Thursday, October 30, 2008

The useful vagueness of Obama

Nineteen eighty-two was a lucky time (as your columnist can attest) to be leaving college. Whatever faults various authorities find in the "decade of greed," which was followed by another decade of greed, it marked the start of 25 years of exceptional prosperity and opportunity. Freer trade and the epochal joining of a couple billion Chinese and others into the global division of labor played a role. The ideas of Reagan and Thatcher, bringing the private sector back to a place of honor, played a role.

Is the age of Obama the beginning of a less golden age? We cast no aspersion on the man or his program. Mr. Obama, in his short career, has not strongly associated himself with any policy idea. His relation to his own proposals during the campaign has been pleasantly noncommittal, if generally liberal (as voters and the media are only now getting around to noticing).

His rise offers little insight either. His Senate primary and general election races were smoothed by the serendipitous bowing out of formidable opponents in each case, in divorce-related "scandals." His presidential hopes have been turned overnight into landslide hopes by a financial crisis that has left the public angry and confused, though not one that plays to any expertise of Mr. Obama's.

Yet if he wins next week, it could be with a sweeping mandate to decide, er, what his mandate will be. He's a presidential vehicle perfectly designed, or self-designed, to be driven by history, rather than driving it. And he comes just at the moment when, overnight, crashing down is just about every normal restraint against intrusive, redistributing, regulating government. This is the door the remarkable Mr. Obama is about to waltz through.

In a two-party system, both parties need to be capable of governing, of having some long view of the central challenge -- which, arguably, in our case remains the financing challenge of the American welfare state. John McCain may not be much of an economist and hasn't adopted the "ownership society" as his slogan, but his health-care plan falls right in with tradition on the center right -- a spectrum that once included Bill Clinton -- of invoking a new role for individual responsibility and individual choice in making the welfare state work.

Democrats, in contrast, never really tell us where they want us to go. That hasn't been the Democratic way and Mr. Obama, in this, is a perfect Democrat -- as opaque on the big question as his party has been. Al Gore let on that he favored a single payer health-care system only two years after he lost the White House. Politics -- simple politics -- instead has been Democrats' governing philosophy, and Mr. Obama is, again, the perfect heir.

In an interesting piece of work, economist Henning Bohn has forecast the future voting propensities of an aging electorate based on two things: how much in taxes a median voter would expect to pay until retirement, and the present value of his or her expected Social Security and Medicare benefits. His conclusion: It will make financial sense for the median voter to vote for higher taxes on his remaining working years and on younger people in order to secure his benefits.

If he's right, Democrats need to say only one thing when running for office -- and that's nothing intelligible about the funding dilemma of the welfare state or the need to address it. Mr. Obama has evidently learned his politics well. This week, he told Time Magazine's Joe Klein that, after the current financial crisis, "a new energy economy . . . That's going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office."

This is a cipher, an air sandwich. Mr. Obama here affords himself a placeholder for a priority to be named later. He knows that such impractical, centrally planned "energy revolutions" have been preached by candidates and op-ed writers for decades, only to be forgotten after inauguration day in favor of less rhetorical agendas.

Mr. Obama's knack for eliciting pleasing feelings of self-regard in his followers is certainly a political virtue. (That so many of John McCain's supporters must hold their noses is, in its way, the equal and opposite virtue.) More than that, the vagueness of Mr. Obama's governing philosophy is a natural fit for a party that has long been wedded to the strategy that you get where you're going (a bigger welfare state) by not saying where you're going.


Barack Wrote a Letter . . .

At the October 7 Presidential debate, John McCain said that Barack Obama had encouraged Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make risky loans, and that Mr. Obama was the second largest recipient of campaign cash from the government mortgage giants. Mr. Obama replied that he "never promoted Fannie Mae" and that "two years ago I said that we've got a subprime lending crisis that has to be dealt with." And that's not all. "I wrote to Secretary Paulson, I wrote to Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke, and told them this is something we have to deal with, and nobody did anything about it," said the Illinois Senator.

There's more. Mr. Obama's March 2007 letter included a stirring call to "assess options" and boldly suggested that the two men "facilitate a serious conversation" about housing. He was even brave enough to suggest that "the relevant private sector entities and regulators" might be able to provide "targeted responses." Then in paragraph four, the Harvard-trained lawyer dropped his bombshell: a suggestion that various interest groups get together to "consider" best practices in mortgage lending.

