Bobo wants us all to “Step to the Center.” (As if he had a clue where that is.) He gurgles that the Obama health care law represents another stage in the concentration of power. Mr. Cohen muses on “The Titanic and the End of an Era” and says as on 9/11, purring routine turned to panic with incomprehensible swiftness. Then as now, a maelstrom lurks behind order. Mr. Nocera assures us that “Government’s Not Dead Yet,” and that the workers at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have the passion to tackle some of the country’s pressing problems. Despite everything that Republicans tried to keep them from doing it… Mr. Bruni, in “A Farewell to Newt,” says it’s time to turn away from him and stick to a healthier political regimen. Here’s Bobo:
On May 23-24, 1865, the victorious Union armies marched through Washington. The columns of troops stretched back 25 miles. They marched as a single mass, clad in blue, their bayonets pointing skyward.
As Wilfred McClay wrote in his book, “The Masterless,” spectators were transfixed and realized that the war had changed them. These troops had gone to war as a coalition of states, with different uniforms in different colors. But they came back as a centralized unit, with a national identity and consciousness.
American history can be seen as a series of centralizing events — the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society.
Many liberals have tended to look at this centralizing process as synonymous with modernization — as inevitable and proper. As problems like inequality get bigger, government has to become more centralized to deal with them. As corporations grow, government has to grow to counterbalance them.
Many conservatives have looked at these inexorable steps toward centralization with growing alarm. Complicated problems, many have argued, are best addressed by local people on the ground. Centralized government inevitably leads to oligarchic government. The virtue of the citizenry depends on local control, personal initiative and intimate connections. These things are being bleached away.
The Obama health care law represents another crucial moment in the move toward centralization. With its state insurance exchanges, Obamacare is not as centralized as a single-payer system. Still, it centralizes authority in at least four ways.
First, while government has always had the power to regulate contracts and business activity, Obamacare compels people to enter into activity so that it can regulate them. This new ability to compel activity opens up vast new powers.
Second, Obamacare centralizes Medicare decisions — and the power of life and death — within an unelected Independent Payment Advisory Board. Fifteen experts are charged with controlling costs from the top down.
Third, Obamacare would continue the centralization of the nation’s resources — absorbing an estimated $1.76 trillion over the next 10 years.
Finally, it would effectively make health care a political responsibility. When you go to a campaign town hall in, say, Britain, you discover that many of the questions are about why somebody’s back or dental surgery didn’t go well and what the candidate can do to fix it. Once voters assume that national politicians are responsible for their health care, national politicians become more active in running the health system.
So this is a big moment. Obamacare forces us again to have an election about how centralized government should be.
Those of us in the Hamiltonian tradition sit crossways in this debate. Alexander Hamilton was not shy about concentrating power in Washington if he thought centralized authority was necessary to achieve national goals. On the other hand, he did not believe central decision-makers had the ability to direct an infinitely complex and changing world. He centralized goal-setting while decentralizing decision-making.
In that tradition, my own view is that the individual mandate is perfectly acceptable policy. We effectively have a national health care system. We all indirectly pay for ill, uninsured people who show up at emergency rooms. If all Americans are in the same interconnected health care system, I think it’s reasonable for government to insist that all Americans participate in the insurance network that is the payment method for that system.
But I think the Obama administration made a disastrous error in centralizing so many of the cost-control elements of the new health care system. I don’t care how many comparative effectiveness research studies are commissioned, there is no way centralized dirigistes can keep up with a complex, innovative system. There is no way government can adapt quickly to failure.
There is no way planners can know how many employers will drop coverage, how many doctors will refuse to see patients in expanded Medicaid, how to write uniform rules governing the state insurance exchanges, how many people will or won’t enter high-risk pools, how Congress will undermine any painful cuts the executive branch does make, how doctors will evade efforts to control their revenue, how doctor shortages will pop up, how spending is best controlled.
From a Hamiltonian perspective, the decentralized premium support model is a better way to control costs: government insists everybody has coverage but then encourages companies, families and Medicare beneficiaries to engage in a regulated process of discovery to find the best care at the lowest cost.
