Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Chrysler, the Budget, and Bullshit

The Washington Post fact-checks President Obama's speech touting the success of the government bailout of Chrysler:
With some of the economic indicators looking a bit dicey, President Obama traveled to Ohio last week to tout what the administration considers a good-news story: the rescue of the domestic automobile industry. In fact, he also made it the subject of his weekly radio address.
We take no view on whether the administration’s efforts on behalf of the automobile industry were a good or bad thing; that’s a matter for the editorial pages and eventually the historians. But we are interested in the facts the president cited to make his case.
What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.
I don't think the President is a liar, but he is a bullshitter (in the academic sense). His speeches are more often concerned with the response of his audience rather than the truth of what he says or the consequences of the commitments he makes while speaking. Of the bullshitter, Harry Frankfurt writes:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
I am also reminded of the President's  budget speech at George Washington University. As you may recall, the President had initially proposed a budget for 2012---after having failed to pass a budget for 2011 with his party in control of both houses of Congress1---that actually increased the deficit and failed to include any serious entitlement reforms or revenue increases. Later in the spring, Congressman Paul Ryan proposed an alternative budget the would substantially lower the deficit and make serious changes to the Medicare program. In response, President Obama made arrangements to make a major speech on the budget in which, it was supposed, he would offer a new budget proposal in response to the Ryan plan. Instead, the President offered only vague statements about "reducing the cost of health care itself" and cutting "spending in the tax code." He could not bring himself to utter the phrase "raise taxes" let alone write actual legislation to enact his policy priorities.

Whatever the merits of Paul Ryan's budget, he at least put a serious plan on the table to address impending budget crisis. The President and his allies in Congress may complain all they want, but they have yet to offer an alternative. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not even debate budget legislation last year, and it has, so far, refused to do so this year. It even rejected consideration of President Obama's February budget proposal 97-0.

The saddest part of whole budget issue, though, is that President Obama had a chance to be a leader and take serious steps to address the budget problem. After the Republicans put their "no new taxes" budget on the table, President Obama had a chance to offer a real alternative. A budget that balanced the budget with real spending cuts, entitlement reform, and progressive tax increases would have been a political titan. Off the top of my head, legislation that, say, reinstated the Clinton tax rates, gradually raised the Medicare and Social Security eligibility ages, tightened Medicaid eligibility for adults, raised the cap on income subject to payroll and Medicare taxes, and moved discretionary spending back to 2000 (or even 2004 or 2008) levels could put a serious dent in the deficit, extend the life of the major federal entitlements, and put the president and his party on a course to own fiscal issues for the foreseeable future. President Obama could have been the budget balancer, the savior of Medicare and Social Security, and the most successful and important peace-time president since Lyndon Johnson (maybe even Theodore Roosevelt).

Instead, he took the Jimmy Carter path, doing nothing except chastising us for not getting with the program and proving himself inadequate for the challenges of his office.

There is still time for the president to stake out new ground, take the country's fiscal problem's seriously, offer a concrete proposal, and revive his fading star. The primaries don't start until the new year, and the ongoing budget debates mean an ongoing opportunity for the president change course. I hope he does.

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