Some may find it hard to believe that Mr. Obama had nothing to show for this herculean effort to shake up Washington. They may be shocked as well that such passionate language didn't move the Fed and Treasury to action. For our part, we note that nowhere in his letter did Mr. Obama suggest that the government should stop subsidizing loans to people who can't repay them.

This is the latest fad among Beltway liberals who spent years encouraging noneconomic mortgage loans. They now proudly announce that at critical moments they issued a press release, or wrote someone, suggesting that somebody do something. Since soured mortgage loans are a root cause of this panic, and since Democrats did so much to encourage mortgage lending, the most politically useful of these archived warnings are the ones blaming something other than housing.

For example, recent media reports have lauded the prescience of Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who has long called for increased regulation of financial derivatives. Not that this says much about derivatives. Mr. Markey has also called for increased regulation of the Internet, cable TV, telephones, prescription drugs, nuclear plants, natural gas facilities, oil drilling, air cargo containers, chlorine, carbon dioxide, accounting, advertising and amusement parks, among other things.

But derivatives are the irresistible story now, because they offer the opportunity to shift the blame from bad housing policy, and they suggest that a lack of financial regulation was the problem. While lauding Mr. Markey, the media also cast Brooksley Born, Bill Clinton's Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, as the ultimate heroine in this drama. Like Horatio at the bridge, she tried to regulate the derivatives market over the objections of such dummies as Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, SEC chief Arthur Levitt, and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

The left's hope is that derivatives are so poorly understood that people can be convinced that turmoil in the market for credit default swaps -- an effect of soured mortgage loans -- is actually a cause of this crisis. Credit default swaps (CDS) are insurance policies against companies or investment vehicles going bankrupt and being unable to pay their creditors. This insurance is cheap when things are going well, and very expensive when investors expect the relevant entities to fail. Turns out that the markets for CDS and other derivatives not tied to the housing crisis are functioning normally.

Meanwhile, in an amazing coincidence, it is the failure -- or the expected failure -- of entities with heavy exposure to toxic mortgages that is putting extreme financial strain on those who sold insurance. But the problem can't possibly be the toxic mortgages encouraged by Washington, according to the politicians. It must be the system of insuring against the collapse of those who bought the mortgages.

Did many sellers of credit default swaps make horrendous judgments in assessing the likelihood of defaults? Yes, and they were encouraged to make these poor judgments by government-approved credit-rating agencies stamping approval on mortgage-backed securities. If an investment or commercial bank was holding assets branded rock-solid by government's anointed judges of creditworthiness, who wouldn't feel comfortable insuring against their failure?

Much of the subprime disaster could have been avoided if only the credit raters had never agreed to slap the AAA tag on collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Almost no one understood these instruments, which contained portions from other pools of mortgage-backed securities, but with even less transparency. Most investors around the world had never heard of a CDO before the housing boom. But they knew what AAA meant. They had been told for years by the government's chosen credit raters that this label meant sound, conservative investing. Highly unlikely to default.

If Barack Obama wants to write any more letters, he should urge his colleagues in Washington to focus on the causes of this crisis, not the effects. Unlike Senators, Presidents are expected to solve problems, not merely write about them.


Obama's Not "New"

There's an old saying: The oldest word in American politics is "new." Only in that sense is there anything new to Barack Obama. Obama prefers the word "progressive" to "liberal" because it makes it sound like he's shedding old liberal ideas. But if he is, it's only to embrace older ones.

America first encountered the vision Obama espouses under Woodrow Wilson, the first progressive president and the first to openly disparage the U.S. Constitution as a hindrance to enlightened government. His new idea was to replace it with a "living constitution" that empowered government to evolve beyond that document's constraints. The Bill of Rights, lamented the progressives, inhibited what the government can do to people, but it failed to delineate what it must do for people.

The old conception of individualism needed to be replaced by a new system in which the citizen would "marry his interests to the state," in Wilson's words. This would allow the state to fulfill the progressive pledge to "spread the prosperity around." Obama shares Wilson's faith in a living constitution and has argued that Supreme Court judges should be confirmed based on their empathy for the downtrodden.

In a vital essay in the current Claremont Review of Books, Charles Kesler notes that Obama mentions Franklin Roosevelt in his book, "The Audacity of Hope," more times than any living Democratic politician. That's not surprising, given that FDR -- a veteran of the Wilson administration -- carried the progressive vision of government much further than Wilson himself.

In 1944, FDR proposed updating the Bill of Rights with a new "economic bill of rights" that would define freedom not as liberty from government intrusion but as the possession of goodies provided by government. "Necessitous men are not free men," FDR proclaimed. It's a statement Obama surely agrees with; his advisor, Cass Sunstein, wrote a book saying FDR's "second bill of rights" should become the defining principle of American politics.

