Monday, March 30, 2009

That Civilian Security Force, Again?

A while ago, I commented briefly and with alarm on this bizarre clip in which BHO, speaking through a drizzle of applause, calls for a civilian security force, "just as powerful" and just as expensive as our combined military establishment.

Just consider how well-funded our military is. Here is America's military budget compared to the rest of the top ten best-funded military establishments on earth (click to enlarge):

And the other day, he seemed to be bringing it up again, in a speech at the National Defense University:
And that’s why my administration is committed to renewing diplomacy as a tool of American power, and to developing our civilian nationanl security capabilities… … We have to enlist our civilians in the same way that we enlist those members of the armed services in understanding this broad mission that we have.
What the heck is he talking about? I can't seem to come up with an interpretation of this that isn't horrible. Here is one right-wing radio commentator wondering about it:

I think he makes a good point: you'd think our so-called journalists would at least ask for an explanation, but they don't seem to be doing that. (By the way, people like him would have a lot less influence if mainstream journalists just did their job.)

Can anybody help me with this? Just what is BHO planning on doing, and why?

Later: I think I might have an answer to my question, at least the "what" if not the "why"? Here is a quote from the Obama/Biden campaign literature:
Obama and Biden will set a goal that all middle and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year, and will establish a new tax credit that is worth $4,000 a year in exchange for 100 hours of public service a year.
But why would this be called a "civillian security force," or anything like that? The answer is suggested by another quote, this one from Rahm Emanuel's book, The Plan: Big Ideas for America (BTW, right now, I can't think of a scarier book title, except of course for Mein Kampf):
Here’s how it would work. Young people will know that between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service. They’ll be asked to report for three months of basic civil defense training in their state or community, where they will learn what to do in the event of biochemical, nuclear or conventional attack; how to assist others in an evacuation; how to respond when a levee breaks or we’re hit by a natural disaster. These young people will be available to address their communities’ most pressing needs.
(Source of these quotes.) So perhaps the idea is to force young people, without pay, to get in harm's way in the event of various sorts of "attack." I suppose the government might come to find this idea particularly attractive in the event that they come to expect violent demonstrations, tax revolts, food riots, and civil unrest here in the US during the next few years.

I think this is a really frightening idea, if this is what the idea really is. I'll try to blog about the ethics of this sort of involuntary servitude soon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The New Relevance of Atlas Shrugged

Copies of Atlas Shrugged are flying off the shelves. In January its average sales were three times those of a year earlier, and the 52-year-old novel was outselling Obama's latest autobiography. As you can see in this graph, spikes in sales of the book coincide with specific events in the news.

I've been rereading it myself, and keeping a mental list of the points of similarity between the novel and our world, which I'm writing out here. (As more similarities pop up in the news, I will return to add them to the list.)
  • Most obviously, government power is growing enormously, while the economic situation grows worse.
  • The government is extracting wealth at an accelerating rate, allegedly because it is good for the economy "as a whole," though the biggest beneficiaries seem to be well-placed economic insiders (represented in the novel by the officers of Taggart Transcontinental and Associated Steel).
  • Ailing companies deemed too big to fail are propped up at the expense of healthier enterprises.
  • Business people who don't knuckle under to the government's plans are intimidated (apparently) with extortionate threats.
  • After a century of relative security, pirates once again roam the high seas at will.
  • Congress passes what in effect are bills of attainder, punishing specific individuals for actions that aren't crimes when done by others (in the book: the Colorado business community for being unfairly prosperous, in our world: the execs at AIG who kept their retention bonuses after the feds had bailed the company out).
  • In the book, the feds wreck the resurgent economy of Colorado by declaring a moratorium on the corporate bonds that Colorado business people bought in order to loan money to a troubled railroad. In our world, the president advocated violating in a similar way the rights of bondholders who loaned money to a troubled auto manufacturer.
  • In the novel, the Community National Bank of Madison makes loans on the basis of need with relatively little concern for ability to pay. When it fails, it takes down the people it was trying to help (pp. 281-2). Similar things happened in our world, except that the problem was nation-wide.
  • I also see, in our world, a little bit of the panic that sets in at the end of the novel, as government officials become alarmed about business people leaving their posts. Those AIG bonuses were retention packages, not rewards for past performance. They were given because officers were concerned that these people would leave the company -- and that no doubt is why Geithner approved them. It was a rather desperate measure, it now seems. (Added later: After I wrote this paragraph, this was published. Many in the blogosphere have commented on the obvious similarity to events in Atlas.)
  • Timothy Geithner, come to think of it, bears a disturbing resemblance to Wesley Mouch, the nebbishy character who eventually becomes economic dictator in the novel. Like Mouch, Geithner is callng for "wider powers" to deal with the economy. To me, he even looks like him.
Of course, there are some huge differences between the situation in the novel and the current one in our world. Our collapse, in my humble opinion, was the result of a previous artificial boom based on credit expansion (which was triggered, indeed deliberately supported, by the government - which now continues to force debt on us when we are already buried under it). In the bust that follows such a boom, many business decisions that were made under the misleading conditions of the boom are now revealed to have been mistakes (AIG's overindulgence in credit default swaps, eg.). Some of the schemes exposed by the bust were downright ciminal (obvious example: Madoff). For this reason, the private sector looks more responsible for the collapse than was the case in the novel, making the government's power-grab look more legitimate.

