Thursday, September 30, 2010

Some Personal Observations Inspired by President Obama's Visit

by Stephen Malpezzi, Professor and Lorin and Marjorie Tiefenthaler Distinguished Chair in Real Estate

Tuesday night I took a break from catching up on emails and letters (nope, still not caught up!) and on the spur of the moment called my wife Joan, who works across the street, to see if we could catch President Obama's speech a block away at library mall. (Obama's University Visit Was Not Simple, NYT 9/28/10; Obama rallies Democrats in Madison, Wisconsin State Journal 9/28/10)

As we had guessed, at 5:45 it was way past the time you could actually get to the mall around the fountain, between Memorial and Historical Society Libraries. So we headed up Bascom Hill, and found a nice spot about half way up. We could hear (barely). We couldn't see, of course, except we had a very clear view of the heavily armed security forces atop Memorial Library. (To some, the sight might remind them of 9/11, but to those of us of a certain age, it brings back an equally searing memory of 1963; the security's so necessary, more's the pity).

It was a perfectly crisp night, and the crowd was in a good mood, even those carrying Scott Walker signs (the Republican candidate for Wisconsin governor) in the middle of a crowd comprised (I am sure) mostly of Obama supporters.

It was billed as a campaign speech, of course. As a professional economist, when I listen to a political speech, whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, I go prepared to be disappointed by the level of discourse and policy prescriptions. As usual, my expectations were fulfilled. As far as I could tell from the speech, the major issue facing the republic -- other than excessive numbers of Republicans -- was the availability of student loans. While the sound was garbled at times, I think the financing of higher education rated at least 3 and maybe 4 mentions; an important issue to be sure, but I didn't know it was so important that it left no time for lesser issues like funding social security and medicare, or the right course for our efforts in Afghanistan.

Lest you think, "I knew it, Malpezzi's a raging tool of Karl Rove, I've even seen tea bags in his office"--well, no. I can dish it out equally when confronted with, say, John Boehner's recent speech on "economic policy" which contained little in the way of either economics or policy (Boehner Urges Ax For Economy Team, WSJ 8/25/10). (Although I must admit to some sympathy to his idea of showing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner the door, given Treasury's repeated and willful refusal to do replace HAMP and its variations with an effective program to stem the huge external costs from record foreclosures--see our proposed Wisconsin Foreclosure and Unemployment Relief plan.)

In class, I often comment on public policy ideas, and on how to think about decisions, whether in business or the public arena, rationally and thoughtfully. I pride myself on choosing examples of good and bad ideas from across the political spectrum. Especially when I'm looking for bad ideas, I suffer from an embarrassment of riches, served up to our class by Republicans and Democrats alike. Maybe I don't always succeed in my goal of political even-handedness, but when I gave a class of 200 the chance to guess my vote in the 1991 election, they came within 5 votes of an even 3-way split between Bush, Clinton and Perot. (No, I won't tell you my vote. Well, I'll give you this one -- I didn't vote for Perot, and even I was a little surprised that I could mask my views enough for a third of the class to think I voted for him).

This posting might seem cranky so far, but I'm not really feeling cranky. Despite the disappointments on the policy side, I enjoyed the hour I spent on Bascom Hill with Joan and 26,000 of our closest friends. It was good to see a crowd revved up, yet -- dare I say it -- respectful? Maybe I need to adjust my expectations -- would I really want a world where politics was the province of economists? Should I really get cranky about the fact that we so often drop the gloves in political arguments and go all ad hominem on our opponents? It's a long tradition in our politics. If you think we're un-civil now, go read up on the raging fights, calumnies even, whenever some combination of Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison were in the room. Even Washington, trying so hard to stay above the fray, threw some elbows now and then. And Burr shot Hamilton, for heaven's sake. In the run-up to the Civil War, congressmen beat each other with sticks on the floor of the house. They had some real issues to fight about, not least slavery. And -- wait a minute -- we had a civil war! Bad as our recent wars have been, more Americans were killed in that combat than all our other wars combined, if we exclude World War II. So maybe I should get a little perspective. We're robust. Our country has survived worse than what's being thrown at it now, from within, and without. That doesn't mean we shouldn't push to raise our standards, but despite my frequent complaints about this or that policy decision, there's every reason for some optimism.

Of course the U.S. is not the only "robust society." I'll tackle a few international comparisons in a future post.

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