Wilson, Roosevelt and now Obama -- all their ideas sprung forth from the work of John Dewey, the most important liberal philosopher of the 20th century. Dewey held that "natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology," and that "organized social control" via a "socialized economy" was the only means to create "free" individuals. Dewey proposed that statism be taught as a kind of civic religion in our schools so that Americans could be raised to see the government as the solution to all of our problems.

Dewey lives on in the education reform ideas espoused by former Weatherman Bill Ayers. Ayers, now an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, often invokes Dewey when justifying his own dream of indoctrinating public school students in "social justice." Obama doesn't condone Ayers' '70s-era bombings, but he certainly subscribes to Ayers' educational vision. In fact, Ayers' educational work is the primary defense for the candidate's association with an unrepentant terrorist.

Much has been made of Obama's comment to "Joe the Plumber" that things are better when we "spread the wealth around." The Obama campaign has rebuffed charges of "socialism" or "radicalism" with the usual eye-rolling.

But Obama's words that day in Ohio were consistent with his past statements. A just-unearthed 2001 interview with Obama on Chicago public radio reveals as much. Then a law school instructor and state legislator, Obama offered an eloquent indictment of the Warren Court for not being radical enough. While the court rightly gave blacks traditional rights, argued Obama, "the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth." Unfortunately, according to Obama, "it didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution."

Officially, Obama says he is not advocating single-payer health care. That would seem too un-moderate. But in 2003, Obama told the AFL-CIO, "I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program. ... But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to back the Senate, and we have to take back the House."

Note: If Obama wins next week, all three of his preconditions will have been met, and his colleagues in the House and Senate are itching like junkies for a new New Deal. Only in a country of amnesiacs could one claim that socialized medicine is a "new idea."

Blowing away the dust and cobwebs from ancient wares doesn't make them new. Save for his skin color, Obama doesn't represent anything novel. Rather, he symbolizes a return to an older vision of the United States that was seen as the "wave of the future" eight decades ago. I for one have no desire to go back to that future.


Obama and the Law

One of the biggest and most long-lasting "change" to expect if Barack Obama becomes President of the United States is in the kinds of federal judges he appoints. These include Supreme Court justices, as well as other federal justices all across the country, all of whom will have lifetime tenure. Senator Obama has stated very clearly what kinds of Supreme Court justices he wants-- those with "the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old."

Like so many things that Obama says, it may sound nice if you don't stop and think-- and chilling if you do stop and think. Do we really want judges who decide cases based on who you are, rather than on the facts and the law? If the case involves a white man versus a black woman, should the judge decide that case differently than if both litigants are of the same race or sex? The kind of criteria that Barack Obama promotes could have gotten three young men at Duke University sent to prison for a crime that neither they nor anybody else committed.

Didn't we spend decades in America, and centuries in Western civilization, trying to get away from the idea that who you are determines what your legal rights are?

What kind of judges are we talking about? A classic example is federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin, who could have bankrupted a small New Jersey town because they decided to stop putting up with belligerent homeless men who kept disrupting their local public library. Judge Sarokin's rulings threatened the town with heavy damage awards, and the town settled the case by paying $150,000 to the leading disrupter of its public library.

After Bill Clinton became president, he elevated Judge Sarokin from the district court to the Circuit Court of Appeals. Would President Barack Obama elevate him-- or others like him-- to the Supreme Court? Judge Sarokin certainly fits Obama's job description for a Supreme Court justice.

A court case should not depend on who you are and who the judge is. We are supposed to be a country with "the rule of law and not of men." Like all human beings, Americans haven't always lived up to our ideals. But Obama is proposing the explicit repudiation of that ideal itself. That is certainly "change," but is it one that most Americans believe in? Or is it something that we may end up with anyway, just because too many voters cannot be bothered to look beyond rhetoric and style?

We can vote a president out of office at the next election if we don't like him. But we can never vote out the federal judges he appoints in courts across the country, including justices of the Supreme Court. The kind of judges that Barack Obama wants to appoint can still be siding with criminals or terrorists during the lifetime of your children and grandchildren.

The Constitution of the United States will not mean much if judges carry out Obama's vision of the Constitution as "a living document"-- that is, something that judges should feel free to change by "interpretation" to favor particular individuals, groups or causes.

