Thursday, January 17, 2002

It must be nice to be Richard Posner. His book on Public Intellectuals is getting savaged. David Brooks says the book reads like a parody of Posner's trademark "Law and Economics" reasoning, and gets off the unforgettable zinger that "watching Posner try to apply economic laws to public debate is a bit like watching a Martian trying to use statistics to explain a senior prom." Alan Wolfe notes the irony that Posner, grand poobah of "Law and Economics", seems distressed, in this case, at the result of the market for punditry, and can think of nothing better to do about it than to overload that market with bizarre regulatory schemes of no obvious use. He also notes how strange it is that the tedious statistical exercises that form the basis of Posner's book somehow failed to name Fouad Ajami, Ian Buruma, Tony Judt, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and Fareed Zakaria, among many others, as public intellectuals.

But no worries. To Posner, the criticism seems, to judge by his Slate diary, to be of no particular concern because he takes the fact that he is being criticized as validation of the work:

George Orwell once remarked that Rudyard Kipling had been incessantly criticized by intellectuals during his lifetime and after his death, and yet when the dust settled it was Kipling who was still being read while his critics had been forgotten. Negligible work rarely attracts much criticism; it's simply ignored. Only when a work gets under people's skin do they bother to criticize it, and the deeper under the skin it gets the shriller the criticism. Often the reason a work gets under one's skin is that it shakes one's faith in oneself, one's values, or one's career.

And so, it suffices in response, to point out that some of the people he criticizes in the book have said dumb things in the past that haven't panned out. His direct response, in toto:

Speaking of criticisms, I have been taking some knocks lately from reviewers of my most recent book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. They say it's impossible for anyone to assess public intellectuals en masse, as I tried to do, when the subjects about which they opine on talk shows and in op-ed pieces and their other venues range from culture to race to ecology to the economy to foreign affairs. But you don't have to be an ecologist to point out that if ecology professor Paul Ehrlich predicts in 1970 that by 1974 the United States may have to ration water and that by 1980 hundreds of millions of people will be starving to death because of overpopulation, there's something wrong with his ecology. You don't have to be a social scientist to realize that political scientist Robert Putnam is fooling himself when he contends that the "Saguaro Seminar" that he has organized is the key to restoring a sense of national community. Nor do you have to be a cultural historian to conclude that the literary critic Jacques Barzun is barking up the wrong tree in declaring the trend to informal dress in law firms and investment banks a symptom of the nation's decadence. When academics step outside the ring of critical fire that is one of the glories of the academic culture at its best, the risk of their falling flat on their faces is very great. And it doesn't require expertise in their fields to notice their horizontal posture.

And so his critics are dismissed by association, as defenders of Ehrlich, Putnam, and Barzun. We needn't even consider the possibility that Posner's critics have evaluated Posner's book on its own merits, and found that Posner himself, as an academic writing far outside the domain of his own specialties, has, in the case of this book, mixed together bogus statistical analyses with essays on unrelated topics into a kind of repetitious, poorly edited, half-baked stew which is, taken in sum, every bit as dumb as Ehrlich.

How nice.

Postscript: Posner's next entry had more of the same chest-thumping, describing critiques of the book as "the pounding I am taking for kicking some of these sacred cows", even though every critic I've seen has evaluated Posner's arguments, such as they are, on their merits, and only named the individuals he critiques.

There is one new substantive point --- he defends his list against charges of incompleteness by saying that he "was just trying to create an appropriate sample for a statistical investigation." If that were all he was trying to do, of course, he wouldn't have added dozens of people to his initial list because reviewers of the manuscript thought they belonged.

What's more curious is the statistical investigation he thought he was trying to do --- to compare press metions to academic citations, taking the latter as a metric of the merit of a pundit's thought. Which should give pause to Posner's friends on the right, who are fond in other contexts of saying that widely cited academics like Baudrillard aren't worth listening to because, they note correctly, their arguments are nonsense.

