Monday, November 3, 2008

President Obama...

In the recent Canadian election, had I been in the country to vote it wouldn't have been an easy decision for me. As a youth I was down-the-line "conservative", but as I approach middle age I've become increasingly frustrated with the anti-intellectual strain that runs through cultural conservatism. What one person sees as an appeal to the values of the patriotic and hardworking man in the street is another person's rabble-rousing populism, retarding rather than advancing informed policy discussion. And the federal Canadian Tories have become master populists. A productivity agenda? If there was one, I'd suspect it was coming from the civil servants in Ottawa, not the Conservative Party. Perhaps if they had a coherent climate change strategy, or, in the alternative, the courage to simply deny the need for any government role in mitigating climate change, I could see them as the party of superior policy. But of course the Tories have been purely reactive on that file and my time on the inside of Flaherty's Finance Department occasionally made me nostaligic for John Manley, someone who, by the way, has been fighting the good fight for North American economic integration instead of just picking fights with other politicians....

The US election, however, is clearer. Make no mistake: I would vote Obama Prom King any day of the week. I like his cerebral style, his graciousness, the inspiration he provides to people of colour. But when it comes to policy, there is limited evidence for the thesis that Obama takes growth friendly policies as his starting point. It seems that he takes a conception of social and/or economic "justice" as his starting point, and then mitigates any damage to economic growth as a second step. This is a recipe for poor policy, in my view. Yes, growth only policy needs adjustment; - gross inquality can result and this can and should be mitigated. But McCain seems more likely to have the steps in the policy process in the right order. Yes, McCain doesn't know much about economics (as Joe Klein of TIME insists on pointing out), but McCain seems more inclined to defer free market economists than Obama. Obama respects expertise, of course, but explain to me how that respect actually means something in the end if, for example, he votes for rent controls as he did while a state senator?

Obama is a genuine expert in constitutional law. I'll grant that. But as someone with a degree in both law and business, I believe that business expertise and/or experience is far more valuable in a politician than legal expertise. Suppose that foreign policy is a more pressing issue than the economy. On that count we've already seen McCain exhibit better judgment on issues ranging from the surge to Georgia. Yes, Obama was right on Iraq, however one has to ask whether Obama's decision wasn't based on his sense of justice as opposed to a prescient appreciation of the subsequent practical problems; i.e. an ideological approach that happened to be proved right as opposed to a savvy pragmatic approach. The man TIME magazine called Obama's top foreign policy advisor, Tony Lake, has claimed that the guilt of Alger Hiss is not settled. Yet John Ehrman notes that "The basic question — whether Alger Hiss was a spy for the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s — was finally settled during the 1990s". The bipartisan Moynihan Commission concluded that "The complicity of Alger Hiss of the State Department seems settled" and Moynihan (D-NY) himself said there is "conclusive evidence of his guilt". Stanley Kutler has observed that "In the end, the publication of the Venona intercepts of wartime Soviet espionage referring to "Ales" settled the matter". Scholar David Oshinsky says that the "vast majority of historians” accept Whittaker Chambers' overall version of events and "[t]o accept the guilt of Alger Hiss is to admit the bitter truth about a small but sinister part of America's "progressive" past". Intelligence expert Thomas Powers notes that "...much additional evidence about Hiss's involvement with the Soviets has turned up since the voluminous and explicit claims by Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley in the 1940s, claims which no serious scholar of the subject any longer dismisses". See also Robert Beisner, Mark Kramer, David Greenberg, Allen Weinstein, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr ("Outside the ranks of Nation readers and a dwindling coterie of academic leftists, there are few people still willing to claim that Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White were not Soviet agents"), Vasili Mitrokhin, Ronald Radosh ("Except for a dwindling group — mostly Nation magazine readers and editors ... the consensus has solidified: Hiss was undoubtedly a Soviet spy"), Sam Tanenhaus, G. Edward White etc. etc. Leftist academic Ellen Schrecker concedes that "There is now too much evidence from too many different sources for anyone but the most die-hard loyalists to argue convincingly for the innocence of Hiss" as does Maurice Isserman ("Let's face it, the debate just ended" (in Isserman's review of Weinstein's Haunted Wood)). Even at the self-described "flagship of the left", Nation contributor Athan Theoharis grants that the "conventional assessment" is that Hiss was "an unreconstructed Soviet spy" and editor Victor Navasky himself allows that he's not with the "consensus historians". If that isn't enough, one could cite the New York Times, the Washington Post, TIME, PBS NOVA ("Venona also helps to settle the case of Alger Hiss") etc. And this is Obama's top foreign policy advisor?

When did the media call attention to the fact this Obama advisor is offside all but the most dogmatically leftist of experts on at least this one issue? In the mean time, you've got the running media narrative that questioning Obama's assocations amounts to dirty campaigning.

A review of this substantive editorial in the Times of India indicates the international enthusiasm for Obama is less than universal. The Wall Street Journal has distinguished itself in its coverage of this election (unlike the vast majority of the media), and one asks oneself why other papers aren't carrying the observations of, to take one example, Nobel Prize winning economist Vernon Smith, who writes, "it is entirely likely that Mr. Obama will succeed in going for higher business, capital gains and income taxes, but it is an economic illusion to think for a minute that this will benefit the poor." Then there's others, like the (incidentally black) economist Thomas Sowell, who suggests that tomorrow's election will provide "all the ingredients for a historic meltdown".

Obama's support for the Farm Bill, and McCain's opposition to that egregious legislation, is probably my single biggest problem with Obama, closely followed by Obama's ties to anti-trade interest groups like unions "("...I owe those unions" - "Audacity of Hope", paperback, p. 142). McCain's is far more emotional than Obama, and that goes to judgement, but that detractor for McCain is somewhat tempered by the fact I see that as a greater inclination to have greater affection for and sympathy for his enemies. Obama's post-partisanship might well be entirely rhetorical.

If the generally accepted narrative about Obama was skeptical, I'd be more comfortable with the idea of President Obama. But it isn't, and I'm not.

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