PRESIMETRICS: Those Stubborn Facts

Though the autumn is one of my favorite seasons of the year weather-wise, I’ve come to despise the election campaigns of fall and the political advertising that poisonously pollute the airwaves.  It is a good time of year for Americans to practice turning off their radios and televisions: go outdoors and become attuned to nature, give more time to friends and interesting conversation, or volunteer for worthwhile charity and civic projects.  Though many people I know can’t imagine life without the “entertainment industry”, my assessment for all thinking Americans is they would be far happier without it.  Everyone should ban commercial driven media and talk shows for the 30 days leading up to the election.   That’s my prescription for an American pursuit of happiness.


Protect your ears & hearts from political noise pollution


Money talks they say, and in America money buys a lot of talk as well.  Negative advertizing against candidates destroys the morale of our nation.  It encourages cynicism, drowns out reasonable discourse, and causes the polarization in politics that paralyzes our democracy.

Far better for me was our diocesan election of a bishop – not once did any of the candidates warn about what would happen if one of their “rivals” was elected.  Each simply spoke about their own experience in the church and how they might respond to issues should they become bishop.   It is hard to imagine a calmer experience than the day of the bishop’s election.

I read with interest Mike Kimel and Michael Kanell’s PRESIMETRICS:WHAT THE FACT TELL US ABOUT HOW THE PRESIDENTS MEASURE UP ON THE ISSUES WE CARE ABOUT. I’m not so driven by statistics that I checked all their facts, but they offered an interesting view of what the Presidents from Eisenhower to GW Bush did while in office.  I don’t know the authors’ political preferences, but liked the implication of some of their comments:

“A president who year after year produces surpluses, avoiding the temptation to spend unnecessarily, is making the country better off.”

“… a president who cuts taxes while at the same time driving up the debt is not really ‘cutting taxes.’”

I’m not going to make many more comments, but want to quote from the book – you can get a copy and read it for yourself.  But there were real surprises in what the statistics show.  (Abortion rates dropped sharpest under Clinton!)   Certainly what the political parties claim to be their agendas and priorities aren’t always upheld by what presidents from those parties did while in office.

“…the notion that growth is hindered by taxes doesn’t seem to be borne out by the data we’ve been using.  In our sample of eight administrations, the three administrations that raised tax revenues, and the one that reduced them by the least, happened to be the four fastest-growing administrations in our sample.  The four biggest tax-cutting administrations also produced the slowest growth by far.”

“… the four administrations that produced the biggest annualized increases in social spending as a percentage of the budget were also the four administrations that produced the slowest economic growth.”

Nevertheless, we have seen no evidence that cutting the tax burden increases growth rates, at least for the levels of taxation that we observed in the United States from 1953 to 2008.  Quite the opposite, in fact.”

“Under Democratic administrations overall, debt as a percentage of GDP shrank, while on the average under Republican administrations it rose.”

“Democratic administrations have presided over faster economic growth on average and done so without adding as much to the national debt as Republican administrations. …. And the policies Democrats have pursued have increased income and wealth more quickly than the policies Republicans have pursued…. That is, a trickle-up economy seems to beat a trickle-down economy.  So sayeth the data.”

“Of the eleven American presidents who served from the end of World War II to 2008, Reagan was the only one who increased both the size of the national debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the percentage of Americans employed by the federal government.”

“Among all the administrations in our sample, the Clinton administration was the only one to actually reduce real spending per capita…  By far the biggest annual drop in spending as a share of GDP came under Clinton.”

“…Ike and Clinton… both of them decreased current federal spending as a percentage of GDP, and yet both of them managed to increase the share of that reduced federal spending going to the state and local governments.  And since of these two only Ike also cut taxes as well, perhaps Ike is the true conservative in a crowd of pretenders.”

“Republicans had a tendency to increase the percentage of total spending that went toward welfare almost four times more quickly than Democrats.  We’re willing to bet that not what you expected to read when you started this chapter.”

“The only administration to move the country in the direction of energy independence was Jimmy Carter.”  Voters didn’t like what that meant for their lifestyles which is no doubt why politicians so rarely advocate for the needed but unpopular decisions.

The authors looked at readily available economic information to plot their graphs and come to their conclusions.  Some may not like their observations, but in as much as they fairly presented the data, it is not worth shooting the messengers.

What I certainly came away from in reading the book is that simply lowering taxes is not an answer in itself for helping the economy.  There needs to be a corresponding reduction in government as a portion of the GDP to create a healthier future for the country.  The national debt matters long term, but politicians ever mindful of voter approval focus on making popular short term decisions.  That is why, according to the book, cutting taxes now always sounds right, but when no corresponding decrease in spending occurs, the taxes are simply pushed into the future as eventually the debt has to be paid.