The Republican story on Enron is pretty clear at this point. First, on California, the problems were with flaws in the deregulation plan, which didn't deregulate things enough, and since Enron went broke, they can't have been doing anything wrong. (I guess they think you can't go broke running a scam. Which seems odd --- just look at Ponzi, Boston's uniquely dubious contribution to twentieth century high finance. But I digress). And on Enron's bankruptcy, the story is that the Administration offered them no aid once the problems were clear, and before that, they knew nuffink, nuffink about what was going on, despite ten years of getting to know the principals. Call it the Sergeant Shultz defense.

The Democratic line, to paraphrase Reagan, seems to be that with all the crap, there has to be a scandal in there someplace. But so far, they're focusing on connections to the current administration, which didn't even enter office until Enron's stables were fouled beyond salvation, which leads to a certain credibility gap.

(And then there are the Republicans who are trying to blame it all on Clinton. It seems to be some kind of Pavlovian reflex for them --- the bell rings, the dog drools, and the Republican spews bile about Hillary's lost Rose Law Firm billing records. Which, when found, turned out to contain nothing the least bit incriminating. But you still hear them muttering from time to time about how she must have had some dark, sinister motive for "hiding" records which demonstrated, in immensely tedious detail, that she was not a crook. But again, I digress).

These rationales may all be starting to thin just a bit. What's becoming clearer is the extent to which Enron's way of business depended on twisting laws and regulations in its own favor, and how they would lean on just about anyone to do it, regardless of region or party affiliation.

Let's look first at California. Surely, we can't blame Enron for the flaws in the California deregulation plan. Unless, that is, they resulted directly from lobbying by Enron.

Salon has a "premium" article up entitled "Enron's California Smoking Gun". It doesn't live up to the title --- there's nothing like the direct evidence of market gaming that exists for other energy companies. But there is this account of Enron's role in the lobbying around the writing of the bill:

Lenny Goldberg, lobbyist for the Utility Reform Network (TURN), says Enron played a key role in setting up California's broken marketplace. "Unlike the market in Pennsylvania, which is transparent and works, Enron was pushing for a pretty murky, nontransparent, easily gameable market. They wanted much less authority and power in the [Independent System Operator], so it would be much easier to manipulate the market."

The ISO was designed to be a central command station coordinating the scheduling for the delivery of power so that everyone would get the power they needed. But Goldberg says Enron's insistence that the coordination be conducted essentially in private helped energy producers artificially manipulate the market.

During hearings before the Public Utilities Commission, as the state was crafting its deregulation plan, Enron argued for establishing a separate power exchange, or PX, to serve as a sort of clearinghouse, a place where competitive forces would lower the price of power for California electricity consumers.

"Their argument was that you don't want utility-like people running a market," says John Rozsa, an aide to Sen. Steve Peace, who played a key role in the Legislature's first attempts at electricity deregulation. "It gave them the ability to arbitrage between markets, and that's what their business was. What Enron really wanted was a dark market -- contracts that were not subject to any regulatory scrutiny."

In short, Enron didn't want a market that was transparent and efficient. They wanted a market they could game, and game in secret. And they intervened with the government --- specifically, the legislative boiler room run by Democrat Steve Peace --- to get one. (The bill had a harbinger of sorts in Peace's career before entering the legislature, a highlight of which was his scriptwriting credit on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which he also coproduced. But again, I digress).

This perhaps adds a new shading to Enron's subsequent interaction with the Bush administration, in which Ken Lay evidently got the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission bounced because he wouldn't agree with Lay's policy prescriptions on electricity deregulation.

But, latter-day defenders of Enron, take heart. Enron's revenues from the California market were less than they appeared to be. Much less. And thereby hangs a tale. It seems Enron accounted for revenues differently from traditional brokers:

Because Enron operated in a largely unregulated arena and because of the way energy trading firms are allowed to account for their operations, the company recorded revenue that made the economic status of its business appear larger than it really was. Under accounting rules, when an energy trading company trades electricity or gas, it can count as revenues the whole amount of every transaction rather than simply the profit or loss, as a brokerage firm does.

It is similar to the way Priceline .com counted as revenues the whole sale price of plane tickets sold online rather than just commissions, as traditional travel agents do.

That is largely how Enron, a relative newcomer to the trading of commodities and related financial instruments, was able to produce $101 billion of revenue in 2000, up from $40 billion in 1999. By comparison, Goldman, Sachs, a highly regulated firm with a long history of trading in the field, generated $6.5 billion in trading revenue last year.