Clearly, the greatest relevance to events today is in terms of fundamental principles and concepts. Government is viewed as a giant extraction device, in which wealth is taken from those who produce it and given to those who do not. Since the system rests on the backs of people it is sacrificing, it can only exist as long as its victims support it. Perhaps, one fine day, they will have had enough.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

My Brush with "Universal" Health Care

A number of people have wondered why Natasha Richardson died of an injury (a slow epidural hemorrhage ) that is relatively easy to treat if caught in time.

I am struck by several other curious facts. It took 2 1/2 hours to drive the stricken actress to the nearest trauma center, in Montreal. Drive? What happened to the medical helicopters I so often see flying overhead here in Oregon, WI? And why did they have to go to a city of several million inhabitants to find a trauma center? I also notice that as part of her treatment she was then flown to New York City. (Hat-tip to Bill Anderson and David Kramer for these facts.) Why did part of her care involve being hustled out of the country in a coma?

Let me tell you another story, from my own experience. It happened two years ago, and I haven't written or even talked much about it because it is upsetting and I didn't want to violate the privacy of certain people. But this morning, thinking about Richardsons's untimely and possibly completely unnecessary death, it seems like a story that I should tell.

I was in Genoa, Italy, staying over after a conference to visit some academic friends. I visited one friend, Flavio Baroncelli, in the hospital, in the company of another (call her Laura). (Laura was formerly a student of Flavio's.) He had been suffering from cancer for years. I am very glad I went there to, in effect, say goodbye to him, but the visit was deeply disturbing in all sorts of ways. Though he was dying they had stuck him in a small, bare, cramped room, and with a roommate. The roommate made it abundantly clear that he resented our presence as Laura and I talked to Flavio and his wife. He kept frowning and rattling his newspaper as he turned the pages. I got the impression he really wished Flavio would die quietly and alone.

Flavio's mental condition was if anything more frightful that his physical state. Though he had suffered month after month of terrible, chronic pain, the doctors still refused to give him morphine. His wonderful mind, battered by this unceasing torment, was a wraithlike shadow of its former self. He had been writing a book about his hospital ordeal on his laptop (I think it would have been his fourth book), but had given it up for lack of ability to concentrate. Chronic pain debilitates the mind, as bleeding wounds do the body. As he sat on the edge of his bed, telling us the the tangled tale of his struggle with his illness, his anguish was palpable. Laura was in tears.

A few years earlier, he had gone to a special clinic in Arkansas. At first I thought I had mis-heard him but, yes, Arkansas has a clinic that is a world leader in treating the sort of cancer he supposedly had. When he went there, though, the American specialists found that his Italian doctors had mis-identified his cancer. It wasn't the sort that they treat so well there. But at least he did manage to write a book about his American trip, a meditation on the US slipping into its neocon madness under Bush II.