If you didn’t see PARADE MAGAZINE for Sunday, August 8, 2010, and you consider yourself very politically astute, you might enjoy looking at their “Intelligence Report” Hey Big Spenders.  It is a quiz which tests your knowledge of the effects on the nation of having Democrats or Republicans in the White House or controlling Congress.  The quiz is derived from a new book PRESIMETRICS by Mike Kimel and Michael Kanell who “compare politicians’ claims with the decisions they made from 1952-2008.”

If you have the time, take the quiz, just for the fun of it.

If you haven’t got the time, here are a few of their findings:

Republicans Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and GW Bush each reduced defense spending more than did any Democratic president between 1952-2008.

The percentage of Americans working for the federal government decreased under Carter, Clinton, and GW Bush, but actually increased under Reagan.

On the average, when congress was controlled by either political party the national debt as a percentage of the GDP went down.  It has gone up when parties split the control of congress.

Under Clinton, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts declined most rapidly.

The greatest increase in funding for environmental protection occurred under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

GW Bush lowered the tax burden by more than twice as much as President Reagan.

The federal government spent more on welfare programs under Reagan than under Presidents Kennedy or Johnson.

The Gross Domestic Product was three times greater in 2008 than in 1950.

The Big Victory of Big Government

Though much current American dissatisfaction is directed against “big government,”  two things I read recently also remind us that government when it is big enough is quite efficient and can accomplish great things. It is not easy to discern whether it is just BIG government that Americans dislike, or whether we hold to a populist anti-government attitude, which in America is promoted by both political parties (see my Stuck in the Middle of American Politics).    The following two unrelated quotes both dealing with the American government in WWII point out that it was precisely government (whether “big” or not) which brought about victory in World  War II. 


“The war revealed what might b e called ‘the dirty little secret’ of American capitalism.  The myth of capitalism is that the free market is the most efficient economic system.  But it is not.  Governmentally sponsored and regulated production is far more efficient.  It was the war, not the New Deal,  that finally reversed the Great Depression.  In wartime, the government can compel the collection of raw material, channel research, subsidize new production methods without taking time for them to prove profitable, redistribute labor pools, eliminate distracting competition by the incompetent.  All these things happened during the military-industrial explosion of the 1940s  … When it is important to get things done, and done fast, the government must be relied on.” 

Margaret Graham, “Schumpeter’s Children”   (Wilson Quarterly  Spring 2010):

“That wisdom was confirmed by America’s experience in WWII.  With Washington as maestro, the nation rapidly produced vast quantities of K rations, B-29 bombers, and everything in between, while researchers marshaled by the government from industry and the universities designed and built the atomic bomb and made rapid technological strides in fields such as radio and radar.

For American policymakers, the war offered a powerful example of what the economy could accomplish if directed and optimized by the federal government, and they believed they could most efficiently accomplish their goals through large corporate entities.” 

Wills goes on to note:

Of course, stupid management can make government efficient in producing disaster, as in the Soviet destruction of agriculture.  But in America, government is normally inefficient only if the market interferes with it, lobbyists distorting the outcome (for instance, in health policy). 

Which is perhaps an interesting comment since the popular wisdom is that the market is efficient unless the government interferes with it, as in President Reagan’s comment, “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”   Despite his anti-government rhetoric, and his calls for the American government to live within its means, as far as I can tell, the government grew under his administration, and his economic policies did not create a a balanced budget,  accepting rather  national debt as normative (and ultimately tripling the national debt –  see; both his anti-government attitude and the acceptance of the national debt are two of his legacies, even if they are somehow contradictory.   My suspicion is that what many Americans liked about Reagan was that he significantly cut taxes – it’s not small government that people care about, it is purely how “it” affects me personally.  The attitude is very self-centered as is much of American individualistic thinking – I favor low taxes because that benefits me personally, and yet I want the government to be there when I need it (but I’m not so concerned when others need it, and resent it if it means I have to pay for something that is not personally benefitting me).   In this thinking, we realize how foreign sounding are President Kennedy’s words:  “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”     The modern version probably is “Ask not what purpose government serves for the country, ask what government is doing for me personally.” 

One can note that in both the Katrina Hurrican natural disaster and the current Horizon Oil Rig collapse disaster, there was a need and a demand for massive government intervention, even from those who oppose big government, and many complained that “the government is not doing enough.”   In both cases it appears that only the government was capable enough and efficient enough to respond to the human need created by the disasters (and this despite the many complaints about inefficiency, waste, slow response).  No agency except the government had the resources and ability to respond to the many, varied needs created by the disasters. 

