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Pragmatism Tempered By Vision and Justice

letsgetitdone's picture

In this good post, Jared Bernstein, who is one of the few prominent writers in economics who is often close to being right, asks “How Did Things Get So Screwed Up?” he answers that it's money, ideology, and a rejection of fact-based policy analysis. He thinks that more pragmatism and willingness to accept facts would really help our politics.

But pragmatism is a vague term, and we have to be careful about what we mean by it. Few politicians have been more pragmatic than President Obama in the sense that he is willing to compromise principles to get something done. In being so pragmatic, I think he has damaged his presidency.

He never took the big banks into resolution when they were insolvent; but instead continued the bailouts and left control of lending and credit to the banks to the detriment of small business and people. In not taking them into resolution, he also left the overweening power of Wall Street and the big banks in place, a big mistake having consequences for the rest of his presidency.

In doing this, he also opened the way to those big obscene bonuses based on fictitious profits which the bank traders have enjoyed since 2009, and which so angered the American people. In passing the recovery act, he compromised its size and effectiveness for a few Republican votes, resulting in too small a stimulus, years of continuing high unemployment, and a major threat to his presidency and his re-election chances.

His approach to health care was so "pragmatic" that the ACA became an insurance company bailout whose full benefits can't be demonstrated until 2014, and which became a target leading to Republican control of the House and a near policy stalemate for the past two years. In addition, the bill is far from a solution to the problem of fatalities occurring due to lack of insurance coverage.

His approach to financial regulation has produced two inadequate bills First, the Credit Card Reform Act, which by failing to regulate credit card interest rates still allows CC interest at usurious levels as high as 30%, and this in a time when the cost of money to the banks is close to 0%. And second, the FINREG bill which fails to solve the main problem it was supposed to address, namely the ability of the big banks and their traders to crash the global financial system.

In addition, President Obama has allowed pragmatism to supercede justice in a number of areas. One of these is in the mortgage fraud area, where there have been only very few and trivial prosecutions bringing those who committed fraud to account. And the banks that were at the basis of these control frauds, have been allowed to negotiate very small settlements that are little more than slaps on the wrist when measured against the Trillions of Dollars of fraud they've committed.

A second area is in Government assistance to those harmed by the crash. The President's pragmatism seemed to him to dictate that he bail out the banking system, AIG, and the auto industry. But he evidently didn't feel a pragmatic need to bailout small business, working people, and student loan recipients, to help them cope with the effects of the Great Recession; and the Administration's programs for helping homeowners with mortgage difficulties have been laughable in their negligible impact on the mortgage market.

Another area in which pragmatism has superceded justice has been in national security. Look at the drone program and its results in killing uninvolved civilians. Look at the killings of American citizens without trial. Look at the President's claims that he has the authority to serve as judge, jury, and executioner, when it comes to deciding which American citizens are to be killed because he judges them to be enemy combatants.

I could go on and on with these examples, and none of this should be taken as a reason for voting for Romney rather than the President, or for voting for Jill Stein rather than the President, if you live in a swing state. But the point I am making is that when pragmatism supercedes justice, or when it is used to pass legislation that fails to solve problems so that politicians can then point to "accomplishments" which actually accomplish very little, then I think it is the wrong kind of pragmatism, a pragmatism we don't need and should avoid.

"Always look forward, never look backward" wasn't the right way to go, because not investigating prosecuting, and punishing crimes creates a double standard of law and poisons the future. Until we can serve the needs of justice arising out of the Great Financial Crash, the Housing crisis and the decade following 9/11, we won't be America again. We'll only be a failing democracy, and an emerging plutocracy and a sad, shadow of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave!

So, to right things, I think we need more than fact-based pragmatism, Jared. We need pragmatism tempered by vision and justice. It is this kind of pragmatism, the pragmatism of Dewey, FDR, Harry Truman, and Jack Kennedy, which is absent from American politics today!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

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mtngun's picture
Submitted by mtngun on

To me, pragmatism in politics means making last minute compromises to get a good bill passed.

It does not mean capitulating from day one.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

problems with "pragmatism" is that it means so many different things to different people. It's really just an honorific or an epithet!

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

there are absolutely no yard signs for candidates this year here in southern California, and I can count the number of bumper stickers I've seen on one hand.

Compare that with 2008, when there were big groups of people on busy street corners with O signs, bumper stickers and yard signs everywhere. I don't know if that's happening in the rest of the country. But the lack of enthusiasm and interest here is overwhelming.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

Mr. Alexa traveled through several states this past week. Here were his "unscientific" observations, regarding political or campaign "signage":

Romney's signs (including billboards and the usual size campaign signs) outnumbered Obama's between 10-15 to 1. Here's where he traveled:

DuPage County IL (outside of Chicago): Saw about 10 Obama signs amid a "sea of Romney signs."

Vandervoort, OH: Asked a customer in a mini-market who did he think Ohio "would go for, Obama or Romney?" Answer: "Didn't know anyone in the county who would vote for Obama." [His observation is that this was a pretty rural area.]

Signs here--10-15 to 1 for Romney.

Traveling up from I-4O, Raleigh, NC to "between Roanoke and Newport Beach, VA": Romney signs "swamped" Obama's. He thinks that there's a heavy military population in that area, so maybe this is no surprise.

Now, in our Mid-South or Mid-Atlantic (inland) state, there are not many shows of support for either candidate. With a population of approximately 15,000 university students in our college town of just under 31,000 in the "city proper" not counting the student population, of course, we've seen "4" Obama car stickers, 2 "Obama" yard signs, 9 Romney car stickers, and about 15 Romney yard signs. (Obviously, there are surely others, but it is a "rarity" to spot one, this year.)