To get away from the roommate, we gathered Flavio's IV bottle and I helped him down the hall to a sitting room with rows of hard chairs. The whole facility was bare, ugly and devoid of ornamentation of any sort. It reminded me of jails and state mental hospitals I had visited back in the states. Someone had bashed a hole in the wall in the sitting room for no obvious reason, and no one had bothered to patch it up. Opposite us was an enormous window, apparently without drapes, facing the Mediterranean Sea. The glare of the sun on the water was burning a hole in my brain. In this Hellish place, even the life-giving sun was transformed into a torment.

All this while I kept remembering visits I had recently made to another friend in a hospital, one who had the good fortune to be sick in the United States. Her circumstances where similar to Flavio's -- a professor at a pretty good university with a life-threatening condition (in her case it was a stroke that left her severely brain-damaged) -- but her medical system by comparison treated her like she was royalty. Ensconced in a private room furnished lavishly with medical equipment, in a hospital that was carpeted and decorated like a hotel, she had plenty of medication (twelve prescriptions at one time) and all the care she needed -- above all, she never had to travel to another country, or even leave her mid-sized town, for any part of her treatment.

What really shocked me about the treatment my Italian friend got was the cruelty of failing to properly treat his pain. Laura later explained it to me as the result of a typically Italian attitude. Children who break a leg don't get pain-killers either. "It's a broken leg! It's supposed to hurt!" That, she said, is the attitude their doctors seem to have.

That may well be the attitude, but I suspect that it is an effect and not a cause. As is explained here, in a socialized system, like Italy or Canada, capital goods such as equipment and materials -- morphine, machines such as you find in a trauma center, helicopters -- have a different property status than they do in a private system. In the US, where you are allowed to charge people for using them, they are a source of income. In a socialized system, where you have to pay for them out of your budget but cannot charge anyone else, they are a pure cost. Hence such systems tend to be undercapitalized.* They'll give you morphine, but only when they absolutely have to. A few days after I left, they finally let Flavio have morphine. He died about three weeks later, mercifully out of pain at last.

* Since the private system merely allows you to charge for use and does not require it, you will have the capital good on hand and available for charitable use, whereas in a pure socialized system the consumer will at times not be able to get it for love nor money. By the way, if you would like to make a brief visit to the World of the Politically Insane, take a look at the WHO ranking of health care systems, which was published around the time I visited Flavio. It ranks the Italian system second in the entire world. That of the US is 37th, two steps above that of Cuba.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Those AIG Bonuses

This week's Louis Renault Memorial Award for Phony Outrage goes to the congresspersons and administration apparatchiks who are shocked, shocked by those big AIG bonuses.

A short while ago, they made sure that AIG execs do not have to face bad consequences when they make bad decisions, and now they allegedly are stunned beyond words to see that AIG doesn’t seem to be behaving very responsibly. They even inserted into the stimulus package an "exception for contractually obligated bonuses agreed on before Feb. 11, 2009." Now they are amazed when such bonuses, and big ones, are made. Who would have thought this could happen?!

The money given to AIG was less than 1% of all the bailout money allocated so far. And the bonuses were less than 1% of the money given to AIG. So all this outrage is about the possibility that less than 1/1,000 of the money that these outraged people have taken from us (so far) has been mismanaged. What’s going on here?

Well, one thing that is going on here is pretty obvious. People are starting, at long last, to get angry about the "too big to fail" racket, and these guys are trying to deflect anger from themselves. Look, don't get mad at me! I'm as upset about this as anybody! Really! Watch this -- Grrrrrrrrr!

I think there is another element to this, a more sinister one. Notice what the target of this redirected anger is -- those evil capitalists. This other element floats to the surface in these words, spoken today by Barack the Great:
People are rightly outraged about these particular bonuses, but just as outrageous is the culture that these bonuses are a symptom of that have existed for far too long; a situation where excess greed, excess compensation, excess risk taking have all made us vulnerable and left us holding the bag.