So, Enron's balance sheet started with something like a revenue soufflé --- mostly hot air. And that, in turn, pumped up the size of the company:

To a Wall Street obsessed not with earnings but with revenue growth, the performance propelled Enron's shares into the stratosphere, enriching executives and investors. "The way these revenues were accounted for at Enron essentially made them pro forma revenues, which have little basis in reality," one institutional money manager said. "Yet the size of the revenues allowed the company to expand its balance sheet by piling on debt. That is why the company unraveled so quickly."

So, here's the history of Enron in a nutshell. They started out as an unremarkable natural gas pipeline company, which got into trading. Taking advantage of a loophole in the rules, they booked misleading revenue figures: buy at $8.10, sell at $8.15, and book as revenue not the five cents you made on the deal, but the whole $8.15. That made them look to Wall Street like much bigger fish than they actually were, and Wall Street, besotted with the fictional high revenues, was happy to give them all kinds of money, which Enron was happy to spend on, among other things, office buildings, dotcom stock deals (Rhythms Netconnections, among others, now bankrupt), baseball stadium naming rights (it's a wonder the team wasn't renamed the Houston Enrons), and of course, the immense collection of gee-whiz, high-tech crap that decorated their trading floor, while expanding their trading operations, and the cooked accounting associated with them, into entirely new markets. When the bills for this stuff, and of course, numerous bad deals in the energy business that was supposedly their core competence, started to add up, they shuffled the debt off their balance sheets into the now-infamous "partnerships" (Raptor, WhiteWing, JEDI, Chewco --- named for Chewbacca), and became famous for dealing with inconvenient questions about their accounting by sneering that anyone stupid enough to ask such a question "just didn't get it." Until, of course, the real answers started to leak out, at which point the seventh largest company in the Fortune 500 disappeared in a cloud of greasy, black smoke.

What got this all rolling was the inflated revenues produced by Enron's unconventional accounting --- which they could get away with because they weren't subject to the usual rules for traders. That gives you some idea of the cold cash value of the rules exemptions which Wendy Gramm secured for them as head of Reagan's Commodity Futures Trading Commission, just before joining Enron's board (for which she has collected, by now, about a half million dollars in board fees, by my rough reckoning) --- and which her husband, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, got written into the law itself, lest another regulator decide to take a closer look.

In short, Enron used its ties to politicians to twist the laws in its favor. If your standard for what's a scandal is illegality, this doesn't amount to much --- but then again, the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater didn't amount to much in the end either. And let it be said that the politicians don't seem, yet, to have been aware of any overt illegality at Enron until this fall, and there's no evidence yet that they did anything improper when becoming aware of it.

But if your standard for scandal is whether people with friends in high places get to enrich themselves improperly at the expense of the public, ratepayers and investors both, then there's already more here than Whitewater. Much more --- hundreds of millions of dollars in profit from sales of puffed-up stock for the executives, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of profit for the politicians, as opposed to tens of thousands in loss. And the use of a targeted rules exemption to generate cooked revenue figures adds a new twist to Kinsley's rule, "the scandal is what's legal."

Lastly, as to the partisan issues --- I didn't say "ties to Republican politicians" because a lot of them weren't. Steve Peace, the erstwhile Tomato-meister, is a Democrat. But no one disputes that Lay and Bush have known each other for years, and for much of that time enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship. What does it say about Bush that he never noticed that Lay was --- as now seems entirely plain --- a crook?

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Still sleazy after all these years.

Food tastes like socks.

Reassuringly ugly.

Took a doggie bag home; the dog refused it.

Could have changed my oil two times from the bottom of the pasta dish.

They put the salmon in salmonella.

Outtakes from Zagat's.

(via boingboing).

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

Benedict Arnold. Brutus. Iago. Vidkun Quisling. Bill Parcells.

Someone outside New England has finally noticed, though you'll have to scroll down to see the awful truth.

