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February 21, 2010



"He is not a fanatic or a dogmatist-- he is too much of a lightweight for that"

What a bizarre statement. It's the fanatics and dogmatists who are the lightweights, and they too are the ones who are most willing to allow lightweights to hold positions of power because they place shared ideology ahead of generally-acknowledged competence. Similarly, autocrats place lightweights in positions of power because they elevate loyalty or political advantage above competence.

Obama may be a far leftist or a lightweight, but if one does not think his appointments are deeply leftist and/or lightweight, then he could hardly be both.

Nathan Smith

Oh, I definitely don't think it's the case that fanatics and dogmatists are lightweights. It takes a rather serious bent of mind and a good deal of willpower and courage to adopt a strong ideological position and cling to it in the face of opposition and maybe a good deal of counter-evidence. And while some of his appointments do seem to represent weird fringes of the far left (Van Jones), it's not at all the case that a lightweight would make lightweight appointments. On the contrary, appointing known heavyweights like Larry Summers might be the easiest thing a person could do.

I'm not sure I agree with the generalization about autocrats either. Was Goebbels a lightweight? Himmler? Molotov? Beria? Ambitious autocrats will want able men in positions of power if they want their subordinates to accomplish things for them. And there may not be a general incompatibility between competence and loyalty: competent men are sometimes very loyal. Also, loyalty is not the same as fanaticism or dogmatism. Sometimes the two attributes are fused-- there is such a thing as fanatical loyalty to a person-- but fanaticism can also be at odds with loyalty: the fanatic will betray the leader if the leader (in his view) betrays the cause.

My sense is that Obama would probably always vote for the lefter of two candidates in any election. He seems to think, vaguely, that the whole era from the 1980s to his own election was benighted because it was too far right. But his idealism is sufficiently unserious that he can move to the center for political advantage, rhetorically and to some extent and substance, without feeling compromised.

I wonder: Has Obama ever criticized any intellectual or political figure for being too far to the left?


I'm not seeing it. Why would it help matters to bring a lot of new workers into a country with high unemployment? Even if immigrants created jobs eventuallly, this would not happen for many years, since it takes time to learn the ways of a new country. Obama is in enough trouble already. I hardly think this would save his presidency. Instead, he should follow the example of Bill Clinton, which he will probably be forced to do when he loses congress.


I think that a long term liberalization of immigration would immediately help with the recovery of investment. It would also reassure national creditors because a growing population - especially that which arrives already at working age - spreads the costs of senior entitlements more broadly and pushes back the date of insolvency. I think both of those would have swift effects that would arrive before immigrants would.

For Nathan: I'm not sure what you would be expecting to find, here. Generally speaking, Republicans don't criticize people in terms of being "too conservative" and Democrats don't criticize people for being "too far to the left". They merely take positions are are more moderate, or bipartisan, or whatever. Obama has been pretty consistently to the right of the center of his party, though the left wingers that backed him in the primaries never seemed to notice (or maybe they just assumed it was all an act). One should note that Obama does not enjoy anything like the approval amongst the far left that Bush did amongst the far right.

None of which says anything to his being a lightweight. In fact, I'm no longer sure in exactly what context Nathan wants to use the term. I had assumed that he meant "intellectual lightweight," which is to say someone who doesn't think very deeply about anything. I don't think fanatics and ideologues think very deeply about things so much as they have evolved for themselves diligent ways to *not* thinks about things too hard, such that it might threaten their certainties. If facts might upset ones thesis, then don't check those facts. If a person might ask tough questions, don't talk to that person.

That's not to say such people are stupid - if anything, smarter people are much better at evolving reasonable-sounding apologies for their extremist views.

As for autocrats and et cetera, I think I confused things because I didn't really define my context. I'm talking about lightweights with respect to actual duties. Autocrats are of course highly concerned with the ability of their subordinates to help them hold power, and so their enforcers are necessarily chosen from the ranks of the competent and (apparently) loyal. However, those holding the more numerous posts not directly related to maintaining autocratic power are generally chosen by loyalty and perhaps ability in bureaucratic infighting rather than competence at their duties. Thus the pattern of autocracies being full of incompetent administrators. Certainly there are exceptions, and those have made for the scariest moments in recent history, but I think for every special circumstance that creates a Soviet Union we can name several Venezuelas. Ditto fanatics and Nazi Germany vs. the various theocracies and fascist states that fell or flashed in the pan.

Nathan Smith

Concerning MS's point about immigration and unemployment, it's a mistake to think about labor markets as if there's a lump of jobs and the economy can't create any more, even in the short run. The economy is creates and destroys tens of millions of jobs in any given year. If immigration reform slightly increased the rate at which jobs are created and lowered the rate at which they are destroyed, the net shift in job creation could be millions, and could easily offset the number of jobs the immigrants themselves took.

Consider the following case. A firm is considering undertaking Project X. They think Project X would be profitable if they could hire good people for two key posts, A and B. These posts require specialized skills and experience, and such people are in high demand. They would also hire seven or eight other people who would be involved in less highly-skilled capacities; the other positions would not require such specific qualifications, and some (receptionists, say, or writers) might require native English. The firm does not think it can hire and retain qualified Americans for posts A and B, and H1-B visas are too costly to work with and might be denied. But pass immigration reform, and it can find people abroad to fill these posts. Having done so, it will create the other eight posts, too, filling some at least of these positions with Americans.

Or consider another case. A foreigner in his home country, an Indian or Rumanian or Thai, runs a small business, say as a chiropractor, restaurateur, computer or furniture repairman, or something else fairly skilled and specialized for which there's demand anywhere. Give him an opportunity to immigrate to the US and he'll come and do the same thing in the US that he did at home. He adds one worker, and one job, to the economy simultaneously. Or more than one job, if he hires a cashier or an assistant.

Of course you'd have others that came here and entered the labor market looking for the same job that others are looking for. But since prospective immigrants could easily discover that jobs are scarce right now, you'd get fewer of these people coming than at other times, and more of the kinds of immigrants that could make their own jobs.

While I doubt immigration reform would increase unemployment of natives even in the short run (but it would be a price worth paying if it did), it *would* tend to reduce wages, not for everyone-- some would see their wages rise-- but for some and particularly for people with no specialized skills and/or professionally-relevant social capital. But it would be reassuring for business in two ways. First, it would signal that there will be more future taxpayers to carry the burden of the national debt. Second, it would signal that there will be more demand down the road for those who invest now. As Nato says, these changes would affect the business climate instantly, even before any immigrants arrived. In fact, if you're worried about the immigration/unemployment combination you could phase in the reform, and as long as it's credible (won't be overturned) you'd get a boost to confidence immediately.

Another important factor is that immigration would increase prospective future demand for housing. This would help housing prices recover, helping a lot of Americans who have been hammered by the fall in home prices get back into the black. Some Americans-- over 60% of us are homeowners after all-- might see their wages fall due to competition from immigrants, yet be able to more than make up for the lost wages by renting out a basement or a spare room to an immigrant.

MS says Obama should "follow the example of Bill Clinton." Sure: he should reduce the deficit by adopting small-government policies that grow the economy. Such as immigration reform.

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