Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Judts on Political Optimism & Pessimism

Tony Judt, NYU professor of history and his son, 14 year-old Daniel, published this written exchange today in NYT. It hits upon a number of issues, it's well written, and it provides some topics for further consideration.

  1. Political Cynicism. Many folks are down on Obama these days. He isn't providing the leadership we need; he's too conciliatory and not confrontational enough; he's not changed the world sufficiently, etc. Certainly some criticisms are justified, and concerned citizens (well, some anyway) should express their concerns. We need to act and think cautiously in this regard, however, as political cynicism comes easily and cheaply. No, Obama has not brought peace the Middle East, has not gotten us out of Iraq or Afghanistan, and has not stopped the oil from spewing into the Gulf. Has he neither parted the Red Sea nor walked upon water. We must judge him, like all actors on the political (or perhaps any stage) by the choices available to him, and the choices available to him are in large measure a matter of constraints laid upon him. To what extent has he held the political, not the mention the technological, power to control and shape events? I suggest that this is the test for all actors in any arena. Before coming down too hard on Obama, we should think about what options that American people and their Congress have provided him. Did the electorate get behind a better health care reform bill? Is Congress saying they want to address global warming? Are the American people now going to say, "we've got to use less oil. Please tax and price oil so that it reflects the real costs that it imposes on us by supporting corrupt regimes, despoiling our home (the Earth), and skewing our choices about energy"?
  2. Political Choices. We as voters elected Obama. Some now seem unhappy with him. So what choice do you wish you'd made differently? Do you now wish that you'd voted for John McCain? Not me, not by a long shot. I admire Herbert Hoover in some ways, ditto Jimmy Carter, but as political leaders, they weren't the right person for the job when they served. BTW, the implicit comparison for McCain with Hoover and Carter should be taken cautiously, very cautiously. I don't want to besmirch Hoover or Carter unfairly. Do you wish that Hillary Clinton would have received the nomination and been elected? To my mind, that would have been fine, but I don't believe that we'd see a significantly different political environment. On the down side, we'd have a different but probably still virulent cultural and political divide. BTW, Secretary Clinton seems to being doing a fine job as SOS. However, I don't know that her preferred policies would differ significantly from those chosen by Obama. Would you have preferred some other Democrat? They all seem rather small—if not downright toxic—now, and none of them were the best choice at the time, either.
  3. Corporations. I think that we have a big problem with corporations. Simply put, most multinational corporations, or publically traded corporations, have a huge gap between shareholders, management, and stakeholders. Shareholders are out there, distant from the actual corporation. Does a mutual fund that I own hold shares in BP? I could find out, but I don't—what good would it do? Shareholders want return on their investment measured in terms of money, not measured in terms of green fields and blue oceans. I know, we all want a clean environment in the abstract, but how many honestly invest on that basis? Managers have to please shareholders, which are increasingly large entities, by the only reliable measure available to them: money. Other stakeholders, such as workers, neighbors, and the larger world, have precious little say in all of this. This leads me to think that maybe we need to re-think the business corporation. How do we prevent externalization of costs and misevaluation of resources across such a wide variety of interests? James Gustave Speeth, a Yale law professor, raises this concern in one of his books (excellent) on the environment. (I read a library copy; sorry I can't provide the cite.)
  4. Regulation. It does seem that regulation will make a comeback, but we should be careful. The market, imperfect as it is, should be the bedrock of regulation. I know, I know: the misplaced faith of Greenspan, et al. was in the market's ability to regulate. But the market needs help, not junking. Here's where one hopes first-rate legal scholar and social scientist Cass Sunstein will do good work in his job as head of the regulation overview agency in the White House. Some regulation by regulation is in order, but let's do it effectively, and not just by bureaucratic (no malice intended) fiat. See James Surowiecki on financial reform, for instance. I think that this is a great challenge for all governments (I'm talking to you, too, China): how to keep the golden goose of markets and capitalism producing without letting the sorcerer's apprentice get out of control.

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