Radical Islam pops up in the most unexpected places. Cape Town, South Africa, for instance, where a vigilante group calling itself People Against Gangsterism And Drugs seems to have gotten itself infiltrated by a Hizbollah-inspired group called Qibla, which wants to bring something like Sharia law to the country. Hence, the expansion of PAGAD's program from death threats against drug dealers, to the bombing of a Planet Hollywood.

It's worth pointing out that the reason people joined PAGAD in the first place was because crime in South Africa has become truly horrific, and the government has provided no answer to the situation which citizens believe. So here, at least, Peter Beinart argues,

militant Islam isn't a phenomenon of the left--powered by the anarchic poor and the intellectuals who harness them to create futuristic utopias. It's often a phenomenon driven by the American right's favorite class, the petit bourgeois: the people who tend small shops and tiny houses, who believe in family, faith, property, and order. And who see those values threatened by rising lawlessness, and by governments too corrupt and too ill-equipped to keep them safe.

Which fits with the more general theme that I've mentioned before, that Islamic fundamentalist movements have an established history of gaining adherents by addressing serious social needs which the government is unable, or unwilling, to meet. On the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas runs medical clinics. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood which provides social services and the terrorists who are trying to overthrow the secular state are so close as to seem two sides of the same coin (and remember, bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, emerged from this milieu as a leader of Islamic Jihad).

Which suggests there's more than a financial bill for IMF austerity plans which demand governments cut services to the bone and put foreign bankers ahead of their own citizens, or even forbid governments from spending their foreign aid money on schools and hospitals.

But that's another rant...

"The rich," said F. Scott Fitzgerald, "are different from you and I." And it's not just because they have more money. In witness of which, I offer this story from Grim Amusements about the lifestyles of the rich and ... well, judge for yourself.

To begin at the beginning, Kirk Kerkorian had a romantic partner, or to put matters less kindly, a mistress, named Lisa, who had a daughter, Kira. In order to remove the stigma of bastardy from the child (whatever that amounts to, these days), she got him to marry her, but only if she agreed, in writing, to file for divorce a month later, and waive all rights to spousal support.

Leaving aside Lisa's delusional whining (she "believed and hoped that Kirk's and my marriage would last", and was "heartbroken" when it didn't), or the bizarre way the relationship continued for two years after the divorce (until the no-longer-wife confronted the no-longer-husband about rumors he was seeing other women), this leaves the question of child support. After all, she says, he had always promised to take care of Kira's every need, and "the word 'needs' never meant basic needs, but what was required to maintain [Kira] in the station of life and with the things and benefits befitting the daughter of Kirk Kerkorian." For which her mother is asking not the $35,000 in the prenup, nor the $50,000 in the divorce settlement, but $320,000, in what is evidently a separate palimony suit following the breakup of the relationship, post-divorce.

Does that sound like a bit much to support a three year old in the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed? Well, those aren't annualized figures. She's asking for $320,000 a month. For which she submits an itemized justification, including, among other items, $144,000 for travel, $14,000 for parties and play dates, $1400 for laundry and cleaning, and $436 to take care of Kira's pet bunny rabbit.

Obviously, this all has to do with maintaining Lisa in the station of life and with the things and benefits befitting the mistress of Kirk Kerkorian. (She was shocked and dismayed when he told her, "My airplane is no longer part of your lifestyle"). But that's not my point.

Forget the $320,000. Kerkorian clearly agreed to pay $50,000 a month in child support for a three-year-old --- that's $600,000 a year annual gross. (Is child support taxable?) Which, if guaranteed, is enough to support an adult, or two, in a lifestyle that almost everyone in the country would consider lavish.

Which is the kind of thing I like to use as a gut check when I hear people getting too sanctimonious about the egalitarian glory of America.

Monday, January 14, 2002

So, about a month ago, reporters spotted some odd looking scars on the President's face, and were informed that he'd been through a rather nasty medical procedure (the removal of precancerous face lesions), and no one had bothered to tell his press secretary till after the fact.

Today, he's got obvious scars on his face again. This time, the story is that he fainted dead away while eating a pretzel.

If this stuff had happened to Clinton, the right-wing Mena airport conspiracy crowd would have been all over it.

The Enron scandal, so far, is a bit of a disappointment. There's lots of ugly stuff going on, but so far, none of the political connections seem definitively uglier than you'd expect from any peek inside the sausage factory.

