Tinkering at the edges

President Obama announced a package of tax credits and minor changes to regulatory mandates designed to “restore security to the middle class”. Vice President Biden said they should not be dismissed as trivial.


Mr. Biden rejected criticism that the proposals Mr. Obama was unveiling were relatively small-bore compared with the vast and sweeping measures he pushed during his first year in office. “They’re big-deal things if you’re just able to give some respite for a husband and wife, both working, to give a little bit of help,” Mr. Biden said.

The net effect of these measures will be to let people keep a little more money in their pockets, but it will also increase the deficit by the same modest amount. The gap between what the government spends and what it earns has been increasing over decades. The debt dinosaur has grown to a Godzilla-like proportions. Whatever Biden says, the proposed measures are like a pea-shooter against it.

A friend told me a story that seemed to capture the whole problem with the events of the last decade, trends that have accelerated in Obama’s first year. My friend said that when he was single his apartment was in such a mess that it bred fruit flies. But it didn’t worry him and he continued as before. He figured he had better things to do than concentrate on niggling housekeeping issues. He would focus on the the big picture of his life. Sometime later, he noticed that in addition to the fruit flies, cockroaches had added themselves to his menagerie. Still he didn’t mind. Then one day he found mice running around the premises and that started him cleaning the place out. “It wasn’t the mice I was afraid of, it was what might come next.”


A person concentrating on the bigger issues sometimes concentrates on the mundane only with great reluctance. Eventually the problems accumulate and every visionary eventually acknowledges that he can’t leave the surly bonds of earth altogether. Practical things matter and require attention, like the deficit. Grand new programs can’t be launched in a vacuum. Before you can have the big party in the apartment, the vermin have to be driven out first.

The vermin in this case will take a long time clearing out. Bill Gates says it will take years for America to dig itself out of this mess. But visionaries often lack that patience and it eventually drags them down. Those who ignore this lesson wind up like Hugo Chavez, whose regime Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post describes as being on the verge of collapse. He has been forced to repeatedly devalue the currency, accept regular power outages and is facing the wrath of an increasingly impoverished people. Despite his constant grandstanding and attempts to blame someone else none of Chavez’s visions can save him from the defects he created in the here and now. Diehl writes:

Despite the recovery in oil prices, the Venezuelan economy is deep in recession and continues to sink even as the rest of Latin America recovers. Economists guess inflation could rise to 60 percent in the coming months. Meanwhile, due to a drought, the country is threatened with the shutdown of a hydroelectric plant that supplies 70 percent of its electricity. And Chávez’s failure to invest in new plants means there is no backup. …

The man himself is ranting about the U.S. “occupation” of Haiti; his state television even claimed that the U.S. Navy caused the earthquake using a new secret weapon. On Sunday his government ordered cable networks to drop an opposition-minded television channel.

But Chavez’s approval ratings are still sinking: They’ve dropped to below 50 percent in Venezuela and to 34 percent in the rest of the region. The caudillo has survived a lot of bad news before and may well survive this. But the turning point in the battle between authoritarian populism and liberal democracy in Latin America has passed — and Chávez has lost.


Chavez has lost; unfortunately so has Venezuela. And despite his failures the socialist vision will continue to survive in South America, under the heading ‘maybe next time’. Socialism is possessed by the idea that however many times it has failed in the past, one day it will succeed under the guidance of a more forceful, charismatic leader. You can fly, as Peter Pan taught, if only you think it hard enough.

Can anyone in Washington really believe that? Maybe some did up until the night Scott Brown was elected. Glenn Thrush of Politico quotes Marion Berry as saying that when President Obama was warned that he might provoke a backlash similar to that of 1994 Obama said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’

“I began to preach last January that we had already seen this movie and we didn’t want to see it again because we know how it comes out,” said Arkansas’ 1st District congressman, who worked in the Clinton administration before being elected to the House in 1996… “I just began to have flashbacks to 1993 and ’94. No one that was here in ’94, or at the day after the election felt like. It certainly wasn’t a good feeling.”…

“They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’ We’re going to see how much difference that makes now.”


After the debacle in Massachusetts, it will be interesting to see how much the Administration is content to tinker at the edges or whether it will make a fundamental shift in course.

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