And one of the messages that I want to send is that, as we get out of this crisis, as we work towards getting ourselves out of recession, I hope that Wall Street and the marketplace don't think that we can return to business as usual. ...

The financial regulatory package that we're designing as well as the economic policies that we want to put in place are going to put an end to that culture.
I take this to mean that on top of the unprecedented amount of our money the government is going to spend to bring about results it wants, it is also going to reshape our world by slapping a whole bunch of new rules and regulations on the private sector. And we will support it because we are mad, not at the people making the new rules, but rather at the people who will have to follow them.


Added later:
I hope no one is surprised over the market's reaction to BHO's speech.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Stewart v. Cramer

I guess I am glad that John Stewart has climbed on the bash Cramer bandwagon. I criticizing that TARP-touting Obama supporter half a year ago.

I have a two or three problems with Cramer's public barbecueing, though.

First, a major beef of Stewart's seems to be that Cramer failed to predict the crash. True enough, but on those grounds Stewart should be skewering all the Keynesean economist who are now advising BHO to spend us rich. As far as I know, the only people who saw it coming, and (more importantly) explained in advance exactly why it would happen were free marketeers like Peter Schiff and theory-free contrarians like Gerald Celente. (For a very recent comment on these matters by Schiff, see this.)

Second, there is Stewart's notion that Cramer's employer, CNBC, doesn't emphasize the down side of the stocks they cover because they are "in bed with" those giant corporations. To this I say, "Close, but no cigar." CNBC is owned by NBC, which is a giant corporation. To be more exact, CNBC is a business, and its business is serving people who invest, mainly in the stock market. This means they have a vested interest in making the stock market sound good. That is, they have a vested interest in enabling speculative booms. This effect is reinforced by the fact that, like other "news" outlets, they are basically storytellers, like the bards of old -- weaving tales to hold their audience spellbound. In their case, the stories are about investments -- ie., about the audience -- so they have to make the stories sound up-beat and optimistic, if they can.

Note that even in hard times CNBC systematically tends to play down investments that are basically downbeat and gloomy, such as gold. As as for short-sellers -- well, no one likes a party-pooper, right?

In somewhat the same way, those reports on individual stocks that you get from your broker are systematically inflated. Like CNBC, your broker is trying to sell the stock market to you and I say: buyer beware! Investors should view all these sources very critically.

The best gloss I can put on Stewart's deliberate destruction of Cramer is this: To get people to view such sources more critically, he took the most ridiculous one, the one who keeps yelling "Booya!" and making funny noises, the one moreover who was stupid enough to come on his show, and publicly humiliate him.

Did the end justify the means in this case? My head says "maybe so." The ratings of Cramer's show, the appropriately named "Mad Money," have gone down about 20% since The Smackdown, and that ain't a bad thing. And yet I couldn't help feeling sorry for Cramer. (But then I also felt sorry for that other clown when he stabbed his wife to death.)

On the other hand, many have pointed out that there is a much darker interpretation of the Cramer auto da fe. It happened soon after Cramer began loudly criticizing The Greatest President Since G. W. Bush. A coincidence? I also would point out that it also happened soon after Rick Santelli canceled an appearance on Stewart's show at the last minute (no doubt on advice from friends -- the sort of friends that Cramer apparently doesn't have). What was the crime for which Santelli deserved to, so to speak, get the Cramer? In case you have been in hiding for a month, here it is:

Here is an interesting article on the Cramer evisceration. The article was published, I notice, by the organ of the John Birch Society, but it seems pretty solid to me.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cav and Pag

Saturday night in Chicago Deborah and I saw for the first time the great operatic double bill of Caveleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

Above is Caruso singing Vesti la giubba. As every schoolboy knows, this monologue (aria seems not quite the right word to me) represents the principal character in Pagliacci having discovered his wife in the arms of a more attractive man. Now he is forced by circumstances to appear in a commedia dell' arte play presenting, by coincidence, a clownish version of the humiliating events that have now devastated him. This is a combination of circumstances from which no good can come! [Lyrics, from Netlog, below.]