So, yes, let’s have another round in the debate about how centralized American government should be. Let’s watch liberals and conservatives duke it out. But remember there has always been a Hamiltonian alternative: centralize the goals, but decentralize the means people take to get there. Universal coverage is a worthy goal. Decentralized competition is the way to make it affordable.
Right, Bobo. Sure. Because it’s worked so VERY well up until now. Putz. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
I was on a packed rush-hour Tube the other day when my eye was caught by a headline in one of the free tabloids that help pass the time in the Underground: “Menu from Titanic’s last lunch to fetch £100,000 at auction.”
That’s a lot for a menu, but then there is no limit to the fascination with the Titanic. Indeed, I found myself leaning over to read what the first-class passengers on that maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City ate on April 14, 1912, a century ago next month.
There was cockie leekie (a soup of fowl and leeks); egg à l’Argenteuil (scrambled eggs with asparagus tips); veal and ham pie; Norwegian anchovies; corned ox tongue; grilled mutton chops with mashed, fried or baked jacket potatoes; and custard pudding. Recommended libation: iced draught Munich lager.
Somehow all this was captivating, glimpsed on the London Underground one hundred years later. I could see Ruth Dodge of San Francisco, wife of Washington Dodge, a successful banker, mother of Washington Jr., slipping the menu into her purse, a small memento, as she then thought, of a happy interlude.
I say “happy interlude,” but of course I cannot be sure of that, even before disaster struck the great liner and turned those mutton chops into something more.
Whether or not this was in fact your last lunch depended heavily on your sex. Only 33 percent of the men in first class survived, whereas 97 percent of the women in the same class did. “Women and children first” meant something. The overall survival rate for men was 20 percent against 74 percent for women. The lower your class of travel, the lower your chances were.
But of course these numbers are the product of hindsight. The Dodges had no idea what was about to happen to them; none of the more than 2,200 people aboard did. Life, as Kierkegaard noted, is lived forward but understood backward — if you are still around to comprehend it.
Looking back at the Titanic’s doomed load — the high fliers with successful lives, and the humble headed for the New World in search of one — is like looking back at old black-and-white photographs. We are struck above all by how ephemeral the expressions, so full of vitality in the moment, are; and indeed by the brevity of the lives themselves. It was Roland Barthes who observed that, “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”
In the case of the Titanic, catastrophe came with an inconceivable swiftness. What, I wondered on that crowded Tube, is it that explains our fascination? In part it is this rapid transition from purring routine to panicked disarray, the same on the Titanic a century ago as in the Twin Towers a decade ago, with similar countdowns from impact to implosion leaving an hour or two for agonized reflection, and the way this reminds us of the maelstrom always lurking behind order. The Titanic was unsinkable. Its fate therefore proves that nothing is.
Perhaps the menu suggests another factor in our fascination. The Titanic sank at the end of an era and on the eve of Europe’s catastrophe.
Today, the very language — cockie leekie or grilled mutton (not lamb) chops — evokes the twilight of the Edwardian era, before the eruption of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, and before the clash of classes and ideologies that the various decks on the Titanic contrived to keep at bay. That clash would become the tragic heart of the 20th century. At dinner in first class that evening the seventh course was roast squab and cress: enough said.
Today, early in another century again marked by war, we do not know how far the era-changing event of 2001 will cast its shadow. But again, as in the muddle on the Titanic, we have people second-guessing the second guesses of people who themselves do not know, and the potential for disaster in at least one region of the world is real.
On this anniversary there are new TV series and books about the Titanic. James Cameron’s movie is being released in 3D. You can hardly turn on the radio in London without hearing Celine Dion. There are memorial cruises — some at 50 percent off! — departing from New York and Southampton to the site where 1,517 souls were lost (many, as in the Twin Towers, without any trace ever being found.)
I have no doubt that in 2101 there will be a similar frenzy of commemoration of 9/11, delivered to any device you choose or even direct to your brain via the chip in your left forearm. I am not unhappy that I will not be there to see it.
