Thursday, April 30, 2009

Obama's first 100 days

Yesterday was President Obama's 100th day in office. It's a nice milestone, but sort of arbitrary. There were lots of articles about it. DailyKos choose some good pictures.

What's important to note about Obama's first 100 days is that he has put in place lots of pieces of a puzzle. The pieces are changes in policy, laws, new people. The puzzle is the new direction America will be going in, the new foundations of our country. Very few of the pieces are fully formed, and they don't fit together yet. But they will. As we reform health care, our economy will get better, which will increase taxes, which will help us balance the budget. As we reduce pollution, we will reduce health care costs. As the economy gets better, crime goes down, which means health costs, again, go down. Allowing over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill to girls 17 and up will, hopefully, reduce abortion, which will reduce the intensity of the culture wars. Spending more money on public transportation reduces pollution, reduces our dependency on foreign oil, and gives people much cheaper transportation options. Which saves them money, which they can use for more productive uses.

On the foreign policy front, the issues are even more intertwined, sometimes very delicately. Obama went to Turkey. That has implications for our relations with Europe, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Armenia, and Syria. Turkey wants to be part of the EU, but France and Germany object; Turkey shares a border with Iraq, as well as Iran and Syria; Turkey has served as a broker for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; Turkey disagrees with Armenia about the Armenian genocide. So improving our relations with Turkey has positive implications for all of those parts of our foreign policy. The same is true of Iran, which borders Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and is on the verge of developing nuclear weapons.

What makes Obama's agenda great is that the pieces really do fit together. This is in contrast to Reagan. The pieces of the Gipper's ideology did not fit together. He believed in cutting taxes, reducing the size of government, and increasing defense spending. The key difference between Obama and Reagan is that Obama, ironically, is a better capitalist. Obama believes in making society more efficient; Reagan just believed in making money by giving more of it to rich people. There were a couple of key parts of Reagan's agenda that were actually highly inefficient, notably increasing defense spending and increasing the size of the debt. Spending money on defense is inefficient, because most of the money spent doesn't actually do anything. If you spend money on a hospital or a school, you get a return on your investment. If you spend money on a bomber, you don't get an immediate return on your investment, because the bomber doesn't produce anything. Conservatives will argue that the return on your investment from defense spending is the fact of your freedom. We spent billions in WWII, and we got some amazing dividends. We spent trillions of dollars on the Cold War, and the dividend that we got was that we were not annihilated. That's a pretty good dividend. But that kind of infinite return on investment is also a terrible way to judge said investment, because it's infinitely fungible. Which is why there is a huge amount of waste in the Pentagon. Another highly inefficient part of Reagan's agenda was tolerating deficit spending, because that is an inefficient use of capital.

But the most inefficient part of Reagan's agenda, the part that did the most damage, was his conviction that "government is the problem." Reagan restored some of the American people's faith in themselves, with his notion of the "shining city on a hill." But he did the exact opposite with their faith in their government. So problems that could have been solved weren't, and they linger. Talk about inefficiency.

Obama's belief in the ability of government to actually solve problems stands in start contrast to Reagan's cynicism about government. Reagan, ironically, didn't have to worry about his policies delivering on domestic spending delivering a good return on investment, because he didn't think they were going to. As far as he was concerned, government spending on welfare and health care and education were mostly wasteful, so if they didn't deliver a good return, it proved him right. That's one reason he could get away with a less-than-stellar work ethic - he wasn't working to prove that government could work. It was like he had an ideological justification for being lazy. Reagan of course was not the sharpest tool in the shed, even if he wasn't quite as stupid as liberals thot he was at the time. But he laid the ground for the ultimate in intellectually sloppy governance, otherwise known as the George W. Bush administration. There is nothing as inefficient as inept management. Particularly management that is incapable of acknowledging, let alone solving, its own mistakes.

Obama is ideologically committed to working both hard and smart. He has the great advantage of being president in an era when it is actually possible to make government work. He also has the great advantage of following Bush, because all he has to do to make government work better than it did under Bush is to make it work at all. Which means that it will be more efficient. Which creates a virtual circle - as government works better, as the pieces start to fit together, people's faith in their government improves. Which means they will provide it with the resources to work even better.

Not bad for 100 days.

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