Thursday, June 30, 2005

US Presidents I Remember

Here's the Presidents I remember, and my retrospective opinion:
  • Eisenhower: Barely remember him. Seems like he was like primarily because he represented the feel-good, post-war cocktail hour crowd. Beloved leader, gracious demeanor. "Our Guy" for my grandparent's generation.
  • Kennedy: Political rock star. Saw him once in person as his limo drove past my Dad and me standing on the side of the road on our Boy Scout uniforms. We stood at attention and saluted, and he rolled down the window and waved. My mom bawled when he was shot. "Our guy" for my parent's generation.
  • Johnson: Powerhouse politician. Escalating Vietnam was a huge mistake. I wonder what he might have been able to pull off had Vietnam not happened. You don't have to like a guy for him to be a great leader.Nixon: Neurotic bumbler. Restoring a relationship with China was pretty cool. He was in office when I was in college and NROTC. I appreciate that he ended the draft, but that whole Watergate thing was frightening.
  • Ford: Decent guy. We needed him at that moment. Even if he went to Michigan. It could have been Spiro Agnew.
  • Carter: I voted for him. I thought someone who was an Annapolis grad, former nuke officer, a farmer and Washington outsider was exactly what we needed in contrast to the career lawyer-politicians of the recent past. Yet he was a totally ineffective leader. Read the book "Running Critical" to get a glimpse of what the Navy and Rickover valued in a nuke officer; leadership wasn't necessary. His "general malaise" observation, while true, just made everyone get into a funk.
  • Reagan: Who knew. He figured out how to crank up the economy FDR-style without needing a shooting war to accelerate it. He also restored national pride. I think his administration was a lot like Ike's in the way people felt about the country. One of the most important legacies of his tenure was the development of 401(k) plans, which caused billions of dollars to pour into the capital markets, setting off the longest bull market ever. Unfortunately, the bull market got out of control. I've heard it said that Reagan invited us all to a great banquet, then left without paying the check.
  • Bush I: Another decent guy who had no idea how to lead.
  • Clinton: I voted for him the first time too. Like Carter, he was a Washington outsider, but he seemed like an "our guy" for my generation. He ran to England to escape the draft, but colleges were full of guys going to school to avoid the draft. Too bad he couldn't get keep his fly zipped. The Democrats are taking credit for the economic boom during the 90s, but the main thing the Clinton administration did was harvest the fruits that Reagan planted. He didn't balance the budget -- that was the result of incredible tax revenues created by the boom. In fact, my main criticism of Clinton is that his administration failed to keep the stock market from overheating. Enron, Worldcom et al pulled their crap on his watch.
  • Bush II: Would probably be a fun guy to hang out with, but over his head as CEO of the country. Sometimes men have grown into the job, but he's not there yet, and I'm not sure we can wait. He didn't cause the economic blowup, but didn't keep it from happening either. Iraq is a major blunder. It's like fishing for sharks: the battle can be glorious, but you'd better have a plan when you get him up to the boat.

I regret that our political system has gotten to the point where effective leaders rarely rise to the top. Nixon and Clinton weakened the Presidency such that too many deals have to happen to get elected. Regardless of party, an elected President owes so many favors to so many people that it's a wonder anything gets done besides settling those IOUs. What's good for the country is less important that what's good for the President's benefactors. You have to put up a good enough show for the electorate to get elected, but you don't have to win by much. American politics are much less about ideology than power.

It's not corporations vs the common citizen. It's my corporations against your corporations. You can't run a $100 million campaign on private funding.

Interesting that Kerry said he would let Americans buy their drugs from Canada. That had to freak out the drug companies. American drugs are cheaper in countries with nationalized healthcare because they require those lower prices. Prices are higher here because the economics are perverse. I wholeheartedly believe that drug companies have the right to recoup their aggregate cost of development, be protected by the patent system, and reap profits on the sale of their product. For many products, we chose whether they are worth it, and great but overly expensive products don't make it because the demand never develops at the high price. But few products have life-or-death implications like medicines. I can't afford a Ferrari, but can live without one. I'm glad there are rich guys who can afford Ferraris, because it's nice to know such things exist.

But I don't like it if there's a drug that could change, or even save my life, and I can't afford it, but the rich guy can. We try to neutralize that in this country with our private health insurance system, but the demographics are changing such that almost everyone is a consumer of medicines, and the risk sharing aspect of typical insurance economics has been replaced by what is essentially a for-profit taxation system. The only choice insurers have is to keep raising premiums. Because health insurance is employer provided, American employers are finding it too expensive to hire American workers. Jobs get moved offshore. Corporations survive, but communities fail. Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Pfizer may be headquartered in China by 2020. It's not hard to paint a picture where the standard of living in North America, Europe and Australia falls as Asian, African and South American standards rise.

I'm pro-business, but don't want to see our standard of living fall either. While the USA still represents the greatest market on the planet (Asia is rising!!), we need to protect our standard of living by equalizing the cost of labor in foreign products. In other words, a product coming in from outside the country should have sufficient tariffs applied to make the labor component equal to something like 80% of the US labor and environmental component, including our health system costs, and the cost of protecting the environment. That keeps pressure on the American companies to drive productivity, but gives them economic justification to keep the jobs here.

Henry Ford understood. He raised his workers' wages (to $5/day!!) because he knew that it takes a middle class to afford all the new products being developed, especially his cars. If we want to keep the America we have, a land of opportunity in terms of economic wealth and personal freedom, we have to protect the middle class. The poor don't jump from the ghetto to the board room. But their kids can if we give the parents a decent middle-class job market so that the kids can concentrate on education and positive social development, rather than on basic survival (which allows the illegal drug market to thrive).

I've not made my mind up yet, but I think this issue of protection of the middle-class might well be my deciding factor.

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