Theodor Adorno, the German sociologist, remarked that memory is the only help left to the dead. “They pass away into it,” he wrote, “and if every deceased person is like someone who was murdered by the living, so he is also like someone whose life they must save, without knowing whether the effort will succeed.”
Now here’s Mr. Nocera:
I met up recently with my old mentor, Charlie Peters, the founder, editor and driving force behind The Washington Monthly, where I worked in the late-1970s. Charlie is a supreme idealist who believes deeply in the good that government can do. He saw it growing up with Roosevelt’s New Deal and then again as a member of Sargent Shriver’s Peace Corps, where he served as the agency’s first director of evaluation.
Now 85, Charlie still believes that that government can make a difference in people’s lives. Knowing that many Americans have turned against this idea, he is writing a book “to give evidence that it has happened — and to show it can happen again,” he told me. The New Deal and the Great Society were eras when “money was not the driving force in choosing a career,” he said. “Passion was. People wanted to be able to do something about the country’s most pressing problems — and government was the place to do that.”
As Charlie spoke, it occurred to me that there is one agency in today’s government where you can still see that passion: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Last week, I went to Washington to spend some time with some of the bureau’s new employees.
The brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, the consumer bureau was part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and it has been charged with looking out for the interests of financial consumers. Warren initially brought it to life, and her charisma and rock-star status was a powerful early draw. “I saw her on TV, and then read her book ‘The Two-Income Trap,’ ” said Sean O’Mealia, 25, who joined the bureau from a consulting company. “I really believed in what she was saying about helping consumers. That was my motivating force.”
Warren, alas, left after Senate Republicans made clear that they would never confirm her as director, and President Obama named Richard Cordray, the former attorney general of Ohio, to be the agency’s first director. He has been trying to instill a culture that can best take advantage of the young talent flocking to its door. “To corral their sense of idealism and put it in the service of improving life for the average consumer, that is a tremendous thing,” he said. In thinking about how to instill that culture, Cordray kept reflecting on Charlie’s old boss, Sargent Shriver. “He built on the awareness that there is tremendous talent and energy in young people.” That is what Cordray was trying to do.
To judge by the people I spent the day talking to, he’s done it well. Angela Peoples, 25, had been the legislative director at the United States Student Association, which had pushed hard to ensure that the new bureau would have authority over student loans. In her still-young career, she had met many students who felt trapped by their loans, and it is the issue she most cared about. Her boss, Rohit Chopra, 30, a former consultant, said, “A whole generation of people are overleveraged with student loans. They won’t be able to get a mortgage or save for retirement. They won’t be able to do the things that are profitable for the banks.”
I met a designer, Audrey Chen, 33, who had worked at Comedy Central and was thrilled to be designing documents that would allow consumers to understand and compare financial offerings. O’Mealia told me how much he admired Cordray’s commitment to consumers and how he and other young staff members had become concerned that Cordray was working so hard that he wasn’t eating enough. (They took to getting him fruit every night to make sure that he had something to eat.) I met Garry Reeder, 26, who had gone from “a trailer park in North Carolina” to an M.B.A. student at Columbia University. “You can’t do that without credit,” he said. “But credit also makes a lot of people’s lives more difficult.” He wanted to make sure that people fully understood what they were getting into when they made a financial transaction. “You can’t have a system where the only way an institution does well is if the other party doesn’t fully understand the transaction.”
When I reported back to Charlie about my inspiring day at the new consumer bureau, he wasn’t surprised. “The beautiful thing about a new agency is that everyone is very driven to accomplish the mission. As they mature,” he added, “that’s when people become more concerned with self protection, and maneuvering for the next promotion.” True enough, but a problem for another day.
The last person I spoke to at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was Holly Petraeus, the wife of David Petraeus who leads the agency’s office for the military and their families. “I think there are still idealists in Washington,” she said. “And they work in this building.”
Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:
It’s not easy letting him go. Not easy at all. Sort of like swearing off bedtime Ben & Jerry’s: there’s valor and the promise of self-improvement in the sacrifice, but also the sad awareness that the world just got a little less naughty. A little less fun.