We have already seen where that leads with the 2005 Kelo Supreme Court decision that allows local politicians to take people's homes or businesses and transfer that property to others. Almost invariably, these are the homes of working class people and small neighborhood businesses that are confiscated under the government's power of eminent domain. And almost invariably they are transferred to developers who will build shopping malls, hotels or other businesses that will bring in more tax revenue.

The Constitution protected private property, precisely in order to prevent such abuses of political power, leaving a small exception when property is taken for "public use," such as the government's building a reservoir or a highway. But just by expanding "public use" to mean "public purpose"-- which can be anything-- the Supreme Court opened the floodgates. That's not "a living Constitution." That's a dying Constitution-- and an Obama presidency can kill it off.


Will the Return of Values Voters Bring Another Election Day Surprise?

The most startling factor in the Presidential election of 2004 could deliver an even bigger shock in the battle for the White House in 2008, if the nation witnesses the possible repeat of the decisive impact of "values voters".

Four years ago, the media largely ignored the significance of moral and family issues until Election Day exit polls revealed their crucial role in the GOP victory. In the same way, seasoned political observers - especially those who consider an Obama victory a foregone conclusion - have ignored the very real chance that social conservatives may bring about a stunning upset on November 4th.

Four years ago, when asked "what mattered most in deciding how you voted for president," more voters cited "moral values" than any other factor. According to the authoritative Edison-Mitofsky exit poll, 22% named "moral values" compared to 20% indicating "the economy and jobs," 19% choosing "terrorism," 15% "Iraq" and a mere 8% citing "health care."

Among those who chose "moral values" as their chief concern, a stunning 80% voted for George W. Bush, while his opponent, John Kerry, got a similar 80% show of support from those who primarily worried about "the economy and jobs." Nearly one quarter of the electorate in 2004 identified as "white evangelical and born-again Christians" and they backed President Bush by a four-to-one margin. Without this overwhelming support from Christian conservatives, Bush could never have won his 51 to 48% victory over Senator Kerry.

Considering the hugely significant role of values voters in the last presidential race, it makes no sense for leading electoral experts to assume that they've become suddenly irrelevant in 2008. Did the social conservatives who tipped the scales to Bush and Cheney in a tough race four years ago somehow vanish or give up?

Conventional wisdom suggests that values voters don't matter this year for several important reasons. First, it's assumed that social conservatives remain lukewarm on John McCain and won't give him the huge turnout and overwhelming support that propelled George W. Bush to victory. Second, according to many leading pundits, Barack Obama has neutralized moral issues with his inclusive rhetoric about unity and respect and his comfort in talking about his Christian faith (though not about his long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who has all-but-vanished from media coverage of the campaign). Finally, and most significantly, all major analysts seem to agree that the financial crisis and looming recession have crowded out all other public concerns, leaving little chance that worried voters will once again find themselves "distracted" by social issues like abortion, marriage, or gun rights.

For several reasons, these assumptions may look shaky on Election Day. Yes, it's true that John McCain has never been a favorite of Christian conservatives (especially after his self-destructive denunciation of Falwell and Robertson in the 2000 primary campaign). But his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, and renewed attention to his strong pro-life record over the course of 30 years (he gets a perfect "Zero" lifetime rating from Planned Parenthood), have helped to rally the troops. The huge, enthusiastic turnouts at recent GOP rallies (particularly those featuring Governor Palin) and the determined, ongoing efforts by prominent organizations on the religious right suggest that "values voters" may return in force and startle the pundits once again.

Most obviously, Obama efforts at "Christian outreach" have largely failed, recognized as a phony, manipulative and, ultimately, insulting strategy. Obama may claim he understands and sympathizes with the concerns of religious traditionalists, but he's running on the most pro-abortion platform in major party history (calling for a return to federal funding for abortions for poor women) and he famously suggested that the question of when life begins was "above my pay grade."Of course, leaders of left-leaning Christian and Jewish denominations enthusiastically back Obama (just as they backed Kerry) but traditionalists remain deeply suspicious. Those concerns go far beyond the silly charges that Obama is some sort of "secret Muslim" and involve his slimy, equivocal treatment of all religious questions, whether involving his boyhood study of the Koran in Indonesia, or his twenty years of loyal discipleship with the America-hating Reverend Wright.

Finally, there's no reason to assume that universal concern about the state of the economy means that religious conservatives no longer care about the future of marriage or the protection of the unborn. In fact, a dramatic turnaround in voter sentiment in California (of all places) indicates precisely the sort of mobilization of values voters that could derail the Obama Express on November 4th.

