Linda Falkenstein on Wednesday 01/14/2009 1:00 pm
To usher in the Inauguration, I read a much more sobering book, Robert Kuttner’s Obama’s Challenge (Chelsea Green [Publishing]). Rather boldly sent to the printer before the election -- at the beginning of August ’08 -- it’s written as if Obama won the election.
This gamble would be stress-inducing to those who didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until after the networks called Ohio, but I guess Kuttner knew as much about the election in advance as he seems to have known about the rips in the economy before the rest of us.
Obama’s Challenge -- subtitled America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency -- is alternately frightening and depressing as Kuttner outlines the momentous tasks that lie ahead for the President-elect. You may think you have an idea of what those are already, but Kuttner offers perspective, a chance to step back that’s hard to get from a diet of cable news.
The book is divided roughly into two halves -- one about how “transformative presidents” lead and the other providing an overview about the complexity of the damage to the economy. While the material about transformative presidencies flirts with, uh, hope (that word again), reading the financial chapters is kind of like enduring one of those extremely turbulent airplane flights where you wish you had decided to drive.
Kuttner’s main point, though, is that for transformative presidents, “leadership often entails staking out a position not held by a majority of voters, and bringing the people around.” Kuttner concentrates on the few presidents that he’s pegged as transformative: Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ (or really a JFK/LBJ combo, where JFK provided the inspiration and LBJ the perspiration for enacting civil rights legislation).
Transformative presidents have the ability to make us as a nation strive to be better than we are -- they appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln put it. George W. Bush, who had a unique opportunity to lead in the wake of 9/11, did not have the right stuff. The question is whether Obama will.
Kuttner hopes that Obama is that leader: “As we have seen from the campaign,” he writes, “Obama is a work in progress. But I am betting that he possesses both the character and the political nerve to rise to the occasion -- as well as the occasion to rise to.”
Sunday Book Review
Published January 16, 2009
Robert Kuttner, an accomplished economics writer and a founding editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, is more skeptical. Obama, he argues, is a “work in progress,” at times an embodiment of the most expansive progressive hopes, at other points a moderate centrist moving cautiously and politically through the thickets of his time. Kuttner sees great potential in Obama’s leadership and rhetorical skills, but he worries that he will not act boldly enough to attack a financial crisis that has grown considerably more serious since his book went to press. Kuttner’s call for a $600 billion recovery program (startling at the time of its writing) now seems at the low end of the likely response, as he himself would probably now admit. But he is equally concerned about the longer-term future. That future will, he argues, require a major restructuring of the American financial markets through a significantly enhanced federal regulatory regime and “structural reforms in labor-market and trade policy as well as health and energy.” And it will require not just a short-term stimulus but a long-term investment in institutions and infrastructure. The current crisis will, he insists, require a truly transformative presidency — no less transformative than the New Deal. His thoughtful, hopeful and apprehensive book is a particularly valuable guide to what the progressive left hopes to see in the Obama presidency.
Read the whole article here.
Looking Back at 2008: PW Staff Picks
In readable, persuasive prose, Kuttner explains how transformative presidents—Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ—lead. Then he offers the many teachable moments President Obama can use to transform the U.S. into a country with health care for all, good jobs with good wages, secure financial markets and an understanding that good tax policy supports government that works for everyone, not just the rich.
—Sonia Jaffe Robbins
Robert Kuttner goes into some detail regarding the economy and how progressive programs could be a great help. He recognizes the political problems involved in getting these programs started and recommends some strategies that Barak Obama could pursue. His presentation is very insightful - maybe he should be an advisor to the president elect.
Very interesting: He wrote this book and submitted it to publication well before the election and at least a half year before it became obvious to most people as to how wide and deep the present depression (my word) is. Is this guy a prophet?
~Reviewed by Jerry C.
Book Bargains Rating: 5 Stars
"Hell, what's the presidency for?"
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
The book was issued in September; if McCain had won, well, at least Chelsea Green printed its gamble on recycled paper.