No matter. It’s time to cut Newt out of our diets.
He has no nutritional value, certainly not at this point, as he peddles his ludicrous guarantee of $2.50-a-gallon gasoline, a promise that would be made only by someone with his own bottomless strategic reserve of crude. Doubly oily entendre intended.
There were calls for him to desist two weeks ago, after he lost Alabama, which abuts his home state of Georgia. But they fell on a deaf Newt.
There were fresh appeals last week, when he failed to wring even one measly delegate from Illinois on Tuesday and then Louisiana on Saturday. But Newt doesn’t need anything as prosaic as delegates, so long as there’s still pocket lint from Sheldon Adelson and the warmth of Callista’s frozen smile.
If he refuses to quit, we in the news media must quit him. Starve him of his very sustenance: attention. Exert a kind of willpower that we’ve lacked in this primary, which we turned into too much of a circus by encouraging too many clowns.
We’ve begun. As the weekend came to a close, The Times’s Trip Gabriel reported that Gingrich’s “full-time traveling press corps is down to a handful of embedded television reporters.” The Associated Press, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and even Politico had packed up their bags. I envision Newt as a larger, grayer, windier version of the little boy at the end of “Shane,” watching the last of these stubborn scribes recede into the horizon, begging them for one last sweet tweet, promising a tasty sound bite about Trayvon Martin or Robert De Niro or … “The Hunger Games!” There must be some harbinger of cultural decline to rail about there! Do “Hunger Games” contestants use food stamps? Those are always good for a diatribe or three.
I implore Fox News to pull up its drawbridge, CNN to bolt its doors. If a Newt falls in the forest and not a single news anchor listens, can he really hang around?
He says he’s propelled by a desire to promote “big ideas,” but his candidacy has devolved into ever smaller talk and ever more desperate sideshows that drag an already undistinguished debate ever lower. Late last week he actually resurrected the Obama-as-Muslim bile, saying the president’s policies raise legitimate suspicion in voters’ minds.
In truth Newt 2012 has never been a lofty enterprise. Although he loves to tout his intellectualism, he got what brief traction he did for visceral and theatrical reasons, with fits of rage and flights of fancy.
He took off when he lashed out at “the elites,” pretending not to be one of them. He soared when he savaged the news media. He rocketed to a colony on the moon.
And he illustrated a dynamic that will survive this campaign season and that we should all think about: how much the profusion of cable channels, Web outlets, other news platforms and commentary of all kinds (including this column) rewards flamboyance, histrionics and a crowded field. A brash candidate is never more than a bellow away from three minutes of air time or two paragraphs somewhere. The beast is ravenous, and I don’t mean Newt.
Yes, the serial surges of the Republican contest since August had grounding in a fickle electorate and changeable polls. But we eagerly abetted them. En route to our beige destiny of Mitt, we craved color. And showcased it.
Newt is one of the few surviving peacocks, especially if you discount Ron Paul, who’s less peacock than emaciated ostrich — never airborne, head in the sand — and so consistently discounted that no one even bothers to implore him to fold his tent. No one can remember that he pitched one.
It’s time to forget Newt as well. His delegate count is closer to Paul’s than to Rick Santorum’s. His strategy — a generous noun — hinges on a replay of the 1920 Republican convention, which picked Warren G. Harding on the 10th ballot.
The 10th ballot? That’d really send the Republican nominee into the general election with a head of steam. I can see the bumper stickers now. Newt: Battle ready. Ballot hardened.
Great politicians are memorialized with holidays, monuments, libraries. For Newt I think an ice cream flavor is in order, something in the clogged vein of Chubby Hubby or Chunky Monkey, although not so physique-focused. Nutty Professor is too obvious a suggestion, though it opens the door to pralines, aptly Southern.
Maybe Peaches ’n’ Scream? That would honor the state he comes from while acknowledging the state he’s been in — unsubtle, overwrought. Not qualifying for the Virginia primary was a blow akin to Pearl Harbor. The Palestinians are “an invented” people.
Newt is empty calories. A pointless pint of them.
A pint? More like a fat-laden gallon…