The citizens of the Golden State face a fateful choice in the wake of the State Supreme Court's controversial 4 to 3 decision to mandate gay marriage. Proposition 8 on the California ballot adds to the State Constitution a provision declaring that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California." In one of the most liberal and lopsidedly Democratic states in the union, gay activists felt confident they would defeat this measure by a decisive margin, but recent surveys show an unexpected surge of support for traditional marriage. A Survey USA poll shows a swing of 8 points in the three weeks between September 25th and October 17th, from a 5% margin against the proposition to a 3% margin for it. "Equality for All," the group leading the fight for homosexual marriage, acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal on October 22nd that their internal polling also showed a shift in voter sentiment toward traditional marriage - with a 4% current lead for the proposition over-ruling the Supreme Court.

In the last days before the election, even voters in deep-blue California (a state the McCain campaign has all-but-abandoned) seem to be rallying against gay marriage - despite Obama and Biden strongly and outspokenly opposing Proposition 8. This should encourage values conservatives to recognize that many (and perhaps most) Americans still care deeply about moral issues.

It's now crucial for Senator McCain, Governor Palin and their supporters to emphasize those issues --- not even at a time of economic crisis, but especially at a time of economic crisis.

Controversies regarding the future of the family aren't a distraction from financial challenges; for most Americans, there's an inescapable connection between economic and values issues. Nothing brings long-term security and prosperity more reliably than a stable, traditional family life and nothing predisposes people for a life of poverty more than out-of-wedlock birth and marital chaos. The educational success of our children, which directly determines their future financial future, depends more on the values they learn at home than the quality of their schools. Learning to work hard, to save money and to live within your means remains a dependable path to economic advancement and the failure to learn those lessons (especially by political and business leaders) helped to create the current crisis.

Moreover, the big-government "spread the wealth" programs favored by Barack Obama represent an assault on the family as well as a threat to the free-market economy. Today's radical Democratic platform calls for a vast expansion of federal power that would make families and parenthood less important and less necessary.

Consider Obama's promise of "universal pre-school" for all children age three and above. He insists that attendance at such federally mandated schools will remain voluntary, but paying for them will not. All citizens - including those mothers who choose to stay home with their little ones - will share in financing governmental day care, in effect punishing women who take care of their kids while rewarding those who want to leave them with someone else.

At the other end of life, there's also legitimate concern over Obama's support for re-imposition of a crushing death tax, with a confiscatory rate of 45%. Nothing represents a more fundamental right for many families than the ability to pass on to their own children the wealth that they've accumulated through honest hard work -and on which they've already paid taxes as the parents earned the money.

No wonder that married voters already tilt decisively toward McCain, according to all polls. (The most recent IBD-TIPP survey gives him a margin of 50% to 43%). Obama leads among the public in general only because of his huge lead among single voters (about a third of the electorate).

According to exit polls in 2004, Bush won married voters 57% to 42%. If McCain comes close to that margin he too will win the election. The chances for a come-from-behind victory for Republicans depend almost entirely upon the return of values voters --- most of them married people who care deeply about religious faith, traditional virtues and family issues. Those voters abandoned the Republicans in the disastrous off-year election of 2006 --- repulsed by the Mark Foley scandal and numerous other indications of ethical lapses among flawed and compromised conservatives in Congress. If the values voters return to the polls (and to the GOP fold) victory remains possible.

The 2004 prominence of social conservatives was more than a fluke or a temporary phenomenon. The Los Angeles Times has conducted its own exit polling since 1992, asking voters "which two issues they considered most important in deciding how they would vote." In 2004, 40% listed "moral/ethical values" as one of those top two - a strikingly similar percentage to the 35% who named moral values in 2000 and the 40% who did so in 1996. On a related note, the percentage of religious people who participate in recent elections has remained stable and reliable: 41% of voters in both 2004 and 2000 said they attended church at least once a week and they voted decisively, both times, for George W. Bush.

Leading commentators largely ignored these citizens in 2004 until the results of the election and the exit polls forced them to reconsider. If Republicans concentrate on mobilizing social conservatives between now and Election Day, and speak clearly and persuasively about the powerful connection between economic and moral issues, then values voters may provide the defenders of conventional wisdom with an even bigger surprise than they did four years ago.


Free trade

Obama has distanced himself from the post-Hoover consensus

The U.S. hasn't elected a genuinely protectionist president since Herbert Hoover, and for most of the last 80 years a rough bipartisan consensus has held that free trade is in the American national interest. The erosion of that consensus is reflected in the gulf between John McCain and Barack Obama on trade, which is probably the widest division at the presidential level since the 1920s.