Both these works are founding documents in the Italian movement in the arts called verismo (roughly, Realism). The descendants of Italian verismo in our culture inlcude the ganster films of Coppola and Scorsese, and David Chase's The Sopranos. Originally, verismo was a direct application of the Naturalism developed in France by Emile Zola. One thing these works suggest is that nineteenth-century Naturalism was really an offshoot of Romanticism. In Naturalism, human beings are mere chips of wood floating on a sea of forces far beyond their control, generally passions like love, and the hate that love often engenders. In McTeague, by the Frank Norris (the American Zola) the passion involved was greed (which became the title of the story when von Stroheim turned it into a film). There is nothing for it but to play out the terrible logic of these forces. Turiddu must betray, Santuzza must grieve, Alfio must rage and kill.

Such a view was often not far from the heart of Romanticism, was it? Wagner built a great monument to it in Tristan, and he might be regarded as a Naturalist, at least in that work. Norris claimed that Naturalism is a sort of Romanticism.

I find it hard to explain why I find works like this appealing. I even read a couple of Norris novels and liked them, as art (I found the distortions of history in The Octopus despicable, but that's not a matter of aesthetics). I certainly don't think the world works in the way that they say it does. Nor do I wish things were that way. Who would?

Maybe it's because there is a grain of truth in this view of the world. Love means exposing yourself to influence from demons that rule from within, it means giving up some control over one's life. Passion leads we know not whither, and some of these places are not so good. The Cav-Pag/Tristan/Carmen view of love is probably as close to the truth as the hearts-and-flowers routine that we are used to. That is why it requires courage.

Or maybe it's because the world that verismo presents us with is interesting. A world that is completely controlled by burning love, raging greed, and screaming jealousy would be at least as interesting as ... well, as the one we actually live in, which often seems to be ruled by bottom lines, vote-counts, and public opinion polls.



Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio,
non so più quel che dico,
e quel che faccio!
Eppur è d'uopo, sforzati! Bah! sei tu forse un uom?
Tu se' Pagliaccio!
Vesti la giubba,
e la faccia in farina.
La gente paga, e rider vuole qua.
E se Arlecchin t'invola Colombina,
ridi, Pagliaccio, e ognun applaudirà!
Tramuta in lazzi lo spasmo ed il pianto;
in una smorfia il singhiozzo il dolor, Ah!
Ridi, Pagliaccio,
sul tuo amore infranto!
Ridi del duol, che t'avvelena il cor!


To recite! While taken with delirium,
I no longer know what it is that I say,
or what it is that I am doing!
And yet it is necessary, force yourself!
Bah! Can't you be a man?
You are "Pagliaccio"
Put on the costume,
and the face in white powder.
The people pay, and laugh when they please.
and if Harlequin invites away Colombina
laugh, Pagliaccio, and everyone will applaud!
Change into laughs the spasms of pain;
into a grimace the tears of pain, Ah!
Laugh, Pagliaccio,
for your love is broken!
Laugh at the pain that poisons your heart!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another Gross Fallacy from Obama

Monday, a reporter from the NY Times asked Obama, "The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?" From what I have heard, BHO merely laughed out loud, got into his helicopter, and flew away. Later, he thought better of it and called the reporter. He had this to say:
"I did think it might be useful to point out that it wasn’t under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn’t on my watch. And it wasn’t on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement -– the prescription drug plan -- without a source of funding. And so I think it’s important just to note when you start hearing folks throw these words around that we’ve actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles and that some of the same folks who are throwing the word 'socialist' around can’t say the same."
I have a hard time making logical sense of this. He seems to be arguing that the Bush administration was socialist (which of course is true) to the conclusion that his is not. Aside from the fact that the premise contradicts his earlier line that the Bush years were a period of laissez faire capitalism, this argument seems to be a gross example of the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem: that's the one where you answer an argument by attacking the person who is making it. The underlying idea is nothing this tainted source says could be cogent or true, no matter how it might sound at first. Pay no attention to them.*

In fact, it is a particularly inept use of the fallacy. Everyone knows that it is not merely members of the disgraced Bush administration who are making this accusation. Also, the trait that is supposed to put his accusers beyond the pale -- being socialists -- is obviously not something that Obama really thinks puts anyone beyond anything.