I am not advocating for big government, but am advocating for us to have a real discussion about what has to change, what do we have to be prepared for, what needs to happen for smaller government to exist, and for us as a nation to be able to deal with natural and manmade disasters and catastrophes.   For example, do we really believe that industry left to itself would and could deal with the Gulf Coast oil disaster, and all its implications,  without being pushed by the government?  (Could industry deal with the problems without the coast guard, navy, national weather services, etc?)  Do we believe industry left to itself would respond to the needs of those who will be affected by the disaster without the government to advocate for the people?  (Would industry be reporting the extent of the disaster or be prepared for all of its potential consequences without monitoring agencies to force safety measures, environmental tests,etc?)

Cutting the size of government does not immediately translate into tax savings, that is a different issue, especially when reducing the government may only bring it down to the size which our current taxes make affordable.  Exactly a problem created by past policies is taxes have been reduced without cutting a proportionate amount of government spending.    Now the time comes to reduce the government down to the size for which we are paying.    Will voters accept that?

Super Power: Is the ‘Bomb’ America’s True or Only Strength?

I have been reading Garry Wills’ BOMB POWER: THE MODERN PRESIDENCY AND THE NATIONAL SECURITY STATE.   The book is an interesting and accessible read and, sadly for me, verifies things I have feared have been happening in American politics, especially in the executive branch of our government.  I find it all quite depressing (A feeling exacerbated by the book I’m currently reading, TRUE ENOUGH, in which dirty politics is revealed as appealing to ideologically inclined Americans who aren’t interested if something is true, just so it is “true enough” to be believable to them).  Basically Wills asserts that as a result of creating the atom bomb the US government has since WWII continued on a path of ever increasing demands for secrecy regarding the military and creating a virtual continual war mentality in the country.  World War II ended, but America never returned to a peace time frame of mind.  The fear of the Russians/communists created a perpetual war time mentality with increasing demands for money, secrecy and national security.  America entered a new kind of “peace” – “a peace to be based on a weapon.”   Fortress America arose out of the mentality that the only way to guarantee our “peace” in the world was to be prepared to use nuclear weapons of mass destruction in the face of any threat.  He calls this “a permanent war in peace.” 

 “This book has a basic thesis, that the Bomb altered our subsequent history down to its deepest constitutional roots.  It redefined the presidency, as in all respects America’s ‘Commander in Chief’ (a term that took on a new and unconstitutional meaning in this period).  It fostered an anxiety of continuing crisis, so that the society was pervasively militarized.  It redefined the government as a National Security State, with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control.”

Wills’ thesis certainly corresponds to something I thought obvious in a couple of recent elections where the notion of the President being the leader of the free world was totally subordinated to the notion that the President is almost exclusively framed as supreme Commander in Chief of the Armed forces.  For some voters this appears to be exactly the only issue they are voting on when choosing a president despite what the Constitution might say about the chief executive’s office.  As Wills puts it some Americans saddle the presidency with a singular purpose, “Being the champion of ‘the free world’ meant maintaining nuclear superiority, not actually advancing freedom in the countries that cooperated with us.”   America in its foreign policy is quite accepting of totalitarian regimes as long as these regimes advance our military interests.   What the U.S. military or covert agencies are doing in foreign lands is also often kept a secret from the American public.  Secrecy and deception have become standard operating procedure in the “national security state” which the  U.S. has become.   This totally defines what it means to live in a free country such as the U.S.: we passively accept increasing powers and secrecy in the presidency, including surveillance of foes and citizens alike, and the use of secret sites for secret torture to be carried out for dealing with foes and gathering information.  

Wills describes how since WWII there has been a tendency, especially among conservatives, to re-interpret the office of presidency almost exclusively in terms of the President being “commander in chief.”  Wills notes however that despite certain very specific claims by various supporters of a “strong” (militarily especially!) executive office, the Constitution says the President is commander in chief of the military only, not of every US citizen (Article II, Section 2, Clause 1).  The President is not a military officer, but the civilian head of a civilian government.  Neither Presidents Washington or Eisenhower served as Commander in Chief because they were generals, nor did they serve as President because they were generals who became Commander in Chief.  To the President’s Cabinet and staff, the President is not their Commander in Chief, but their President (it is a civilian government not a military rule), remaining Commander in Chief of the armed forces only.   Wills points out the President is not Commander in Chief of the National Guard (unless they are nationalized) and it is to the congress that the Constitution gave the power to call a militia not to the president (Article 1, Section 8).  (Wills says he has been called unAmerican for pointing out what the Constitution says).  He says President Reagan started the practice of the President saluting and being saluted by the military.   He says military code about whom to salute is strict and you only salute military officers, not civilian leaders.  He sees this all as the increasing militarization of the nation.   (I heard him interviewed on radio about this book and I believe he said that Eisenhower did not salute the troops when he was President because he no longer was serving in the military).    The Supreme Court in a ruling about President FDR mentioned that a president is not inducted into the military, nor is he subject to court martial or military discipline.  He is the civilian head of the nation.