Free trade agreements. Mr. McCain supports the bilateral pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that have already been signed by the two governments. Colombia already enjoys preferential access to the U.S. market, and Mr. McCain stresses that opening Colombia to U.S. exports would be good for U.S. jobs and especially small and medium-sized businesses. He says it would help "a crucial democratic ally" in a region fraught with instability.

He has a similar view toward South Korea, which buys $50 billion of U.S. exports annually and has been a key ally in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Republican also favors renewing trade negotiating authority, which expired in 2007 and without which no new trade pact is likely to succeed on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Obama opposes the Colombia and South Korea agreements, for the same reasons cited by other Congressional Democrats. In the last presidential debate, Mr. Obama pointed to violence in Colombia against labor unions. The politically independent Colombian attorney general says violence against union members has come down sharply under President Alvaro Uribe, but Mr. Obama says that's insufficient.

He also opposes the South Korea pact, which would remove auto tariffs in both directions and end South Korea's use of nontariff barriers to protect its domestic markets. Mr. Obama says the U.S. buys "hundreds of thousands of cars" from South Korea and "we can get only 4,000-5,000 into South Korea." The Democrat wants assurances that the imbalance in auto sales will end. The Obama campaign declined to tell us whether he supports the Panama FTA or trade negotiating authority.

More generally, Mr. Obama says he would change the way the U.S. negotiates trade agreements. Instead of focusing mainly on removing barriers to the movement of goods and services, he would use the agreements "to spread good labor and environmental standards" to the rest of the world. He voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta) in 2006 and says he will oppose others that do not have strong-enough labor and environmental provisions.

The North American Free Trade Agreement. Trade within Nafta topped $930 billion in 2007, more than three times what it was in 1993, the year before Nafta was implemented. Mr. Obama nonetheless believes Nafta has hurt Americans because it does not contain provisions to force our trading partners to adopt U.S. labor and environmental standards. He says Bill Clinton's Nafta accord was "oversold" to Americans and that he would seek to amend it so that it "works for American workers" -- and that he'd do so unilaterally if Canada and Mexico refuse to cooperate.

This position became a source of controversy during the primaries, when a Canadian diplomat quoted Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee as saying privately his candidate's words were for U.S. domestic political consumption and wouldn't be implemented if Mr. Obama won. The Obama campaign said Mr. Goolsbee's comments were taken out of context and reiterated Mr. Obama's intention to renegotiate Nafta. Neither Canada nor Mexico has shown an interest in such a negotiation, which might mean higher costs for their producers.

Mr. McCain supports Nafta and opposes any renegotiation. He acknowledges that there are border issues that need attention, which he would negotiate separately from Nafta. He voted for Cafta.

U.S. agriculture policy and the Doha Round. Mr. McCain links U.S. agriculture subsidies and tariffs -- including the recent $300 billion farm bill -- to U.S. difficulties in opening new markets overseas. He says a strong multilateral trading system would be the goal of his trade policy, and that the Doha Round in the World Trade Organization is the best way of getting there. In 2005 Mr. Obama was one of 58 senators who signed a letter asking President Bush not to agree to cut farm subsidies as part of Doha. He also says that he'd preserve the 54-cents per gallon import tariff on Brazilian ethanol. Mr. McCain says he'd ask Congress to lift it.

Help for displaced workers. Both candidates believe government should assist workers who lose their jobs as a result of overseas competition. Both also want workers who anticipate the elimination of jobs to be eligible for training before layoffs actually hit.

Mr. McCain stresses choice in education to improve U.S. competitiveness. He says trade is only one type of "shock" that reshapes the U.S. job market. Others are productivity gains and domestic competition. He favors wage subsidies -- sometimes called "wage insurance" -- for older workers that would temporarily complement their income if they have to shift to a lower-paying job.

Mr. Obama also points to education -- though not choice -- but unlike Mr. McCain, stresses the employer role in job losses from outsourcing. He'd raise taxes on U.S. companies that earn income abroad as a way to punish what he sees as unpatriotic behavior. He would also create a federal "advanced manufacturing fund" of unspecified amount and funding that would subsidize companies that keep jobs in the U.S. To help displaced workers, he would add service jobs to those eligible for the existing system of Trade Adjustment Assistance, and he'd create education accounts, for retraining, though the campaign has not said how these would work.


(For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, EYE ON BRITAIN and Paralipomena . For readers in China or for when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.)

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