From professionalizing the human service industry to centrally planning the labor market, the details of Kuttner’s policy proposals can be minute, but they don’t detract from his thesis: that Barack Obama may follow Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ in their most celebrated moments by renewing people’s faith in government as a force for good and uniting Americans behind a vision of a post-bubble economy we can all live with.
One large factor in whether a president is “transformative,” whether he can speak to people’s concerns and change public opinion and, in this case, renew people’s faith in government’s ability to help them protect themselves and fulfill their dreams, is a president’s ability to educate. Obama needs to make a public issue of the million private financial problems of American households. Then he needs to propose solutions that walk all over the fiscal restraints laid down by conservatives and centrists. Solutions that cost money, lots and lots of taxpayer money.
Name a policy initiative Obama has proposed and Kuttner would double, triple, or times by 10 the public outlay. Alternative energy, for example: Obama promises to support research and development with $150 billion over 10 years. A typo in his initial press release said $150 billion annually — more like it, says Kuttner, who might have added that that’s slightly less than the amount Congress may soon give to the dinosaurs of Detroit.
How to pay for it all? Roll back the Bush tax cuts, get out of Iraq; reduce military spending; close loopholes; tax Wall Street; and still spend more than we take in, with the rationale that a deficit is better than a Great Depression.
Obama’s Challenge is fresh reading to anyone who’s not steeped in policy minutia; it offers some plain discussion of how much moderate Democrats have conceded to a conservative low-tax agenda (“a race to a bottom that we never can reach,” in the words of Kuttner’s colleauge, Miles Rappaport) and hints at how Obama comes to the land’s highest office with the strength of character and independence of mind that might allow him to do what true leaders do: “staking out a position not held by a majority of voters, and bringing the people around… It is never simply a case of seeing where the country is, and going there.” Lincoln did this well with bringing the people around slowly to the idea of emancipation; LBJ did too, vowing from day one to enact civil rights legislation. When his aides told him he ought not spend his good reputation so early in his term, he replied, "Hell, what's the presidency for?"
Politics being what it is, a game of focus groups and strategists in which the liars guard the locks, Kuttner looks at Obama’s life history and sees a progressive to the core. Here’s hoping he’s right. More than that: Another factor in making a transformative president, perhaps the most important, is what the times demand. And what the times demand is often defined by what the people say. That’s where we come in.
October 14, 2008
THOM HARTMANN'S INDEPENDENT THINKER REVIEW OF THE MONTH
Given this point in the election cycle, the title of this book, Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, is easily misunderstood as having to do with the challenges Barack Obama faces in becoming president. That’s not its topic, however.
Instead, Kuttner assumes (for the purposes of the book) that Obama is already president or has just won the presidency, and shares with him – and all of us – the vital and important lessons to be learned from both highly successful transformational presidents (Lincoln, FDR, JFK, LBJ) and Clinton’s tragic incompetence at producing true and meaningful transformation while instead settling for political “triangulation.”
The stories of the transformational presidents are startling, both in the power of personality these men brought to office and in the similarities of the techniques they used. They were all true to their principles, enlisted the aid of the American public, and were highly pragmatic. They were all committed to true change.
He also explodes a number of myths about these presidents, particularly FDR, who had been elected on a platform that was principally focused on balancing the budget and cutting federal spending.
Kuttner takes on the conservative frames that the government is usually incompetent, that private markets work better, that we’re out of resources, that tax cuts are the only thing government can do worth a damn, and that for Democrats to win they need to talk more like Republicans. All are demonstrably false.
He lays out the characteristics both of the times and of Obama himself that make it possible he could be a truly transformational president on the order of a Lincoln or Roosevelt.
And he lays out a series of specific programs and policies – tried and true, by and large – that could bring the nation back from the financial, societal, and international disaster 26 years of conservative rule (including Clinton’s) have brought us.
At a mere 200 pages, this is a book you can read in a weekend without difficulty. And yet it’ll probably more powerfully transform your understanding of American politics, progressive economics, and the role of leadership in saving a nation than any other book currently in print.
Even should – G-d forbid – John McCain win the presidency, this is an important and vital book that all Americans should read, because it lays out a roadmap for progressive change that is now so necessary for our democratic republic to survive.