Mind you, I'm not quite sure I'd agree with Patrick Ruffini that

So far, no one has been able to establish the merest scintilla of evidence of any untoward contact between Enron executives and the Administration.

The General Accounting Office may have concluded that there was nothing actually criminal about the way Ken Lay was dropping hints last spring that Curt Hébert, Bush's original chair of the Federal Energy Regulation Commission would need Lay's "support" to keep his job, and that support would not be forthcoming unless Hébert toed Lay's line on electricity deregulation. But to me at least, "untoward" seems to cover it, particularly after Hébert got bounced for a good old boy from Texas who had worked on the Bush/Lay electricity deregulation plan.

(That GAO report is a hoot, by the way. Half the GAO's argument is that Lay's political support was not a "tangible or intangible" "thing of value", within the meaning of applicable laws and ethics guidelines --- hey, it was only Hébert's job. The other half comes straight from Lay, who says that just because they were talking about his political support for Hébert, and just because Lay's decision on whether to grant that support hinged on Hébert changing his policies, and just because that was all clear to everyone concerned, that doesn't mean that he was asking for a quid pro quo. You couldn't make this stuff up).

So, Lay may have been able to bounce a regulator whose policies weren't to his taste --- which may be the most troublesome thing I've seen so far about Enron's interactions with the federal government. But, as the Republicans will be fond of pointing out, this had nothing to do with the problems that drove Enron into bankruptcy, which had to do with flaws in the company's fiscal foundations, which were laid long before Bush entered the White House.

And when Lay called to ask if the administration would kindly arrange a bailout along the lines of the one that the allegedly incorruptable Allan Greenspan had earlier swung for the rocket scientists who sank a multibillion dollar hedge fund at Long Term Capital Management, Enron was properly turned down flat. (And, as it happens, Greenspan turned them down, too). And Ashcroft's recusal from investigations of the matter may be the first thing he's done as Attorney General that I don't have a problem with.

Besides, as many folks (particularly Josh Marshall) are starting to notice, there's at least as much action in Congress. By which I'm not even referring so much to campaign contributions as, shall we say, more direct connections. Consider, for instance, the ties between Enron and Phil Gramm, senior Senator from Texas, which in this case seem to go in some measure through his wife. Of course, his wife is an interesting story in her own right:

In 1987 The New York Times described her as "one of the Reagan administration's most vigorous deregulators." President Reagan called her "my favorite economist," naming her chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the powerful regulatory agency which oversees the nation's commodities and futures exchanges.

Her dual roles as CFTC head and Senator's wife put her in a difficult position. There were times when Senator Gramm sought the support of some of the same agricultural and business interests that she was regulating. On trips to Texas during his 1989 Senatorial campaign she worked both on CFTC business and for her husband's reelection. After leaving the CFTC in early 1992, Wendy Gramm accepted lucrative directorships on the boards of several corporations she had regulated. Several of these corporations were also financial supporters of her husband's Presidential campaign. One of the boards on which Mrs. Gramm sits is Enron Corporation, a Texas natural gas company, which has given almost $35,000 to Phil Gramm over the years. She was named to the company's board, just five weeks after stepping down from the CFTC, which around the same time, exempted Enron and a group of other oil and gas companies from federal regulation on some of their commodities trading. The move was a big financial boon to Enron.

Given all that, Wendy's $22,000 board fees (plus $1250 per meeting) have a faint odor of payment for services rendered. And it's also worth noting that those payments, which must add up by now to more than a quarter of a million dollars, went into the bank account which she presumably shared with her husband, the Senator --- not as campign contributions, but straight into his wallet. And in 2000, as has been well chronicled by now, the Senator (according to just about everyone on the Hill except his own spokesman) showed his appreciation, by helping to push through provisions of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, as a rider known to some as "the Enron provision", which carefully defined energy trading operations amazingly like Enron's as being beyond the regulatory scope of either the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the SEC.

But on the Hill, these days, this stuff is SOP. Cash is the universal lubricant of politics; everyone gets greased, and everyone's a conduit. Heck, Linda Daschle has a lobbying business in which she delivers campaign contributions to Republican Senators.

