Words Versus Actions

Some things you might want to keep in mind as you listen to the State of the Union speech this evening.

Ezra Klein reckons that the President has effectively turned the talk of spending restraint towards more spending, but the good kind:

The president won’t give his annual State of the Union address until later tonight, but in an important way, the speech has already worked. For the past week or so, news report after news report has dutifully relayed the argument the president is planning to offer tonight: America needs to be competitive going forward, and to be competitive going forward, it needs to invest in things like infrastructure, R&D and education, not just reduce the deficit.

And it’s…worked. The conversation has changed. We’ve stopped just talking about deficits and begun talking about investments. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was on “Meet the Press” on Sunday fretting that the word “invest” is mere code for “more spending.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed him on “Fox News Sunday.” “With all due respect to our Democratic friends, any time they want to spend, they call it investment,” he said.

Noam Scheiber assures us that the President hasn’t gone over to the dark side, that he’s just been playing the business community for fools:

I’ll admit it: I was worried when the president named Bill Daley as his second chief of staff. True, Daley was a loyal Democrat long before he was a bank executive. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the White House was giving in to months of mau-mauing from the business community. That was distressing not just because the idea of Obama as anti-business is wrong, but also because Obama had a lot more leverage over the business community than he seemed to realize.

Not quite three weeks later and I feel confident this is not the case. Despite all the talk about Obama’s political reinvention as we head into the State of the Union, it’s become increasingly clear that Obama isn’t caving to business. He’s shrewdly co-opting it.

Joe Weisenthal points out that this is the umpteenth time that Obama has called for a spending freeze:

According to Jake Tapper at ABC, Obama plans to support an earmarks ban and a budget freeze during his State Of The Union speech tonight.

Forgive us for laughing. We’ve seen ths headline a million times, and we really thought this was already official policy.

And the Wall Street Journal provides some useful analysis of the nuts and bolts of the President’s recent executive order to review existing regulation:

No sooner had Mr. Obama told the bureaucracies to subject all regulations to a cost-benefit test than the bureaucrats began telling reporters that they are already a model of modern efficiency, thank you very much. Among many others, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that it was “confident” it wouldn’t need to alter a single current or pending rule. “In fact, EPA’s rules consistently yield billions in cost savings that make them among the most cost-effective in the government.”

Perhaps the EPA’s confidence owes to a little-noticed proviso in Mr. Obama’s order. When the agencies weigh costs and benefits, the order says, they should always consider “values that are difficult or impossible to quantify, including equity, human dignity, fairness, and distributive impacts.”

Talk about economic elasticities. Equity and fairness can be defined to include more or less anything as a benefit. Under this calculus, a rule might pass Mr. Obama’s cost-benefit test if it imposes $999 billion in hard costs but supposedly results in a $1 trillion increase in human dignity, whatever that means in bureaucratic practice. Another rule could pass muster even if it reduces work and investment, as long as it also lessens income inequality.

I suppose the lesson here is that the President is just like all those before him, a politician first and foremost. As such, you should take what he says with a healthy dose of salt and pay close attention to actions and results. I doubt he will suggest that you read his lips but remember the last time a president suggested you do that and what really happened.

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