'Obama's Challenge' questions conventional wisdom
By Rich Barlow
October 1, 2008
It's next Jan. 20, and President Barack Obama, just inaugurated, sits in the Oval Office thumbing through "Obama's Challenge." He learns that not only did Robert Kuttner predict he'd win the White House, he also predicted that even Obama's liberal-minded campaign proposals would be too timid to reverse our current recession/near-recession/whatever-you-want-to-call-it.
No one has a crystal ball. But Wall Street's recent catatonia, and the Bush administration's decision to pump in billions of taxpayer dollars in response - something most Republicans would have once castigated as socialism - suggest that Kuttner is correct that no wave of the normal business-cycle wand will make this downturn vanish. Co-editor of the American Prospect magazine and a sometime Globe columnist, Kuttner is a big-thinking liberal: the $600 Billion Dollar Man. That's the annual federal tab he believes is necessary to restore prosperity and sustainable security for the poor and middle classes.
"Obama's Challenge" is a reasoned brief for liberal activism. But it's marred by the same flaw Kuttner perceives in Obama, an occasional failure to argue for the transformation of parts of his own ideology.
George Will has argued that conservatism is rooted in empirical evidence. Kuttner's liberalism is no less anchored in indisputable historical experience. America's Gilded Age and Great Depression proved the need for the "managed brand of capitalism" he endorses. He's on equally solid terrain in calling for continued deficits and public works while the economy remains feeble, and for stiffer government regulation of the financial sector. If taxpayers rescue mortgage company Goliaths, it's only fair and rational to regulate them as a hedge against future crises.
The book would have been even better had Kuttner used his sharp mind to question some progressive orthodoxy as well. For example, he supports the traditional liberal health care fix - single-payer, government- subsidized health insurance - while urging Obama to back-burner the issue until he can build political support. This is debatable on at least two grounds.
First, the Institute of Medicine, a national advisory group, says thousands of Americans die needlessly because, uninsured, they put off care until they sicken beyond help. You'd think that would make reform a progressive's priority. Second, Kuttner doesn't wrestle with the idea, advanced by others, that public spending on people who don't need it is as wasteful as tax cuts for those who don't need them. Single-payer systems are simple administratively, but they require lots of tax money and spend some of it on the affluent.
Economist Paul Krugman, a single-payer advocate who doubts the idea will fly politically, is wiser when he urges immediate health care reform modeled somewhat on Germany's system. There, universal coverage comes from a public-private mix of insurance. But the private, basic coverage is offered on a nonprofit basis. Medical quality is high, and the system costs much less than ours.
Kuttner credits Obama with the vision and skill to transform Americans' hostility to big-spending government. Only zealots would dispute Obama's assertion that flawed government programs should be curbed. But aside from subsidies to fossilfuel industries and the Iraq war financing, Kuttner doesn't dwell on spending that he'd cut.
Still, a cogently argued plan like Kuttner's is a gift to election-year discourse. Conservatives may ignore its needed debunking of some of their conventional wisdom; some liberals may applaud it while missing its failure to question their own assumptions. Of both groups, one can only hope that Dwight Eisenhower's comment, about those who wanted to roll back the New Deal, applies: "Their number is negligible, and they are stupid."
Obama Has a Chance to Transform Us...
Claudia Ricci for the Huffington Post
September 30, 2008
OK, so maybe you are fed up to here with election coverage. Maybe you fell asleep during the debates the other night. Maybe, if you are like me, you cringe at the idea that we have five more weeks to wait before we can walk into the polling place on Tuesday, November 4th, and cast our ballots.
But now comes a book -- short and very well written -- that can rev you up. I found it courtesy of my husband, political activist Richard Kirsch, who happened on it at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Called Obama's Challenge, the book has given me a view "forward." That is, it's helping me to see how, if Obama is elected, we really might have a U.S. President who can transform history.
