Monday, January 26, 2009

I Like This Duke

As I've mentioned before, the book Dune shaped much of my adult thinking. In Dune, Liet Kynes meets the Duke Leto Atredies to give him a tour of Arakis, the planet the emperor has given to Duke Leto. Kynes is a servant of the emperor as well as imperial planetologist-- think head of the EPA on a galactic level. Kynes is also a member of the Arakeen native population, and Duke Leto has come to the planet to mine it for spice, an obscenely valuable commodity. So Kynes has good reason to hate Duke Leto. Leto is consuming resources from Kynes' home planet, undermining Kyne's task of protecting and understanded the planet. Leto is an external force that could disrupt the planet's entire ecosystem and destroy Liet Kynes' people.

Yet the second time Kynes meets the Duke Leto Atredies, Kynes changes his opinion on the duke. The two go out to survey a spice mining operation. Something goes wrong with the harvester which has almost a full load of spice. The load was worth rough one million times a worker's lifetime wage. Yet rather than worry about the spice, Leto goes through extraordinary means to save every last person working in the harvester. He shrugged off the value of the spice without a second thought, arguing that they could always get more later. In the words of Liet Kynes,

"This Duke is more concerned over his men than the spice! I must admit, against all better judgement, I like this Duke."

My interest in politics stems from the fascinating drama of the story. And politically, I'm very jaded. I believe that almost invariably, politicians act in their own best interests. They only helping the populous out of self-motivation. For example, senators get additional funds for their state so that they will be re-elected, and they try to get elected so they can acquire "campaign contributions" (essentially bribes) in return for passing laws that favor wealthy organizations. Politicians do both good and bad things with their power, but nothing is motivated out of selflessness. Even their good deeds have selfish motivations. So when politicians promise change and a renewed pledge to defeat corruption, I don't think anything of it.

I find myself in a similar position to Liet Kynes as I watch President Barack Obama. I'm not expecting a miracle from the man, and his promises of hope and change strike me as typical campaign messages from younger politicians. As a politician, Barack Obama is untrustworthy until proven otherwise, and even then he's still suspect. But against all my better judgment, I like this President. The feeling is extremely disturbing.

As I have very different expectations for President Barack Obama as other people have, I suspect I like him for very different reasons. I think a lot of people like Obama simply because he's not George Bush. Certainly many people like Obama because he's not white. Obama is empirical proof that minorities can earn just as much success as white people. He is also a symbol of a new generation, being the youngest president America has had in decades.

Symbols inspire, and living symbols have high expectations. But I'm unmoved by Barack Obama, the symbol. Rather, I am inspired by Barack Obama, the man. In many of the decisions he's made so far, I feel like he is paying well more than lip service to his promises. For example, his secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is a professor with a Nobel Prize in Physics. Who was the last secretary of energy that even had a PhD? I know the standard decision is to choose a board member of an oil company like Exxon and have them recommend policies that involve deregulating polution control and not investing in alternative energy. But actually chosing someone who is respected by the entire science community as a top member of his field? That's totally unheard of, and well beyond my low expectations of who would be selected for a political position.

Similarly, Obama's adamant stance on closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center is beyond the standard political posturing statements. Normally politicians will decry how human rights are being violated, but they won't actually do anything about it, or they risk losing votes from people who think that they can secure safety for the nation by torturing potential enemies. Obama seems very intent on doing something about the situation even if people disagree with him.

I believe George Bush initiated the two wars with Afghanistan-based terrorists and the country of Iraq out of vengeance. As a man, Bush views loyalty as something to be rewarded and dissent as something to be punished, and this is the extent of his motivations. Even though Bush claims he always "does what he feels is right", his definition of whether someone is right or wrong seems eerily correlated with whether or not they agree with his opinions. It's a bit of circular logic which always concludes, "I'm going to do what I'm want no matter what." The true test of whether you do what is right is how often you do things you don't want to do.

In contrast, Obama is very pragmatic man. He wants peace in Iraq because destabilizing the middle east makes life worse for America, not better. He wants to continue the fight in Afghanistan because the terrorists intend to strike America again. And he wants the US government to stop torturing prisoners for two main reasons. First, it makes many other nations hate America. And second, torture simply does not work. Studies have shown time and again that information extracted from torture is highly unreliable. Torture has no use as a tool of interrogation. It is only a tool of revenge, which is why it was used in the Bush administration and why Obama wants nothing to do with it.

I still think Obama is a politician, and his objective is to get reelected. But his apparent plan for reelection is to do as much good for America as possible, picking the most practical and pragmatic solutions rather than the solutions with the best image. If he wants to make America a better place for selfish reasons, that's fine by me. I hate to say it, but I like this president.

5 comments:

Jonathon said...

Also while he hasn't really acted on it yet (so I don't believe him fully) his stances on Net Neutrality have me rather optimistic. I really think the US is going to face a lot of internet related legal issues in the next few years so it'll be nice to have a president that supports net neutrality (if he sticks to it)

I like this article though, it pretty much sums up my exact thoughts about the man as well and all politicians for that matter. I think in choosing whom to elect you really just have to figure out what each politician stands to gain for doing certain things. Vote for the one who stands to gain the most by doing things that have a mutual benefit to issues you care about. That's really the best you can do.

Peterm@flexbudget.com said...

