Pragmatism Tempered By Vision and Justice

By Joe Firestone

In this good post, Jared Bernstein, who is one of the few prominent writers in economics who is often close to being right, asks “How Did Things Get So Screwed Up?” he answers that it’s money, ideology, and a rejection of fact-based policy analysis. He thinks that more pragmatism and willingness to accept facts would really help our politics.

But pragmatism is a vague term, and we have to be careful about what we mean by it. Few politicians have been more pragmatic than President Obama in the sense that he is willing to compromise principles to get something done. In being so pragmatic, I think he has damaged his presidency.

He never took the big banks into resolution when they were insolvent; but instead continued the bailouts and left control of lending and credit to the banks to the detriment of small business and people. In not taking them into resolution, he also left the overweening power of Wall Street and the big banks in place, a big mistake having consequences for the rest of his presidency.

In doing this, he also opened the way to those big obscene bonuses based on fictitious profits which the bank traders have enjoyed since 2009, and which so angered the American people. In passing the recovery act, he compromised its size and effectiveness for a few Republican votes, resulting in too small a stimulus, years of continuing high unemployment, and a major threat to his presidency and his re-election chances.

His approach to health care was so “pragmatic” that the ACA became an insurance company bailout whose full benefits can’t be demonstrated until 2014, and which became a target leading to Republican control of the House and a near policy stalemate for the past two years. In addition, the bill is far from a solution to the problem of fatalities occurring due to lack of insurance coverage.

His approach to financial regulation has produced two inadequate bills First, the Credit Card Reform Act, which by failing to regulate credit card interest rates still allows CC interest at usurious levels as high as 30%, and this in a time when the cost of money to the banks is close to 0%. And second, the FINREG bill which fails to solve the main problem it was supposed to address, namely the ability of the big banks and their traders to crash the global financial system.

In addition, President Obama has allowed pragmatism to supercede justice in a number of areas. One of these is in the mortgage fraud area, where there have been only very few and trivial prosecutions bringing those who committed fraud to account. And the  banks that were at the basis of these control frauds, have been allowed to negotiate very small settlements that are little more than slaps on the wrist when measured against the Trillions of Dollars of fraud they’ve committed.

A second area is in Government assistance to those harmed by the crash. The President’s pragmatism seemed to him to dictate that he bail out the banking system, AIG, and the auto industry. But he evidently didn’t feel a pragmatic need to bailout small business, working people, and student loan recipients, to help them cope with the effects of the Great Recession; and the Administration’s programs for helping homeowners with mortgage difficulties have been laughable in their negligible impact on the mortgage market.

Another area in which pragmatism has superceded justice has been in national security. Look at the drone program and its results in killing uninvolved civilians. Look at the killings of American citizens without trial. Look at the President’s claims that he has the authority to serve as judge, jury, and executioner, when it comes to deciding which American citizens are to be killed because he judges them to be enemy combatants.

I could go on and on with these examples, and none of this should be taken as a reason for voting for Romney rather than the President, or for voting for Jill Stein rather than the President, if you live in a swing state. But the point I am making is that when pragmatism supercedes justice, or when it is used to pass legislation that fails to solve problems so that politicians can then point to “accomplishments” which actually accomplish very little, then I think it is the wrong kind of pragmatism, a pragmatism we don’t need and should avoid.

“Always look forward, never look backward” wasn’t the right way to go, because not investigating prosecuting, and punishing crimes creates a double standard of law and poisons the future. Until we can serve the needs of justice arising out of the Great Financial Crash, the Housing crisis and the decade following 9/11, we won’t be America again. We’ll only be a failing democracy, and an emerging plutocracy and a sad, shadow of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave!

So, to right things, I think we need more than fact-based pragmatism, Jared. We need pragmatism tempered by vision and justice. It is this kind of pragmatism, the pragmatism of Dewey, FDR, Harry Truman, and Jack Kennedy, which is absent from American politics today!

21 responses to “Pragmatism Tempered By Vision and Justice

  1. Pundits like Bernstein shouldn’t refer to the ideas of actual thinkers like de Toqueville, who would reject their analysis out of hand:

    After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

    • I love that Chuck – a near perfect description of the world of today – apart from the few foolish ones who actually try to make a stand and are physically beaten down by the iron fist of tyranny that is really at the base of government power.

  2. “I could go on and on with these examples, and none of this should be taken as a reason for voting for Romney rather than the President, or for voting for Jill Stein rather than the President, if you live in a swing state.”

    I live in Virginia and yesterday voted for two deficit hawks: President Obama and Tim Kaine. Kaine has even said that he’s open to raising taxes on the poor. Yet, I just could not vote for Romney or George Allen.