Author Robert Kuttner, a journalist and political observer with three decades experience, refers back to three transformational Presidents: Lincoln, FDR and LBJ. He explains how each man arrived in the White House at a momentous time in history, and how each seized the opportunity to make a real difference in governing. By demonstrating true leadership, and by taking courageous stands, each President redefined what was possible politically -- Lincoln in terms of slavery and abolition, FDR in terms of labor, and LBJ in terms of the civil rights movement.
So now comes Obama. Kuttner, founder of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, suggests that the current economic crisis is arguably "the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression." Bad news for sure. But that also makes this another moment in history when the time is ripe for bold and decisive action. The crisis at hand demands bold policies that are above and beyond politics, "bolder measures than either the Congress or Obama himself currently thinks necessary or possible."
What Obama needs to do, Kuttner argues, is demonstrate the same style leadership that the other transformative Presidents displayed, "taking huge political risks on behalf of principles that the people came to deeply respect." Principles like justice and tolerance.
To do this, Kuttner says, it isn't enough just to act like one more politician, settling on policies only after studying polls, reviewing the DC circuit gab, and listening to pundit opinions.
No, a transformative President has vision (which Obama has shown) and true wisdom (which Kuttner says Obama displayed in his first book, Dreams From My Father.) Once elected, Obama has to exert both, taking hold of the Presidency with decisiveness and direction, standing up for something! We haven't seen this in a President in a long while (well, actually, Kuttner says we saw it under Reagan, Kuttner says, but Reagan used his transformative powers to achieve right-wing ideology.) By contrast, the Democratic Presidents of recent times -- Clinton, most notably -- failed to be transformative because they took the safe, centrist road.
One reason Obama wrested the nomination -- against all odds -- away from the original front-runner Hillary Clinton was that she was unquestionably linked to the kind of "risk-averse mushy" centrist political positioning that voters are just fed up with. The mush of the center isn't going to take us where we need to go as a nation in these very troubled times.
Will Obama do better? Will he actually serve our nation at this critical juncture? Earlier in this election season, there were indications that like so many politicians before him, Obama was shifting into centrist quagmire. He was taking stances -- on government phone tapping, for one -- that deeply troubled progressives.
But Kuttner is willing to give Obama a break. He's willing to say that maybe Obama had to shift center slightly to ensure his nomination.
Once the Democratic nominee becomes the man in the White House, however, the question is clear: will Obama, as President, rise to the challenge? Will he "rehabilitate the constructive role of government, both in the minds of the people and in what government delivers."?
These are scary times, for sure. But this is an exciting moment in history. And a time when progressive change may be possible in the way government steers the economy, in the way we as a nation deliver health care, in the way we forge energy policy and reform education. Will Obama stick to his audacious visions and take us where we need to go, or close?
Like Obama's own books, this book is inspiring. It lays out the way one man could really make a difference in the history of our nation, and in the lives of millions of Americans. I salute Mr. Kuttner for a job, well done!
Books We Like
Hazel Henderson for EthicalMarkets.com
Robert Kuttner has performed a service in Obama’s Challenge by bringing to the Democratic nominee’s attention the pitfalls to be faced by the next Administration. The USA is facing a profound transition in today’s global economy. Our citizens must adjust to the diminished role the US plays, economically, militarily and in its influence. While adapting to this new global reality and the rise of China, India, Brazil, Russia and other nations, the next US President must deal with the severest financial crisis since the Great Depression and the urgent need to shift our economy from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.
Kuttner lays out these festering issues: from ending the Iraq occupation to affordable housing, healthcare and education to re-negotiating trade agreements. Using historical contexts from earlier Presidencies, from Lincoln, FD Roosevelt to Kennedy, Reagan, Carter and Clinton, Kuttner emphasizes the role of leadership when bold new courses were necessary for the country. Many, including myself, have the audacity to hope that Barack Obama will become our 44th President an will rise to the huge challenge of changing course toward a new page in US history.
