Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Has Barack Obama been reading Matt Taibbi? That wouldn't seem to be the obvious response to the president's Wall Street Journal op-ed on the subject of regulation, which says, in part:

... throughout our history, one of the reasons the free market has worked is that we have sought the proper balance. We have preserved freedom of commerce while applying those rules and regulations necessary to protect the public against threats to our health and safety and to safeguard people and businesses from abuse....

Sometimes, those rules have gotten out of balance, placing unreasonable burdens on business -- burdens that have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs....

But the editorial, which seems like a classic Obama attempt at difference-splitting, with its simultaneous calls for regulatory tightening and loosening, also sounds surprisingly like Taibbi -- or at least like one section of Taibbi's new book, Griftopia.

You probably think of Taibbi as a progressive, but early in the book he spends several pages decrying a housing discrimination lawsuit in New York's Westchester County, which seems to him like "a case of sociological ambulance chasing," and the outcome of which he describes as "the kind of politics that would turn anyone into a Tea Partier," because the county's only sin, in Taibbi's view, was failing to comply strictly with all the provisions of "antiquated, Johnson-era affirmative action housing programs."

Taibbi extrapoliates from this to the general teabag view on government:

Most of the Tea Partiers view national politics through the prism of what they have seen, personally, in their own communities: intrusive government and layer upon layer of regulatory red tape....

This is how you get middle-class Americans pushing deregulation for rich bankers. Your average working American looks around and sees evidence of government power over his life everywhere. He pays high taxes and can't sell a house or buy a car without paying all sorts of fees. If he owns a business, inspectors come to his workplace once a year to gouge him for something whether he's in compliance or not. If he wants to build a shed in his backyard, he needs a permit from some local thief in the city clerk's office....

This stuff happens. It's not paranoia.... Tea Party grievances against these issues are entirely legitimate and shouldn’t be dismissed. The problem is that they think the same dynamic they see locally or in their own lives -- an overbearing, interventionist government that seeks to control, tax, and regulate everything it can get its hands on -- operates the same everywhere.

Of course, Taibbi does go on to say that teabaggers are wrong to think the CEOs and fat cats are suffering under a horrible regulatory burden -- as Taibbi sees it, the 'baggers don't grasp the fact that the country doesn't work that way for the well-heeled.

Yes, we have no idea how Obama will actually implement this strengthen-here-and-loosen-there approach to regulation, and, obviously, it's appropriate to be very concerned about the possibility that he'll undermine what should be strengthened. But if Obama thinks he'll get brownie points from big business, and even from the general public, for attacking some regulations as inappropriate, Taibbi would seem to agree with him, at least in theory.

So one guy you think of as decidedly to Obama's left actually agrees that we have a blight of lousy regulations, and that they're harming the reputation of government and turning people rightward. Make of that what you will.

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