The libertarian view of this, apparently, is to say that this is the problem with letting the legislature mess with the economy --- to describe all the problems as flaws in the markets, or regulations that someone failed to eliminate, or something. There are a lot of peculiar things about this analysis. For one, in the Enron case, the biggest problems to date seem to have been accounting fraud committed in violation of federal reporting rules; eliminating those regulations would have just made the fraud more brazen. For another, more generally, this analysis doesn't acknowledge that some regulations can create useful markets that wouldn't exist otherwise, like the market for pollution allowances, or just about anything that falls under the rubric of "intellectual property".

But mostly, to me, it ignores history. In the late 19th century, when the federal government didn't regulate things nearly as much as it does now, the capitalists of the day screwed up markets perfectly well on their own --- a famous example being Rockefeller's deal with the railroads, in which the railroads paid Rockefeller a portion of the fees they got for moving anyone else's oil.

It was also an era of monopolists in other fields. The railroads were collusive even beyond their natural, regional monopolies. Merchants in markets other than oil had tacit and not-so-tacit arrangements. Banking was dominated by a few players in New York, who were dominated in their turn by J.P. Morgan. And as one wag put it, the name "Edison" wasn't on all those power companies just for tribute.

(And in this connection, we might as well mention the evidence that during the recent California crunch, several power companies gamed the market, by ramping down the output of their own plants to run up prices of the spot market, then ramping them back up, even during power alerts, and even when that rapid cycling risked damage to the equipment. (Remember all those power plants which were mysteriously offline for maintenance?) But, as I've mentioned before, I've never seen hard evidence of such shenanigans pointing directly at Enron either, though they clearly benefited from the runups regardless).

Which all brings us back to the old sage's observation, from not long past the dawn of laissez-faire, that

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

For the public to secure the benefits of open, free, competitive markets, someone has to serve the public interest in keeping them open, competitive, and free. In America, that pretty much has to be the government. Not for nothing was antitrust regulation originally a Republican program.

Which is why, by the way, that I'm skeptical of Andrew Hofer's argument that regulation isn't necessarily good, and we ought to evaluate the situation in that light. I guess the same argument applies to the FERC business as well. But much of the regulatory structure we have, particularly regulations on corporate reporting and market operations, was originally put in place as a guard against the repetition of very real, past abuses. And if you're going to have regulations at all, then there are obvious problems with allowing one market player to kick out a recalcitrant regulator, or to get what Hofer's bête noir, Paul Krugman, calls "one-eyed bearded man with a limp" exemptions from rules that apply to everyone else.

So, what does this all add up to? Perhaps the Michael Kinsley saw that Jim Henley keeps citing, that the scandal is what's legal. Consideration of which would lead to exactly what's wrong with the system, and whether it can be fixed, or whether it's simply in the nature of Congress to be the greatest deliberative permanent floating crap game for our pork. But that's another rant, for another time, I'm afraid. No conclusions, for now; I'm just thinking out loud.

(By the way, Brian, I'm not Chucky, but I know him. His bride says hello).

Sunday, January 13, 2002

Jim Henley says he draws different conclusions that I do from my blurb about tax cuts below. That's a bit odd, since I don't think I drew any conclusions at all, really; the most that the short-form blog entry allows for, as a literary(?) form, is to drop a few hints.

That said, I'm not sure I disagree with either of his alternative conclusions:

1) It's shrewd grand strategy by antigovernment visionaries - empty the expansive state tank of its fuel now, forcing it to shorten its trips and carpool more later. 2) It's the sort of chicanery politicians are reduced to when they haven't got the guts to make the case for reducing government.

I actually see parallels between the current Bush tax cut strategy and the original Reagan tax cut strategy, which was famously described in pretty nearly those terms by his first budget director, David Stockman, who was forced out after a controversial interview was published in the Atlantic Monthly.

