Friday, January 8, 2010

Paging Dr. Pyrrhus!

Pyrrhus was king of Epirus, a small kingdom in Greece, when Rome was an aspiring superpower. He was immortalized after a costly victory over the Romans broke the back of his army and forced him to give up his invasion of Italy. Ever after, a victory whose cost ruined the victor was termed a Pyrrhic victory.

In an unusually astute column, Peggy Noonan describes the Pyrrhic victory Obama and the Democrats are in the middle of winning.
What a blunder [health care reform] has been, win or lose, what a miscalculation on the part of the president. The administration misjudged the mood and the moment. Mr. Obama ran, won, was sworn in and began his work under the spirit of 2008—expansive, part dreamy and part hubristic. But as soon as he was inaugurated ,the president ran into the spirit of 2009—more dug in, more anxious, more bottom-line—and didn't notice. At the exact moment the public was announcing it worried about jobs first and debt and deficits second, the administration decided to devote its first year to health care, which no one was talking about. The great recession changed everything, but not right away.
Then Noonan makes what seems to be a frighteningly accurate observation:
I am wondering if the Obama administration thinks it vaguely dishonorable to be popular. If you mention to Obama staffers that they really have to be concerned about the polls, they look at you with a certain . . . not disdain but patience, as if you don't understand the purpose of politics. That purpose, they believe, is to move the governed toward greater justice. Just so, but in democracy you do this by garnering and galvanizing public support. But they think it's weaselly to be well thought of. [...]

The Obama people have taken to pointing out how their guy doesn't govern by the polls. This is all too believable. The Bush people, too, used to bang away about how he didn't govern by the polls. They both added unneeded stress to the past 10 years, and it is understandable if many of us now think, "Oh for a president who'd govern by the polls."
There's a word for people who think this way in politics: ideologues.

It seems obvious that most of the Democrats who voted for this policy (aside from whores like Ben Nelson) are motivated chiefly by ideology, not by political calculations or self-interest. This might seem noble, until one reflects on the fact that a growing majority -- a majority! -- of the country opposes the health care reform bills in the House and Senate. Democrats know that voting for this bill will cost them seats in 2010; possibly it will cost them control of Congress. They don't care. They see government-controlled health care as a good in itself, and they appear to have calculated (correctly, in my opinion) that if they can just get people locked into government-controlled health care schemes that future generations won't be able to undo it.

Cynical, crass politicians are a scourge, but they can be motivated by self-interest. How do you use self-interest to check the policies of someone motivated by ideology? You can't. Martyrs can't be deterred by questions of self-interest.

Maybe health care reform isn't such a blunder for the Dems after all.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"It's all part of the plan."

The words from Heath Ledger's Joker seem to pretty well describe the ongoing effects of the "stimulus" bills: to turn the states into subsidiaries of Federal Government, Inc. and to permanently increase the size of government.

This from the Wall Street Journal:
Remember how $200 billion in federal stimulus cash was supposed to save the states from fiscal calamity? Well, hold on to your paychecks, because a big story of 2010 will be how all that free money has set the states up for an even bigger mess this year and into the future. [...]

First, in most state capitals the stimulus enticed state lawmakers to spend on new programs rather than adjusting to lean times. They added health and welfare benefits and child care programs. Now they have to pay for those additions with their own state's money. [...]

Second, stimulus dollars came with strings attached that are now causing enormous budget headaches. [...]

Worst of all, at the behest of the public employee unions, Congress imposed "maintenance of effort" spending requirements on states. These federal laws prohibit state legislatures from cutting spending on 15 programs, from road building to welfare, if the state took even a dollar of stimulus cash for these purposes.

One provision prohibits states from cutting Medicaid benefits or eligibility below levels in effect on July 1, 2008. That date, not coincidentally, was the peak of the last economic cycle when states were awash in revenue. State spending soared at a nearly 8% annual rate from 2004-2008, far faster than inflation and population growth, and liberals want to keep funding at that level. [...]

It's bad enough that Congress can't balance its own budget, but now it is making it nearly impossible for states to balance theirs. [...]

So when states should be reducing outlays to match a new normal of lower revenue collections, federal stimulus rules mean many states will have little choice but to raise taxes to meet their constitutional balanced budget requirements. Thank you, Nancy Pelosi.
The article notes that a couple governors, such as Indiana's Mitch Daniels, had the common sense -- er, foresight -- to refuse stimulus funds. "One of the smartest decisions we made," said Gov. Daniels about that refusal.

But how long can states like Indiana and Texas (which also refused stimulus funds) hold out against a federal government intent on assimilating them into The Collective?