Joel Klein, the Tea Party, and Socialists Like Obama

For his latest Time magazine article, “Where the Tea Party Runs Strong,” Joe Klein traveled to Texarkana (it straddles the Texas-Arkansas border) and interviewed some strongly opinionated, God-fearing Tea Partiers. He found himself sympathizing with some of their complaints about Obama, specifically the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law.

But there was a piece of legislation that seemed to bother the Miller County Patriots even more than disability payments: the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, which Congress passed last year. A builder named Curt Green said that in the past, he had always received “character loans” from his local banker–that is, he was a known quantity with a good repayment record–but they weren’t available anymore. “I had to move quickly on this one property,” Green said, “but the bank said they couldn’t get me the money for six weeks because of the Dodd-Frank process. My deal fell through.”

Another Tea Party activist told him a similar story about his inability to expand his nursing-home business, and yet another banker, Dennis Ramsey, the mayor of Hope, Arkansas, who was not a Tea Partier, confirmed the complications that Dodd-Frank had created for those looking for mortgage loans.

The Dodd-Frank process was so complicated that his bank subcontracted its home loans to a mortgage specialist. Ramsey said he understood that the law was, in large part, a response to mortgage mongers’ racking up volume by giving loans to people who didn’t understand what they were getting into, “but we’re a small, rural bank, and the government only thinks in terms of one size fits all.”

Klein sympathizes with these sentiments. Indeed, they are quite understandable. It is unreasonable to expect that the needed remedies for banking problems in NYC (population 8,000,000) are the same as in Texarkana (35,000). But the federal government, in its inherently limited capacity to shape laws based on local conditions, will always resort to one-size (or few-sizes) fits-all solutions to problems which may or may not be national in the first place. The only way around that is to delegate those powers and decisions to lower levels of government, who are closer to the voters and can thus cater laws and regulations around local realities. Yes, the collapse of the housing industry, spurred in large part by decisions on Wall Street, not small town America, had and continue to have dramatic effects in communities across the nation. But that doesn’t subtract from the unintended consequences of one-size-fits-all solutions which persist regardless of good intentions. It is not contradictory to say that the mortgage and financial industries need regulation, while simultaneously arguing that Dodd-Frank makes matters worse. Any call to repeal the law will be met by campaigns centered around the repealers’ coziness with Wall Street bankers, not the lack of small town “character loans” from local bankers. I wonder how many of the Texarkansans with whom Klein spoke have even been to NYC much less dines with the Dick Fulds of the world.
Klein writes that he sympathizes with the Tea Partiers with respect to this point, but loses them when he asks if the President is patriotic.

Then things went all crazy. One man called the President a socialist who wanted government to run everything, which meant he couldn’t be a patriot. Smith said anyone who goes around the world apologizing for our country couldn’t be a patriot. I asked if that applied to George W. Bush, who went to Africa and apologized for slavery. “I didn’t like that, either,” the mayor said.

Obama is indeed a patriot – someone who vigorously defends his country. His methods of doing so may be different than the Tea Party would like – if they have a coherent foreign policy at all – but his goal is the same. His sensibilities are certainly different than those Texarkansans, but his patriotism should not be in doubt. Indeed, Obama has repeatedly said that his story – the son of an African immigrant becoming president – is only possible in America. But that is a separate issue from whether or not he is a socialist. Depending on how you look at it, he is and he isn’t.
First let us define what a socialist is. If by socialist we mean Communist or Stalinist, than the answer is no, Obama is clearly not that, and it takes pure blindness and idiocy to argue as such. However, if by socialist we mean big government – something akin to Scandinavia, for example – then yes, Obama is a socialist. A lot of the argument over the label is due to the lack of a common definition.
For instance, in April 2010, Bostom.com reported:

A year ago a Rasmussen Reports poll found that Americans under 30 are essentially equally divided on whether socialism or capitalism is a superior economic system.

This may shock those who lived through the Cold War, but there’s nothing irrational about it. Young people grew up in a post-Soviet world. When they hear “socialism,’’ they think Scandinavia, not Russia. They’re much more likely to be struggling with student-loan or credit-card bills than to have been affected one iota by the sort of government overreach that can be credibly tied to socialism.

(The Bostom.com link is available only to subscribers, but there is a copy of the article here.)

There is no question that progressives desire to create a more Scandinavian America: higher taxation, a more generous and broad welfare state, stricter environmental regulations, fewer expenditures on defense, etc. There is nothing shameful about those positions, although the Tea Party and conservatives believe otherwise. Regardless, if the Scandinavians are socialist, as young people raised in a post-Soviet world believe, then Obama would also classify as such. The problem is that socialist means different things to different people. Tea Partiers say socialist and probably mean communist.  Young people, especially progressives, hear socialist, think Scandinavian, and then say, why is that so bad?

As the European welfare state collapses under its own weight, it is worth considering whether or not we want to build such a system in the US. (I say ‘no.’) But that debate should take place without moronic statements about Obama’s lack of patriotism, and without using misleading and undefined labels.

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One response to “Joel Klein, the Tea Party, and Socialists Like Obama

  1. Pingback: “How Mr. Volcker Would Fix It” | Thoughts on the Passing Scene

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