The bottom line is that this militarization of the civilian leader of our nation makes its seem that the American President’s real power is in possessing “the bomb,” not in being leader of the free world, nor in being the head of the richest country on earth, nor the economically most powerful.   It is “the bomb” which comes to define the presidency and the United States as it approaches the world, not freedom nor free enterprise.   (See also Defense Secretary Robert Gates concern regarding “The Creeping Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy”)

Next:  Presidential Power

See also:  True-ish, Truthiness and True Enough

An Appeal to the Imaginations of People

NobelMedalWhen I heard last week that The Norwegian Nobel Committee had decided to award The Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 to President Barack Obama I like many was surprised, as my immediate thought was “but he hasn’t accomplished anything yet.”   (To be fair the President himself said, “I know that throughout history the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement. It’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.”)  From comments I heard on the car radio, I somehow got it into my head that this really was about his being the first African-American being elected president.  

“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”

NobelObamaPersonally, I have viewed Obama’s successful presidential bid as marking a change in America regarding race.  Obviously not everything has changed for racial prejudices cannot be obliterated by one election, but a ceiling was broken through and the chance for Americans treating each other as Americans seemed more possible to me.    From this point of view, and not taking anything away from Obama’s campaign and the risks he took in seeking the presidency, it seemed to me the Nobel Prize he had won really belonged to the American people who overcame 250 years of history which included slavery to elect a Black man as president. (And to those who say Obama could equally be called a white man since his mother was Caucasian, I can only point out that when Abe Lincoln was running for President, the state of Illinois considered any person who was one-quarter black to be a Negro and they were banned from entering the state.  The color of one’s skin has determined how people in America judge someone). 

But a week after President Obama won the Peace Prize, it is clear that the Nobel Committee did not award Obama the Peace Prize for breaking color barriers or giving hope to minority or oppressed peoples.   The Committee’s own press release states clearly that Obama was chosen

for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

NobelProgressObama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.”                                            

What is most clear is that Nobel Committee really was taking a pretty strong swipe at the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration, the direction they were taking America and thus dragging the world with them.  The NEW YORK TIMES (Surprise Nobel for Obama Stirs Praise and Doubts) wrote:

The Nobel committee’s embrace of Mr. Obama was viewed as a rejection of the unpopular tenure, in Europe especially, of his predecessor, George W. Bush.”

The WASHINGTON POST (Nobel for Obama Brings Praise, Ire):

President Obama on Friday won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, bringing the relatively novice leader a new measure of prestige on the world stage … the Norwegian Nobel Committee praised the president’s cooperative approach to global issues, a clear rebuke of the Bush administration’s aversion to international organizations and treaties.

NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO (Gasps as Obama Awarded Nobel Peace Prize):

In Europe and much of the world, Obama is praised for bringing the U.S. closer to mainstream global thinking on such issues as climate change and multilateralism. A 25-nation poll of 27,000 people released in July by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found double-digit boosts to the percentage of people viewing the U.S. favorably in countries around the world. That indicator had plunged across the world under President George W. Bush.

The award appeared to be at least partly a slap at Bush from a committee that harshly criticized Obama’s predecessor for his largely unilateral military action in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

So clearly the assessment is that Obama’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize is not based upon his accomplishments as president but upon a symbolic hope of what he represents in the eyes of the world (which in my estimation is how he won the presidency in the first place).   Americans, especially conservative ones, seem unconcerned how the world views America, and thus they remove America from its greater context, namely the planet which we 300 million Americans cohabit with 6 billion non-Americans.    In failing to consider the global picture in which America exists as but a small part, conservatives today mistakenly undervalue the power of symbol.  Symbol helps us understand our life and situation in a greater context.   In the rage with which they despise the new president, conservatives have blinded themselves to the reality that people do not evaluate the world purely in terms of facts and figures, for symbol and myth are very powerful forces in shaping the human imagination and causing humans to strive for something greater than what currently exists.  Not so long ago it was conservatives that were shaping that symbolic and mythical understanding of America.    Ronald Reagan in 1974  said in what is now called his “The Shining City Upon the Hill” speech:

ReaganObama“Standing on the tiny deck of the Arabella in 1630 off the Massachusetts coast, John Winthrop said, “We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.” 

Six years later he would be elected as President of the United States in what was certainly a high point for conservatives in America.   Reagan imagined for America a role in the greater world – to be a hope to the world.   When that vision faded into selfish and self-serving values, America lost sight of its role in the world and the world lost hope in America.  People turned to someone who could enliven the imagination again and who could place America’s role in the larger picture of a world in need of hope.   In the world of politics, the appeal has to be made not just to the minds of people, but also to their dreams, aspirations, hearts and imaginations.