I haven't got the Atlantic article handy, and I haven't got time to reread Stockman's book in toto ("The Triumph of Politics", 1986), but I have just gone through the book's prologue again. By itself, it's an astonishing piece of writing in several ways, not the least of which is his description of the goal of the "Reagan revolution":

Behind the hoopla of the Kemp-Roth tax cut and my thick black books of budget cuts was the central idea of the Reagan Revolution. It was minimalist government --- a spare and stingy creature, which offered even-handed public justice, but no more. Its vision of the good society rested on the strength and productive potential of free men in free markets. It sought to encourage the unfettered production of capitalist wealth and the expansion of of private welfare that automatically attends it.

Clearly, a libertarian vision, though he doesn't use the term. And he also clearly anticipated that that reduction in the size of government, on which his tax cuts were predicated, would traumatize the country (his word):

A true economic policy revolution meant risky and mortal political combat with all the mass constituencies of Washington's largesse --- Social Security recipients, veterans, farmers, educators, state and local officials, and many more. ... It meant complete elimination of subsidies to farmers and businesses. It required an immediate end to welfare for the ablebodied poor. It meant no right to draw more from the Social Security fund than retirees had actually contributed, which was a lot less than most were currently getting.

The enactment of that program, further, butts up against some facts of life in our system which ideologues of all stripes have trouble facing up to:

The true Reagan Revolution never had a chance. It defied all of the overwhelming forces, interests, and impulses of American democracy. Our Madisonian government of checks and balances ... and infinitely splintered power is conservative, not radical. It hugs powerfully to the history behind it. It shuffles into the future one step at a time. It cannot leap into revolutions without falling flat on its face.

But, even though he calls this the "Reagan revolution", he then turns around and says that Reagan himself was unsuited to the program:

He was a consensus politician, not an ideologue. He had no business trying to make a revolution because it wasn't in his bones.

and, further, that he never really bought into it; that an exaggerated faith in the Laffer curve had led him to believe that simply cutting taxes would generate enough revenue to pay for most of the existing government structure, and that his most influential aides in the White House functioned effectively as salesmen who didn't care much about the intellectual basis of the program, and still less about its intellectual integrity, but were just concerned with how to sell it.

Stockman's account of these matters is certainly self-interested. But the fiscal upshot is clear, regardless. The original Reagan tax cut, we can now say for certain, could only have been paid for with massive cuts in politically sensitive programs. When the tax cuts happened and the cuts did not, the result was deficits in the hundreds of billions and national debt in the multiple trillions --- numbers theretofore unimaginable, which Stockman claims were popping out of his projections as early as late 1981. And the conclusion he draws from his experiences (having space to do so)?

The fact is, politicians can be a menace. They never stop inventing illicit enterprises of government that bleed the national economy. Their social uplift and pork barrel is wasteful; it reduces our collective welfare and wealth. ...

There is only one thing worse, and that is ideological hubris. It is the assumption that the world can be made better by being remade overnight. It is the false belief that in a capitalist democracy we can peer deep into the veil of the future and chain the ship of state to an exacting blueprint. It can't be done. It shouldn't have been tried.

The only way to destroy the welfare state within our system, if that's what you want to do (as Stockman did, by his own testimony) is the way the system will allow for, which is the way the programs were built up: incrementally, piece by piece, shaving off benefits and programs piecemeal until the government that's left is one that you can live with.

(And by the by, the country only really started to get its fiscal house in order when governed by a politician, Clinton, who appeared at times to have no principles whatever, but who was skilled at practicing the art of the possible, and willing to confront the consequences of the math).

Why go through all this? Because the Reagan experience, whatever you think of it, is the elephant in the Ways and Means committee room that no one is talking about. Again we have a large tax cut based on projections which are quickly being revealed as over-optimistic. Again we have no clear way to pay for it. (The Bush administration has already announced they'll be projecting deficits for the rest of his term). And on top of that, we have promises of new entitlements; far from shrinking the medical insurance entitlements, for instance, they're talking about tossing in drug benefits.

You'd expect the national dialog to center around what happened the last time we were in this situation, but it's on the periphery at best. Even Paul Krugman, who has been preaching on hidden agendas in the Bush tax cut proposals from almost the moment Bush entered office, hasn't made much of the last time around. I find this absolutely astonishing --- particularly since the Bush II White House has so many names and faces in common with Reagan's.

We are ignoring history. We are condemning ourselves to repeat it.