer for U.S. tourists if we control overpopulation there. Hello? Operator? I have found a brain, is someone missing theirs? I think there's a serious opportunity here to start looking at U.S. involvement in foreign charity conducted by federal officials using funds taxed from Americans by force. (To the bleeding hearts who disagree taxes are taken by force: try not paying it and see how long you can go without experiencing force. Hint: if you resort to lying about your income to avoid detection when you neglect to pay the taxes, that is cheating.)

Gitmo: Oddly, Obama sounds remarkably like Bush on Gitmo's on-base prison. He'd like to close it down, but he wonders what to do with its residents. He's going to have to spend a while reviewing their cases, and might set up some kind of tribunal that hopefully passes Constitutional muster. Ahem. Did I miss something here?

Oil: Drilling agreements in federal lands in Utah and other places beloved by environmentalists could be halted by the same kind of executive action that set exploration into motion. Well, assuming there's not already an enforceable contract, in which case you buy a lawsuit as you do it.

Stem Cells: An executive order barring use of federal funds for creating new stem cell lines from human embryos was entered by Bush43 out of pro-life concerns that each new attempt would end a human life. (At least, for some people's definition of human life; many reasonable people have not decided that a frozen embryo whose owners don't plan to use it, and won't be paying for its maintenance, and which might as easily be lawfully disposed of as medical waste and destroyed without contributing to a scientific study, is "human life".) Due to the creeping federalization of everything under the sun, it turns it that developing new medical therapies that can be sold for profit, and conducting research into treatments for human health conditions for which insurers and benefit plans routinely provide payment, are activities that are overwhelmingly intertwined with federal funding. This is so obviously an arena for health-related venture capital enterprises and state and private universities that take a share in the intellectual property created with university funding, that I cannot conceive of a reason the United States should risk federal funds without even a scintilla of a hope that the resulting findings will produce a return for the taxpayers whose money funds the elevation of the academic careers based on the research. The offensiveness of the executive order's impact on stem cell research was so great that California created its own multibillion dollar research program. This seems to undermine the very thesis that federal funding is required at all. Federal conditions of funding are obviously a political football -- in research as in education -- and should not be part of the American research landscape outside the limited scope of bona fide national security projects.

Real Change and Justice
One thing that can happen for the better is the appointment of an Attorney General who will restore to the Justice Department the nonpartisan ethic it once was felt to have. Ideally, an officer who believes in what the Constitution says and will stand up for those beliefs, even when under pressure by allies to do expedient things instead of good things. There's a serious opportunity to clean house in the Justice Department, and I for one hope this goes off like clockwork.

One thing to keep in mind is that the United States is an enormous employer, full of numerous bureaucrats that can't be fired at will (due to due process issues that don't face private employers in many parts of the country). A revolution at the federal level may involve long lag times between the initial acts of reform and the ultimate changes seen by people encountering the "new" government. The Justice Department, for example, will be run through with political recruits ideologically opposed to some of the changes that may be proposed. The INS, IRS, SEC, NSA, FBI, and numerous other agencies involved in surveilling Americans and their foreign dealings, and enforcing various interpretations of the rules governing the complex relationships people have in their business lives ... all these will have inertia and it could take a while for change to manifest even if initial efforts are swift.

The best case for quick change is high-profile change that makes clear not only to government agents but to the public that interacts with them what the new order of business is, so that nobody gets away with Old Business approaches once a new standard has been set. Unfortunately, the media won't be covering the details that will make the changes work. We run a risk that those implementing federal programs will either not be with the new program, or will be stuck with old rules that run contrary to the new program while waiting for legislative interventions that have not yet been devised.

Show Me The Money
With respect to the economy, there's some good news: the problem is so high-profile that it will get quick attention, and will be widely covered. Everyone will know what changes are afoot. Movement could be fast. However, as Buffett indicated, even doing everything right could leave considerable lag time -- many months -- while the effect of interventions ripple through the economic system.

Let's hope those initial steps are in the right direction, eh?

During the campaign, all the candidates said what they thought would get them into office. This isn't unlike Supreme Court nominees trying to give the right answers before being confirmed, after which they are free to do whatever pleases them until they hear their last case. If you give the right story, you eventually get a position from which you can pretty much do as you please and can't be removed until the timer rings. We therefore can't know what officials will do once in power.

However, we have a pretty good idea (a) what each party argues for, and (b) what the specific players have advocated. Still, this makes for a bad set of tea leaves: once in, they're free.

Also, to the extent Congress must create new positions, authority, or funding to make a solution work, the President needs to get a consensus from folks who may want quite different things. There will be quite a bit of salesmanship and arm-twisting. What we get on the other end of the sausage machine is hard to guess.

The really good news is that, unlike other countries that have sporadic revolutions, nobody was killed in ours. Even if this goes into the toilet, we will be in a position to start replacing officials in a mere two years. The Republican Party, whose high-profile and wholesale betrayal of its small-government and pro-individual rhetoric caused it to be driven from office in a major rout, will be hard at work trying to find something relevant to offer Americans, and the fallout should include some improvement in the public examination of our fiscal policy.

It's too much to hope Americans stay serious about their concerns over government -- already, they don't care how the Congress votes on issues -- but perhaps we can drive attention toward major economic issues and keep them in the spotlight long enough to make sure they don't become political casualties.

No comments: