Ed Driscoll

"That’s One Devastating Postage Stamp"

President Obama recently told AP that the Cap & Tax bill that passed Congress on Friday is and is moving towards the Senate “would cost the average American about the price of a postage stamp per day.”

The Rhetorican quips, “Who knew so much economic destruction could be derived from such a tiny, little thing?”

The postage stamp analogy is also telling — it’s an increasingly outdated device in the age of the Internet and email, which is why its own costs have been growing rapidly in the last 15 years. But then, as Michael Barone wrote back in March, the gap between candidate Obama’s fluid, high tech 21st presidential campaign and his mid-20th century command economy-era polices is enormous.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that a leftwing president used surprisingly static and dated rhetoric to describe his seemingly futuristic plans. Flashback to 1999, and the first chapter of Virginia Postrel’s seminal book, The Future and its Enemies:

Running for reelection in 1996, Bill Clinton and Al Gore promised again and again to build a “bridge to the twenty-first century.” The slogan cast them as youthful builders and doers, the sort of people with whom forward-looking voters would identify. It contrasted nicely with Bob Dole’s nostalgic convention pledge to build a bridge to a better past.

But a bridge to the future is not just a feel-good cliché. It symbolizes technocracy. Regardless of its destination, a bridge is a quintessentially static structure. It goes from known point A to known point B. Its construction requires big budgets and teams of experts, careful planning and blueprints. Once completed, it cannot be moved. “A bridge to the twenty-first century” declares that the future must be brought under control, managed and planned by experts. It should not simply evolve. The future (and the present) must be predictable and uniform: We will go from point A to point B, with no deviations. Fall off that one bridge—let alone jump—and you’re doomed.

Technocrats are “for the future,” but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to plan. They greet every new idea with a “yes, but,” followed by legislation, regulation, and litigation. Like Schlesinger and Attali, they get very nervous at the suggestion that the future might develop spontaneously. It is, they assume, too important and too dangerous to be left to undirected evolution. “To conceive of a better American future as a consummation which will take care of itself—as the necessary result of our customary conditions, institutions, and ideas—persistence in such a conception is admirably designed to deprive American life of any promise at all,” wrote Herbert Croly, among the most influential Progressive Era thinkers, in The Promise of American Life, published in 1909.[Not surprisingly, Croly plays a significant role in the early chapters of this recent book — Ed]

Technocracy is the ideology of the “one best way,” an idea that spread from Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” techniques to encompass the regulation of economic and social life. Turn-of-the-century technocrats, notes the historian John M. Jordan, used images of engineering to promise efficiency and order amid social and economic change: “In an era when the term progressive connoted a steady, teleological, restrained pace of improvement, efficiency implied change while at the same time suggesting security. The smoothly humming social machine envisioned by these reformers promised harmonious eradication of social problems….This peculiarly American paradox of kinetic change made stable appears to have contributed to the ubiquity of efficiency claims in this era.” By design, technocrats pick winners, establish standards, and impose a single set of values on the future. Only through such uniform plans can they hope to deliver “kinetic change made stable.”

Nationalizing the auto industry, limiting choices and freedom, taxing energy costs into the stratosphere — oh how Bill and (especially) Al must envy President Obama and his corporatism.

Update: And speaking of cap & tax, Roger L. Simon writes, “My liberal friends don’t want to talk about global warming anymore”:

It’s as if that was last year’s – or last decade’s – fad, at the very moment the House of Representatives has been browbeaten by LaPelosita into voting for a cap-and-trade bill no known person has read, let alone understood.

A bill that “no known person has read?” “That’s absolutely not fair!”, shrieks Obama’s energy czarette, who’s also never read the bill in its entirety.