Well now we are few weeks in, and though the Duke does care for his people, I think his economic tactics aren't proving out too well. Leaving the House of Representatives to craft the bill was a major mistake. The reason? It seems that most of the job creation incentives are driven to the public sector (schools, government, unemployment, community) and little to the private sector (infrastructure, roads, bridges etc.). The problem with this strategy is that the public sector funds come from taxation (property, sales, income, FICA, etc.), which are predominantly paid by the private sector; main street America. Putting such a largess into the public sector is backwards. You drive money to the public sector by increasing the private sector, not the other way around. More than that, it seems less than 45% of the current bill's monies are for distribution this year- not very helpful when we are moving into the depths of the crisis.

Don't get me wrong; helping fund needed elements in the public sector can be worthy; they just should not be including in the stimulus package.

It appears that a lot of the earmarks, particularly in the House version of the bill, are paybacks to traditional Democratic Party strongholds, not to the broad base of the private sector this country really needs.

I think the president is smarter than this; it is a shame he didn't build the package first and then send it to Congress...

Ted Vessenes said...

It's a bit premature to say that Obama's economics tactics "aren't proving out too well", seeing as no bill has even been passed yet, and we don't know what the actual results will be. At this point everyone is debating theoretical outcomes, at best comparing and contrasting with past economic crises.

The more precise statement is, "I think his economic tactics will not prove out very well."

You have a good point about how sector matters in job creation, but I don't think it's as simple as public versus private. The real question is whether the work provides a lasting benefit to the population.

For example, Japan went through a terrible recession in the 1990s. It's actually referred to as "The Lost Decade" because it took 10 years for Japan to get back on its feet. The Japanese government spent billions on all kinds of public works projects, such as roads, parks, bridges, harbors, schools, and museums. The result today is that Japan has some large road networks and harbors that simply aren't being used. But they have had excellent returns from investments in public schooling.

Overall, the Japanese recovery plan is now considered a failure. It's not enough to pay workers to dig holes and then fill them. The digging and filling need to provide something of lasting value to society, which not all roads and bridges do (or schools for that matter). It's not as simple as "Tax cuts bad, spending good" like most Democrats say, or "Tax cuts good, spending bad" like the Republicans claim. What you cut and where you spend matters a lot.

Now contrast this with the Swedish economic crisis. Like Japan, Sweden had its crisis start in 1990. But rather than taking 10 years to turn around the economy, Sweden did it in 3. The Swedish plan was primarily based around bureaucratic reform and reduced overall government spending, as it was a heavily socialist country at the time with public benefits that their declining GDP simply could not cover. Economists consider the Swedish plan a huge success, and it had nothing to do with creating a huge road infrastructure.

My opinion is that even massive economic plans have a low impact on the economy at large, but not no impact. So spending a lot of time hashing over the details won't result in a plan that's particularly better than what you started with. Just trying something that sounds reasonable is better than waiting a few months arguing.

That said, my ideal economic stimulus plan involves more budget cuts than tax cuts or public works projects. Obama's determination to get the deployed army out of Iraq is the single greatest thing he can do to help the economy, as a deployed army is a tremendous financial burden on the country. Paying Americans to maintain peace in Iraq is about as valuable as a Bridge to Nowhere.

On the subject of how Obama has handled the bill, I'm in agreement that he made a mistake by having congress determine the details. I believe Obama puts great stock on political capital, and he wanted to use this opportunity to build more capital, not spend it. Obama didn't want to repeat Clinton's mistake of spending a lot of political capital early in his term. But I believe an economic stimulus package is exactly the kind of thing you spend political capital on, and these past few days, it seems like Obama has come to realize that too.

peterm@flexbudget.com said...

The economic tactic I was referring to was allowing the House of Representatives to build a stimulus package, rather than starting with clear statements about what the president wanted in the recovery package. I don't know if his economic tactics will prove out or not, as he has not received a package yet. I agree in the two principles he has stated: job creation in the private sector and tax relief for both small business and individuals.

Comparing Japan is not an apples to apple circumstance. Japan was and still is ruled by the Karitsu, 5 major corporations that control all business suppliers to their global trade. Their system was little more than a feudal society run by the captains of business.

The government and the banking industry was also in on the collapse through the use of 0% loans to businesses in Japan to fuel exports. Japan was consumed by a combination of running like the mafia, a banking industry that was subsiding exports while losing money, a government that was complicit in the activities, and cultural challenges that could not rise up against the ruling class. Japan's recovery has be estimated to take 20 to 25 years for these reasons.

I completely agree with your comments on the Swedish recovery. As I previously stated, public sector money comes from taxes driven by private sector activity. Decreasing the size of bureaucracy is also a great objective; the problem is that neither party has focused on that as an activity of legislation or regulation. This is true despite Republicans blatting on about it while increasing federal programs over the past 8 years.

Jobs from infrastructure funded by the recovery program do create private sector work. Money for research and development, energy alternatives, and other programs in the bill also build jobs in the private sector, but not quickly.

There are a limited number of things governments can do to create jobs quickly in the private sector. Infrastructure is the quickest.

I think most needed is consumer confidence, as without it, people will hoard money, even if there is more of it.

The Senate is voting today. They will take it joint committee tomorrow. Let's see what bill actually looks like next week...

Anonymous said...

In hindsight it must be rather depressing to reread this post. So many disappointments; sadly, Obama is no Leto. :(