Aside from the obvious ethical and logical objections to this sort of talk, this just seems dumb to me. For a year now I have been hearing how intelligent BHO is. (When I googled the words "Obama brilliant" just now, the service came up with 11,100,000 results in .11 of a second.) Where are the signs of this intelligence? I just don't see it. True, his campaign was brilliant, but now we are in a very different sort of context. Note that the brilliance of the campaign had absolutely nothing to do with the intellectual content of anything he said about the issues. And now, the campaigner who never made a mistake has become the president whose every move is either a mistake or a cliche. It turns out that the skill-set needed for campaigning is separable from that needed for running an organization in times of crisis, or for having a rational conversation about the tremendous issues that now hold us transfixed with horror.

God help us all.


And now, for a more enlightening (and, come to think of it, less frivolous) comment on the New Socialism than anything we are likely to hear from BHO, take a look at this link.

* By the way, I earlier said that Operation Rushbo, as some are calling it, is an example of the "straw man fallacy." Another plausible interpretation would be that it is an an argumentum ad hominem. The idea would be that the administration and its dependents are trying to hang the fat, unattractive face of Rush on the entire opposition, thus tainting everything they say.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Economically and Morally, Public Debt is Different

I just read this article by Murray Rothbard on the national debt. I found it highly enlightening. Partly to organize my own thoughts, I'm writing out some of what I took away from it, with some inferences and additions of my own. (I urge you to read the article yourself.)

First, consider the nature of private debt. C, the creditor, gives D, a debtor, the use of some of C's money for a specified period of time and at a specified price (interest payment). D prefers to pay more in the future in order to have the money now, and C prefers to give up use of the money now in order to get more in the future. This is basically a voluntary sale, from which both parties benefit. It is positive-sum and everyone is happy. Also very important is the obvious fact that both parties are incurring all the costs involved in securing the benefits they seek, and thus have every reason to be careful. Unless criminal or regulatory activity (eg., deception or "easy credit" policies) distort the incentives involved, there is no reason in the world why this sort of debt would grow beyond reasonable bounds.

Now consider public debt. First there is a beneficiary, who for the moment I will call E, who gets a sum of money from the government. This money comes from B, in exchange for a promise from the government to return it with interest. This money will then come, not from E, but from a third party, P. Unlike private debt, this is a coercive, zero-sum game that E and B are playing at P's expense. They come out ahead (in fact, E comes out way ahead) while P suffers a pure loss. (E stands for "tax eater," B stands for "bond buyer," and P stands for "tax payer.")

For various reasons, this system contains virtually no incentive to keep within reasonable bounds the burden that E and B impose on P. Unlike C and D, E B and P are not even individual human beings, but anonymous swarms of people. There is no way E and B can put a face on their victim. In fact, P may not even have a face, not having been born yet. If the system is a democracy, the votes of E and B will have a far stronger effect than those of P, who may be unborn or under-age. Further, the costs imposed on P are spread thinly over a very large group of people, while the benefits reaped by E and B are focused on them: E and B have far stronger motives to run up more of this debt than P has to avoid it.

Barring criminal and regulatory distortions, private debt is economically efficient, in that the social benefit exceeds the social cost: because D and C are bearing their own costs, they are forced to make sure they are exceeded by their benefits. Public debt on the other hand will not be economically efficient. Since E and B are coercively shoving their joint costs on to the hapless P, they have no reason to take them into account and minimize them.

Given the incentive structure of the E-B-P relationship, there is nowhere for P's burden -- ie., the debt -- to go but up. It will grow and grow until P is bled dry and the system bankrupts itself.

Not only is public debt economically dubious, it is ethically problematic as well, and this is so no matter what ethical standard you use. For instance, if you believe in any sort of distributive justice, you must think that it is "unequal," and "unfair" to P. Notice that B is likely much more wealthy than P is. Public debt is regressively redistributive. (That is one of the reasons Alexander Hamilton liked it: it creates a new class that is both beholden to the state and powerful enough to back it up.) On the other hand, if you are a Lockean individualist, you should think that E and B are "robbing" P. And if you are a utilitarian or any sort of consequentialist you will be duly horrified by the system's gross inefficiency and by the fact that it leads to catastrophe if unchecked.

