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Book Review

'Obama's Challenge' questions conventional wisdom

By Rich Barlow
October 1, 2008
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Obama's Challenge: America's
Economic Crisis and the Power
of a Transformative Presidency

By Robert Kuttner
Chelsea Green Publishing, 213 pp., $14.95

It's next Jan. 20, and President Barack Obama, just inaugurated, sits in the Oval Office thumbing through "Obama's Challenge." He learns that not only did Robert Kuttner predict he'd win the White House, he also predicted that even Obama's liberal-minded campaign proposals would be too timid to reverse our current recession/near-recession/whatever-you-want-to-call-it.

No one has a crystal ball. But Wall Street's recent catatonia, and the Bush administration's decision to pump in billions of taxpayer dollars in response - something most Republicans would have once castigated as socialism - suggest that Kuttner is correct that no wave of the normal business-cycle wand will make this downturn vanish. Co-editor of the American Prospect magazine and a sometime Globe columnist, Kuttner is a big-thinking liberal: the $600 Billion Dollar Man. That's the annual federal tab he believes is necessary to restore prosperity and sustainable security for the poor and middle classes.

"Obama's Challenge" is a reasoned brief for liberal activism. But it's marred by the same flaw Kuttner perceives in Obama, an occasional failure to argue for the transformation of parts of his own ideology.

George Will has argued that conservatism is rooted in empirical evidence. Kuttner's liberalism is no less anchored in indisputable historical experience. America's Gilded Age and Great Depression proved the need for the "managed brand of capitalism" he endorses. He's on equally solid terrain in calling for continued deficits and public works while the economy remains feeble, and for stiffer government regulation of the financial sector. If taxpayers rescue mortgage company Goliaths, it's only fair and rational to regulate them as a hedge against future crises.

The book would have been even better had Kuttner used his sharp mind to question some progressive orthodoxy as well. For example, he supports the traditional liberal health care fix - single-payer, government- subsidized health insurance - while urging Obama to back-burner the issue until he can build political support. This is debatable on at least two grounds.

First, the Institute of Medicine, a national advisory group, says thousands of Americans die needlessly because, uninsured, they put off care until they sicken beyond help. You'd think that would make reform a progressive’s priority. Second, Kuttner doesn't wrestle with the idea, advanced by others, that public spending on people who don’t need it is as wasteful as tax cuts for those who don't need them. Single-payer systems are simple administratively, but they require lots of tax money and spend some of it on the affluent.

Economist Paul Krugman, a single-payer advocate who doubts the idea will fly politically, is wiser when he urges immediate health care reform modeled somewhat on Germany's system. There, universal coverage comes from a public-private mix of insurance. But the private, basic coverage is offered on a nonprofit basis. Medical quality is high, and the system costs much less than ours.

Kuttner credits Obama with the vision and skill to transform Americans' hostility to big-spending government. Only zealots would dispute Obama's assertion that flawed government programs should be curbed. But aside from subsidies to fossilfuel industries and the Iraq war financing, Kuttner doesn't dwell on spending that he'd cut.

Still, a cogently argued plan like Kuttner's is a gift to election-year discourse. Conservatives may ignore its needed debunking of some of their conventional wisdom; some liberals may applaud it while missing its failure to question their own assumptions. Of both groups, one can only hope that Dwight Eisenhower's comment, about those who wanted to roll back the New Deal, applies: "Their number is negligible, and they are stupid."

Rich Barlow writes the Globe's "Spiritual Life" column.

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