IOW, there is no comparison between this year and 2008. At the university during the primary season, saw countless numbers of "Ron Paul" car stickers.

I really can't believe that Obama's turnout among college students (this state went to McCain in 2008, so it may not be the best example, in all fairness) will be anywhere near what it was in 2008. Certainly, even here, there were many more Obama stickers.

Just my "two cents." ;)

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Sounds like it's very well-taken.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Pragmatism that betrays Democratic values is not a good way to get Party rank and file to do yard signs.

Submitted by Hugh on

You are being way too easy on Bernstein. He's just another Establishment liberal and Democratic tribalist. As Krugman so often does, he's pointing his finger at that those crazy old Republicans while letting Obama off with a "solid, if not inspiring, record".

He only mentions pragmatism twice. The first time "pragmatic compromise" is an allusion to Obama. The second "Our politics has lost the pragmatism that no less than de Tocqueville recognized as being integral to our progress; it has been replaced by an ideology that is impenetrable to facts" uses an appeal to authority to sanctify pragmatism, i.e. the Obama approach.

He ends "We have a but a few days left to wake up [from Republican propaganda]. I hope this missive serves as an alarm clock." Of course, this is not an alarm to send you out to vote for Jill Stein, but Obama. Probably the best way to view these posts is as part of the ongoing push by the career progressives into scaring us into voting for their lesser, but more effective, evil candidate.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

characterized him correctly, Hugh. But that wasn't my purpose in the post. Instead it was to say that much more than pragmatism is what we need.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

particularly strike me as "very left," at all. He goes along with the "fiscal crisis" hype. He may sound a "little kinder and gentler," but only marginally so, IMO. [Which is not to say that he's not much more affable than some "experts", and I'd be the first to agree that he's not "as scary" as some of the Hoover Institute or AEI economists. LOL!] But unfortunately, that's not saying much.

Bottom line, if he's what we've got standing between us and austerity measures--we're cooked. ;)

Bernstein complains in the his piece that Romney would "cut education spending." I say, "who cares, since it's only being spent to destroy our public education system?" [I am referring to monies spent on voucher programs, charter schools and privatization. Not early childhood education in public schools, etc.] And I don't really mean to sound contentious, but I am disturbed at the "billions of dollars" that are being misdirected by this Administration to "private corporations," that manage public-funded schools.. I don't want to see Obama, or anyone else, keep this up.

And as far his "20% across the board cut." Am I the only one who considers this to be Kabuki Theater? After all, he and Obama have both voiced their support of Bowles-Simpson, and here's what it would do regarding "tax reform":

From "The Moment of Truth":

Excerpt from B-S:

2.1.1 Cut rates across the board, and reduce the top rate to between 23 and 29 percent. Real tax reform must dedicate a portion of the savings from cutting tax expenditures to lowering individual rates. The top rate must not exceed 29%.

When I hear the two so-called tax proposals that the two uniparty candidates "say" that want on the campaign trail, I am struck by the fact that if you looked at what the "half-way point" would be, it would be the tax rate(s) recommended by Bowles-Simpson. Right?

IOW, Obama says that the upper bracket should be taxed at the Clinton Rate of 39.6%. Romney claims that he wants an across-the-board 20% cut. (Which he must surely be applying to the highest marginal tax rate, since the lowest, is lower than 20%.)

As I see it, it perfectly positions the two parties to find a bi-partisan "compromise" at exactly the prescribed rate of the last of the Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission's recommended marginal tax rates: 28%, 28%, 22% and 12%.

Here's an excerpt from B-S, with the "tax reform" recommended tax brackets:

Figure 6: Tax Rates Under Various Scenarios Bottom Rate Middle Rate Top Rate

Corporate Rate--35%, 35%, 26%, 26%, 28%
Current Rates for 2010 10% 15% 25% 28% 33% 35% 35%
Scheduled Rates for 2011 15% 28% 31% 36% 39.6% 35%
Eliminate all Tax Expenditures*--8% 14% 23% 26%
Keep Child Tax Credit +EITC*--9% 15% 24% 26%
Enact Illustrative Tax Plan
(Below)*--12% 22% 28% 28%

*Dedicates $80 billion to deficit reduction in 2015 and taxes capital gains and dividends as ordinary income.

This just all seems "too convenient." It seems to me that this must be political posturing. (That all the Washington "elites" go along with.)

Or does this sound like "grassy knoll" thinking?

But, I am in agreement with most of your excellent points, lets. Thanks for the post.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

He's just what passes for it in the media. Leftier than K, or DeLong, or Reich, more devoted to deficit spending. On the other hand, he works for CBPP, a deficit dove place which just released this report advocating cuts of $2 T over 10 years. So we have the Rs and $6 - 7 T; CBPP and the doves at $2 T and Obama at $4 T. So, O's in the center, and little bit right. Talk about positioning.

Also, nice analysis in your comments.

Submitted by chadwick newsome on

He didn't have to compromise principles, as he had no progressive principles to begin with. His policies and practices have been consistently conservative at least since he walked into the White House. If you look closely at his earlier life, you can see, hear and smell conservatism. It doesn't seem to bother him in the least to make high minded, liberal-ish sounds with his mouth. So I don't think his self-promotional rhetoric constitutes a betrayal of principle. That stuff is just a tactic he used to get power.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

I think that's probably true. But the point is that the ideology of pragmatism is what O did to justify what he was doing and to gain support for it. He still uses it now. My reply is to say that pragmatism must be tempered by vision and justice.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

worked (or works) for Vice President Biden, and that one of Biden's proposed deficit-cutting "deals" was for about 2 Trillion, instead of the 4 Trillion Obama wants for a "Grand Bargain."

Just "Googled" and saw that he is a "critic of NAFTA." Maybe I should appreciate Bernstein a bit more, after all. :)