    • I feel the same way and have also voted both for Obama, Kaine, and Jim Moran, an Obama follower right down the line. If I lived in New York, I would have voted for Stein. But I won’t have the misanthropic, misogynist, plutocrats in power.

      • If every voter of sound mind voted for Dr. Stein, this nation would be entering a better place, although the road would be bumpy for awhile with the ability of said plutocrats to initiate “flash crashes” with a few keystrokes, etc.

        A vile Romney, or seemingly pseudo-acceptable Obama, means business as usual either way — with almost the same outcomes.

        Sure, President Obama is more pro-science, and pro-education, but as long as offshoring continues (which reached critical mass back in 1999, when America became a net importer of high tech services) with free trade agreements and their Trans-Pacific Partnership, things will only get worse, just a tad more slowly.

        I voted Dr. Stein, and look forward to viewing Romney voters as possible future meal potential.

  3. Shake that old Kennedy, Truman imaginary success stick and what do you have? An imaginary stick that cannot move any wind.

  4. Joe, good points about pragmatism. Lacking “the vision thing” can lead into a cul-de-sac….one thing may lead to another. Having vision doesn’t mean you necessarily ignore facts, you just need to distinguish between where you want society to go and where it is now. Also you need a realistic “anthropology”, i.e. picture of what people are actually like, not how you wish them to be, for your vision to be effective. A realistic anthropology would include people’s sense of justice and fairness, as well as their connectedness with each other; “pragmatism” too often assumes away “pro-social” impulses and emphasizes our asocial and anti-social impulses.

  5. Butch Busselle

    I question whether Obama actually believes “in” any of his ideas, leading to half efforts at success. I’m tired of all of all the ignorance, especially where MMT is concerned, but I can’t stand the thought of Romney appointing any justices.

    • I agree that the Justices are a very, very important consideration. People point out, and rightly I think that Obama’s appointees have been rather pro-corporate, as is Ginsberg. But 1) they’re not nearly as pro-corporate as the Republican justices, 2) they’re much less anti-woman and more likely to uphold Roe v. Wade, 3) they’re much more likely to, eventually, question the constitutionality of the Patriot Act,and noxious provisions of the NDAA, if not under Obama, then under his successor. and 4) in future Bush v. Gores, they’ll be much less likely to turn over the White House to a Republican. We need more Democratic Justices. It’s as simple as that. There’s a Party-line split in the Court, that’s as serious as the one in FDR’s day. Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts, are the new Four Horsemen.

      • The SCOTUS argument is the only one that could lead me to vote for Obama. But, I don’t think it’s pursuasive. When the Democratic candidate rejects false asumptions that undermine the party’s core principles and reins in executive he or she will have my vote. Dr. Stein can’t be a spoiler candidate because the Democratic party has already gone bad. Republican presidents play hardball with judicial nomination because the base makes credible threats to punish idealogical defection (Harriat Myers). I’m tired of wiffle ball.

    • I can’t stand the memory of those neocon justices the dems voted for, or allowed to be appointed these past 10 years. Red herring alert ….

  6. We need pragmatism tempered by vision and justice. It is this kind of pragmatism, the pragmatism of Dewey, FDR, Harry Truman, and Jack Kennedy, which is absent from American politics today!

    Yeah, we could use a little more pragmatism of the kind Harry Truman implemented when he ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese school girls, tempered, of course, by vision and justice. Those civilians were, after all, part of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

    • Now, of course, Harry Truman’s decision looks like a bad one. But I was alive then, though very young, and I remember what the War as like. My favorite uncle had been killed off the coast of England. Another close uncle was serving in the Army Air Corps in England, and the favorite aunt was away from home serving in the WACs. Other more distant family members were serving. The War had been a long pull and most everyone’s family was separated due to the War. In the Pacific, the Japanese invasions of Korea, China, the Philippines and various islands had been brutal in relation to both soldiers and civilians. The Japanese themselves were very nationalistic, extremely persistent and courageous, and governed by a military dictatorship.

      Casualty estimates for an invasion of Japan varied widely depending on assumptions. But, at the high end, Truman, based on War Department estimates was looking at “1.7-4 million American casualties, including 400,000–800,000 fatalities, and five to ten million Japanese fatalities,” when he made the atom bomb decision. It has always seemed to me that his decision saved American lives and also led to major changes for the better in Japanese society.

      So, I think Truman’s decision was the right one, and not just the pragmatic one, because even though Hiroshima and Nagasaki casualties and fatalities were very heavy, they were nowhere near as great as the prevailing best estimates of the time were projecting as likely.