Monthly Archives: June 2011

Jeff Rosen moderated this AIF session featuring Sandra Day O’Connor (former Supreme Court justice), Stephen Breyer (currently on the court) and Larry Kramer (Stanford law professor). I was unfamiliar with Kramer’s book, The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review, though I intend to put that right after listening to his comments.

Kramer’s thesis is that the court has indeed mostly followed shifts in public opinion over the years–and that it has been right to do so. The constitution, he argues, is a majoritarian document, despite frequent claims to the contrary. But it is majoritarian in a restricted sense. The American solution to the “ills” (Madison’s term) of simple majority rule lies partly in slowing politics down through the complexity of the constitutional design. In this scheme, the Supreme Court, as the arbiter of the constitution’s meaning, has greater political independence than other branches of government, but is not, and was never meant to be, entirely independent. It has no electoral accountability, but it has institutional accountability, which resides in the respect it enjoys and needs. Here then is the basic point: To command the public’s respect, the court must pay attention to the public. History, says Kramer, shows this is what the justices have in fact done–even if they deny it, and even if they were unaware of it.

Joe Klein interviewed David Axelrod at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday. It was an outstanding session. Klein explained that he and Axelrod were friends; he did not need to explain that he, Klein, has also been an Obama supporter. But he asked–and kept pressing–pointed, difficult questions about Obama’s unforceful leadership. It was a memorable proof of how a sympathetic and courteous interviewer can be a more probing and more dangerous interlocutor than a straightforward enemy.

Axelrod of course is unflappable. He sustained his note of immovable calm and reason throughout: we take the long view, the pragmatic view; in extremely difficult circumstances, made more difficult by an intemperate and unreasoning opposition, we make progress where we can; being loud is not the same thing as being effective; look at our record of achievement (fiscal stimulus, financial reform, health-care-reform, education reform); we will let history be the judge. But Klein kept coming back. Obama is failing to explain himself, failing to make his case. Where is the president on this? Where is the president on that? His rhetorical skills are clear. Why isn’t he using them? Good questions. I felt that Axelrod had no answer.

Yesterday I said I’d be surprised if the US agreed to let the number 2 job at the IMF go to a non-US candidate, as recommended by Mohamed El-Erian. Today I ran into Stephan Richter at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and he drew my attention to an interesting possibility, which he wrote up earlier for The Globalist: a co-directorate, with Agustin Carstens as deputy director.

I don’t know whether Carstens would want the job, but the idea does have big advantages both for the US (which would have to agree to it) and for the world order. The US gets a top-class Chicago-trained economist in a key role–a de facto American economist, is how Richter puts it–while retaining a veto over Fund policies through its executive director on the Fund’s board. The rest of the world gets an end to the traditional US-Europe stitch-up, and an excellent official at the top of the IMF.

In backing this notion the US could look selfless while shrewdly advancing its interests.

Disappointing but unsurprising that Christine Lagarde has got the top job at the IMF. I don’t say this because I thought she was a weak candidate or won’t do a good job, By all accounts she is very capable. The sad thing is that even under these extraordinary circumstances, it is business as usual when it comes to running such a critical institution.

If this was not the moment to make a break with the old arrangements, and to declare that these positions are no longer filled according to a system of entitlement, one wonders what it will take — especially when such outstanding alternative candidates (Agustín Carstens, Stan Fischer) were in the running.

The debt-ceiling talks in Washington have stumbled again. The sticking point, as before, is taxes. Republicans refuse to raise them and Democrats are insisting on it. The drama and the walkouts are part of the show: in all likelihood a deal of some sort will still be struck before the August 2 deadline. Whether it is a good deal for the country is another question.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has created a useful tool for comparing the various budget-reform plans.

A recent CRFB blog post on the long-term budget outlook also has helpful explanations of the differences between the CBO’s “extended” and “alternative” baselines. I agree with CRFB that the most plausible starting-point probably lies between the two. (The extended baseline isn’t going to happen. The more pessimistic alternative fiscal scenario is probably too pessimistic.) The CRFB’s own “realistic” baseline essentially splits the difference. They intend to update it shortly.

It’s a good thing that Americans are war weary, says George Will: John McCain’s never-ending war.

What kind of people would they be if they were not? U.S. involvement in the Second World War lasted 1,346 days. U.S. fighting in Afghanistan reached that milestone six years ago (June 14, 2005). America is fighting there, in Iraq, in western Pakistan, in Yemen and in Libya. Where next? Under the McCain Doctrine, wherever U.S. “values” are affronted — and those who demur from this global crusade are isolationists, akin to those who, 70 years ago, thought broad oceans and placid neighbors guaranteed America’s security from Hitler and Japan.

Obama’s address on Afghanistan was a notable political success. The tone was terse and confident. The plan calls for faster force reductions than the military wants, but slower than much of the country would like–a position that is easy to cast as a responsible middle way. And the president is keeping the promise he made when announcing the surge at the end of 2009, with the withdrawal of the 33,000 extra troops starting now, and complete not just by the end of 2012 but in time for the election.

The underlying philosophy outline in the address also strikes me as right.

[T]onight, we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding. Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. We’ve ended our combat mission in Iraq, with 100,000 American troops already out of that country. And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance. These long wars will come to a responsible end.

As they do, we must learn their lessons. Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world. Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.

We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force –- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas. When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action, which we’re doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny.

“…as pragmatic as we are passionate.” A difficult balance to strike, obviously, but right nonetheless. The characteristic emphasis on pragmatism–on balancing ends and means–is surely correct.

Politics and underlying approach aside, however, I question the wisdom of the details on Afghanistan.

The CBO’s new report on the long-term budget outlook is gloomy reading. Something has to give, is the message. CBO director Douglas Elmendorf summed it up this way in a recent presentation at the NY Fed:

Given the aging of the population and the rising cost of healthcare, the United States cannot achieve all of the following objectives in the future:

  • Keep federal revenues at their average share of GDP during the past 40 years.
  • Provide the same sorts of benefits for older Americans that we have provided in the past 40 years.
  • Operate the rest of the federal government in line with its role in the economy and society during the past 40 years.

The stalling of the US recovery raises big, scary questions. After a recession, this economy usually gets people back to work quickly. Not this time. Progress is so slow, the issue is not so much when America will return to full employment but what “full employment” will mean by the time it does.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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