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Cartooning Obama’s economics

Special to The Times

Among the things I admire most about Barack Obama is the way that he’s able, without sounding wishy-washy, to capture issues in their full complexity -- to explain them not in the obtuse terms typical of so many politicians but in a manner that recognizes nuance, that allows for shades of gray.

It’s too bad that the same can’t be said of John R. Talbott’s “Obamanomics: How Bottom-Up Economic Prosperity Will Replace Trickle-Down Economics.” Instead, much of it presents an overly simple, cartoonish view of the world.

Trumpeting any politician’s platform while he’s still out on the campaign trail can be perilous. Still, I had high hopes for this book, thinking that Talbott would provide some valuable context to the senator’s call to restore a better sense of balance between “self-interest and community, markets and democracy.” There is no doubt, after all, that something is terribly out of whack for millions of hard-working Americans who’ve seen their wages largely stagnate and their health and retirement benefits erode over the last 35 years.

I’d anticipated that Talbott would explore the history of these struggles -- the way that Robert B. Reich does so cogently in “Supercapitalism” or my former colleague Peter Gosselin, The Times’ national economics correspondent, does so compellingly in “High Wire” -- and then link how we got here with Obama’s plans for leading us to a better place.

I had figured too that Talbott might serve up an astute, if tendentious, analysis of Obama’s blueprint for change. Take, for instance, healthcare. Can we really achieve meaningful reform without a government mandate for every individual to obtain medical insurance? (Obama would require only children to have coverage and employers to offer health benefits or toss money into a public pot.) Can Obama actually garner the huge savings he claims -- $2,500 per family per year -- through the use of electronic health records and other means? (Many experts are skeptical.)

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Yet Talbott addresses none of these pertinent questions, delivering little more than a cut-and-paste job from the candidate’s website interspersed with a slew of shallow (and sometimes silly) generalities. Talbott tells us how Obama is bent on expanding opportunity for people, how he’s poised to give “the average American” a shot at “a fair wage, with the chance for personal growth and advancement and the ability to give his children a superior education.” It’s Obama, he says, who can return “decency, honesty, and justice to Washington.” Amen to all that. But Talbott doesn’t go much deeper, giving many parts of “Obamanomics” the feel of a quick-and-dirty blog entry, with snippets of Obama’s speeches and writings tucked among the author’s trite ramblings. (“We are our brother’s keepers. We are our sister’s keepers. No man is an island.”)

Talbott, a former investment banker who has been a visiting scholar at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, proclaims at the outset that he “was guided by a philosophy practiced by Barack Obama, namely, it does little good to try to assign blame for our current problems.” He then proceeds, over the next 200 pages, to blame a series of one-dimensional boogeymen for our nation’s troubles. Chief among them: the big businesses that are “bribing our public officials with campaign donations.”

Now, God help Corporate America when I’m the one thrust into the position of rising to its defense. More than a couple of executives have accused me over the years of being reflexively “anti-business” after I’ve written pieces expressing the need for a government-prescribed “living wage” or urging the adoption of some pro-union policy.

However, I would never go so far as to assert, as Talbott does, that companies are so completely focused on the bottom line that “there is no room for community, environmental, charitable, employee, neighborhood or patriotic concerns. Profit maximization is it.” One can certainly argue that there is too much emphasis on short-term profits and not enough on social responsibility (aside from hollow sloganeering). But “no room” whatsoever?

I can rattle off plenty of companies -- such as Procter & Gamble, Google, Timberland and Costco -- that have demonstrated a genuine commitment to their employees, their communities and the environment. Are these enterprises perfect? No. Do they all face pressure to maximize profit? Absolutely. But are they as malevolent as Talbott would have you believe? Not even close.

At times, Talbott seems so determined to condemn the business sector that he goes off half-cocked. For example, he rants about the “monopolies and collusive behavior” in our “corporate-dominated economy,” decrying the “price wars” in which giant companies “match each other’s price increases dollar for dollar.” Hmmm. Most of the price wars I’m familiar with occur when companies match each other’s markdowns dollar for dollar.

Indeed, while the last few decades have been dreary in many respects for American workers, they’ve been generally fantastic for consumers, who today enjoy an unprecedented array of choices, and sizable savings, on a variety of goods and services. Cars, computers, TVs, refrigerators, airline tickets, telephone calls -- they’re all markedly cheaper than they were 20 or 30 years ago (using constant dollars).

The best part of “Obamanomics” -- and I use that word only in the relative sense -- deals with the current mortgage crisis. Talbott has won praise in the past for his early prediction that the real estate industry would tank, and one must take him seriously when he suggests that we’re a mere 18 months into what promises to be a five- to seven-year downturn. "[W]e can expect real home prices to decline further, some 25 to 30 percent nationally, and 40 to 50 percent on the coasts and in Las Vegas and Phoenix,” he warns. “Everything to date has been prologue.”

But such insights are all too rare. Barack Obama has a lot to say about how to achieve economic justice in this country. Unfortunately, in trying to help make the case, Talbott doesn’t do his chosen candidate any justice whatsoever.

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Rick Wartzman, former business editor of The Times, is the director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University and an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, “Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ” will be published in September.


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