Thursday, February 04, 2010

(In a different political environment, you actually could)

In his column today about Joe Biden, E.J. Dionne gets this a bit wrong:

Beneath the predictable back-and-forth between Obama and his Republican adversaries over government spending lies a substantively important difference over how the United States can maintain its global leadership.

For Republicans, American power is rooted largely in military might and showing a tough and resolute face to the world. They would rely on tax cuts as the one and only spur to economic growth.

Obama, Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, believe that American power depends ultimately on the American economy, and that government has an essential role to play in fostering the next generation of growth.

I'll ignore the implication that Democrats don't think military might is a major factor in how America maintains superpower status. That's just silly. What's really wrong here is the notion that Republicans think economic might is irrelevant.

They don't -- but they do seem to believe that America's economic strength comes from a laissez-faire, Ayn Rand approach to economics. Which is bizarre, because America's post-World War II rise to economic dominance coincided with some of its highest marginal tax rates on the rich, and with a far more economically interventionist government than we have now. The Republicans want to return us to a lost Randian Golden Age when we were economically unbeatable and fat cats were unfettered. The problem is, that Golden Age never existed.

But Joe Biden seems to understand this, as Dionne learned when he interviewed him:

"From me you're going to hear more," [Biden] replied emphatically. "I want to tell you something, because if we cede the ground to those who suggest that -- I don't mean foreigners, I mean domestic critics -- that somehow, we are destined to fulfill [historian Paul] Kennedy's prophecy that we are going to be a great nation that has failed because we lost control of our economy and overextended, then we might as well throw it in now, for God's sake. I mean it's ridiculous."

Ascribing this thinking to, among others, "our Republican friends," Biden went on:

"We will continue to be the most significant and dominant influence in the world as long as our economy is strong, growing and responsive to 21st-century needs. And they relate to education, they relate to energy, and they relate to health care."

Biden and the president believe in the military, but Dionne's right: they also believe "that government has an essential role to play in fostering the next generation of growth." It's smart for Biden to describe this not as something that parasitically weakens us, but as the opposite -- as something that makes us strong.

Republicans argue that government is always parasitical, and that only the free market can determine what's useful in the non-military sphere. And that means, for instance, that using government incentives to make a transition to green energy must be a terrible idea. Oddly, though, the country that's kicking our ass financially these days doesn't agree:

China vaulted past competitors in Denmark, Germany, Spain and the United States last year to become the world's largest maker of wind turbines, and is poised to expand even further this year.

China has also leapfrogged the West in the last two years to emerge as the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels....

As China seeks to dominate energy-equipment exports, it has the advantage of being the world's largest market for power equipment. The government spends heavily to upgrade the electricity grid, committing $45 billion in 2009 alone. State-owned banks provide generous financing....

Regulators have set mandates for power generation companies to use more renewable energy. Generous subsidies for consumers to install their own solar panels or solar water heaters have produced flurries of activity on rooftops across China....

And, as we learn from today's New York Times, even musty old Europe is getting benefits -- benefits we could use -- from government intervention in the economy:

... European companies may not be as nimble as their counterparts in the United States, but in moving to preserve jobs through the worst global downturn since the end of the war, they have forged a different path toward recovery.

They are making old plants more modern and effective rather than watching workers or companies deemed uncompetitive fall by the wayside.

... Some large companies are surprisingly resilient. The Siemens factory added 500 workers here in the depths of the economic crisis last year, beginning production of new gas-burning turbines that are the most powerful Siemens makes but emit substantially less carbon dioxide than older models.

... At Siemens, for example, with revenue increasing 11 percent from 2008 to 2009, its broad green portfolio is now growing faster than its other businesses, Barbara Kux, the chief sustainability officer at the company, said....

Profits are down somewhat -- but companies are surviving, while changing to prepare for the future. And German unemployment actually went down last year. American unemployment, needless to say, went up -- way up.

I've presented this in a rather dull, wonkish way. Biden can say it in a way that's a lot folksier -- and that's why I wish he could be effectively deployed.

He can't -- the GOP noise machine is way too effective in blowing his gaffes way out of proportion. If there were a level playing field -- if his gaffes were shrugged off the way, say, Reagan's or Bush's were (and I'd argue that they're much less substantive), he could be a hell of a spokesman for affirmative government as a force that's actually patriotic, that's good for America.

And when Biden's on, he's on. He really can preach. If you don't believe me, watch some of this clip from the campaign.

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