Only twice in our history has the public debt been paid off. It was liquidated by two presidents -- Jefferson and Jackson -- who understood its economic and moral perniciousness and hated it with a towering passion. Perhaps we still have a chance to undergo a moral revolution and return to the wisdom of Jefferson and Jackson. That may be our only hope.

(Hat-tip to Nat Hunt for discussing these issues with me.)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Obama's Rhetoric is Winning the Race

... but it's a race to the bottom.

The intellectual level of public discourse in this country seems to be sinking lower and lower, and recent presidents have being doing their share to drive it lower still. G. W. Bush communicated ideas, if you could call them that, that corresponded, not to complete sentences, but to vague, detached phrases, like "compassionate conservatism. As far as I know, there was never a proposition behind that phrase, stating what it meant with any precision.

Obama goes much further, expressing -- okay, now it is obviously wrong to call them ideas -- expressing urges and hankerings that are embodied, not even in phrases, but in monosyllabic words, like "hope" and "change." It's as if his target audience is a mind far more rudimentary than that of a ten year old child. His audience seems to be a guy who is falling asleep in front of his TV, and all he can grasp is an occasional word. He can no longer absorb complete sentences, like "I hope I can stimulate the economy by creating a trillion dollars of new debt" or "Let's change America into France, but without the great food and fine art." All his nearly-shut-down brain can absorb is "... hope ... change ... zzzzzzzzzzz."

Now Obama has declared that "the leader" of his opposition is Rush Limbaugh, setting off a snarling dogfight among his opponents. A lot of conservatives in the chattering classes say this is a diversionary ploy. He wants people to be talking about Rush and not debating about the fact that grampa's retirement fund has just evaporated, or that our children now owe his government a trillion dollars they didn't owe before.

I think it is worse than that: he believes this is how you argue about the stock market and the national debt. If you can just define your opponent as someone who is already unpopular, you win. End of debate.

What he is practicing is a form of the "straw man" fallacy. Instead of attacking your opponent's position, attack a related one that you are sure you can defeat. End of debate.

This is something he has done consistently. He got where is is today by campaigning against that gang of laissez-faire de-regulators, the Bush administration (a completely imaginary opponent). Since then, he has consistently contrasted his spend-ourselves-rich policy with that of those who want to "do nothing" about the current depression, who want to let the market correct it. During his first press conference, he mentioned those ("and I don't doubt their sincerity") who want to privatize education. Oddly enough, the subject under discussion at that moment was not education. Where the heck did that come from?

When I first noticed this pattern, I was slightly flattered by it. These extreme positions that he is referring to are all ones that I hold. (I am one of those laissez-faire deregulators that your mother warned you never to take candy from.) BHO's rhetoric at first reminded me of that moment when Mussolini claimed that this point of view -- at that time, it was called "liberalism" -- was the exact opposite of fascism and therefore the real enemy:
The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality.
To me, this is a sort of back-handed compliment (which is better than no compliment at all!). But coming from Obama, it is no compliment, no matter how back-handed. He is not mentioning these views because he means to defeat them. He thinks they are unpopular with voters (which of course they are) and therefore don't need to be defeated.

There is probably no way to have a rational debate with this guy in a public forum. It's just not his sort of thing. He will always be doing some supposed-to-be-clever rhetorical dance instead.

If you think that the president's job is (inter alia) to provide moral leadership, to be an example for others, and to conduct a national conversation on the great issues before us, you should see this as a real tragedy.
As to Limbaugh and conservative talk radio, I think it has been a disaster for the country in recent years, mainly because these people were major enablers of the catastrophic Bush administration, as John Derbyshire explains here. For eight years these guys did little but cheerlead for big spending, fiscal irresponsibility, and megalomaniacal imperialism. Ron Paul offers similar comments here.