Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A pragmatist’s ticket: Barack Obama and Lawrence Summers

If presidential elections were conceived to realize the ideals of bloggers as well as billionaires, my nomination for the ideal ticket for our times would be the re-election of Barack Obama and the return of his principle economic advisor Lawrence Summers as his Vice-President.
Summers is as lovable and definitely as smart as Dick Cheney—and clearly the only serious conservative of the two. Unfortunately, both Summers and Obama spent time in Harvard and Washington; Republicans, libertarians, and political refugees in Canada could make something of that for a while.
Yet, they balance each other in striking ways. Obama speaks softly and Summers looks like Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick. Obama is serving a tumultuous first term and Summers is enjoying a sabbatical. Summers is the heavyweight on everything suburban that Mitt Romney thinks Barack Obama is light on.
Obama may turn out in the history books to be the most level-headed conservative president since Dwight Eisenhower. But that can’t be accepted in real time—he’s not white, wide, rich, or old enough.
These are dangerous, ambiguous times—replete with circumstances that weak individuals in politics can’t acknowledge. They’re the ones who ask Americans to feel sure about the future by drawing red lines on maps on other continents and who promise constitutional amendments to balance the national budget. As if ultimatums and constitutions can excuse leaders from using their heads when the facts change and new decisions are required.
On the other hand, Obama and Summers use words like “flexibility” and “contingency” when thinking about how to address future responsibilities. Here’s Summers in the Financial Times writing on how to get to sustainable growth:

"The right approach is to use contingent commitments – policies that commit to action to normalize conditions, but only when certain thresholds are crossed. So, for example, it might be appropriate for the Federal Reserve to commit to maintain the current Fed Funds rate until some threshold with respect to unemployment or expected inflation is crossed. Commitments to fund infrastructure over many years might include a commitment that a financing mechanism such as a gasoline tax would be triggered when some level of employment or output growth has been achieved for a given interval. Tax reform legislation might propose that new rates be phased in at a pace that would depend on economic performance.”
This is not sexy stuff for the campaign trail. At the same time, Obama is being scolded by Mitt Romney for using the word “flexibility” in characterizing future talks on nuclear arms cooperation with Russia.
My ticket’s use of words like flexibility, contingency, and other qualifiers will need millions of marketing dollars to compete against the Hollywood masculine rhetoric of the likely alternative. However, their approach, over time, just might leave a rather compelling impression of two individuals determined to apply careful thought to the work of serving America’s interests.

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