Like Robert Kuttner, I believe that dealing with the underlying ideology of “market fundamentalism” so deeply ingrained in US academia, business, government and civic society will be primary. This “laissez faire” ideology, still prevalent in economic textbooks, has been the guidance for business and finance and embraced by neo-conservatives and Republicans since Ronald Reagan and his economic advisor, the late Milton Friedman and his “Chicago Boys.” Their goal has been to dismantle the New Deal and impose their “Washington Consensus” model globally in crusades here and aboard to de-regulate markets, privatize public assets, impose “free” trade, open capital markets, float currencies and make the world safe for corporations and financial players.
Luckily for Obama, the collapse of Wall Street titans and the exposure of their reckless practices, faulty risk-analyses, over-leveraging, short-selling (often “naked,” i.e., without bothering to actually borrow or buy the stock they were selling short), have punctured the myths of “efficient markets” and showed again the limits of greed, avarice and other of the seven deadly sins many religions teach against .Meanwhile, neuroscientists ‘ research on the human brain and limbic system has invalidated the core tenet of economic theory : that we are all rational actors , maximizing our self-interest in competition with all others.
Kuttner brings his knowledge of such market failures to bear by outlining a plan of action and reform needed to halt the rot and restore the US economy. All of Kuttner’s proposals are viable, affordable and essential. He also performs a service by identifying many of the former economic advisers to the Clinton Administration, including Robert Rubin and others from Brookings and the Urban Institute whose counsel should be avoided. I would add Laurence Summers, Paul Volker and David Walker, whose ideas are still entrapped in the conventional economics box. I also worry about Obama’s younger economic advisors who have also imbibed the conventional economics Kool-Aid: Austan Goolsbee from the University of Chicago (which has just launched the new Milton Friedman Institute) and Jason Furman, who directed Robert Rubin’s Hamilton Project’s assault on “entitlements” at Brookings.
Not only are such economists suspect, but the entire discipline of economics must be exposed as “politics in disguise.” I have documented how economics, never a science, captured both private and public decision-making (Henderson, Building a Win-Win World, 1996) and how the Bank of Sweden lobbied the Nobel Committee in the 1960s with a new $1 million award to confer the economic discipline with scientific robes: the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Many real Nobelists, as well as Peter Nobel and other critics, including Nassim N. Taleb, author of The Black Swan, 2007, have joined in exposing that this prize is not a Nobel Prize (see www.hazelhenderson.com).
Economic policies are much too important to be left to economists. In our complex modern societies, we must move to multi-disciplinary systems approaches for most of the issues we face. Putting economists in their place as one voice in such multi-disciplinary approaches will allow other relevant disciplines and scientific data and new indexes of well-being to be acknowledged.
I was present at the signing of Agenda 21 in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where over 170 countries agreed to overhaul their GDP accounting. I presented at the European Parliament’s “Taking Nature into Account” conference in 1995. I created the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators with the Calvert Group in 2000 (updated regularly at www.calvert-henderson.com). I was honored to present these indicators at the Parliament of Latin America, EUROSTAT and many other venues in China, Japan, Australia, and in Brazil at the ICONS conference where 700 business leaders and statisticians endorsed the many new “quality of life” metrics needed in national accounts (”Statisticians of the World Unite!” at www.hazelhenderson.com, click on Editorials).
I would hope that Kuttner agrees with me that Obama must go beyond economics and embrace broader systemic analyses, including the “triple bottom line“ accounting for corporate social and environmental as well as economic performance. There is much progress in displacing economics from its dominance of public policy. In 2007, I co-organized the “Beyond GDP” debate in the European Parliament where another 700 members of parliament and statisticians endorsed all these same corrections to GDP. Globescan of London and Ethical Markets Media, LLC, conducted a survey in 10 countries for the European Commission on the Beyond GDP issue. Huge majorities in all 10 countries supported correcting GDP to help steer countries toward sustainability (www.beyond-gdp.eu). Even the USA is awakening, and the Senate held hearings in March 2008 on “Re-thinking GDP.”
I hope that Obama, David Axelrod, David Plouffe and all of his team will read Robert Kuttner’s wise analysis and go beyond that outdated “economics box” so as to address more fully the systemic crises our next president will face.
A Tale of Two Obama Books: Why Do Progressives Still Not Get It?
The Huffington Post
Posted August 20, 2008 | 12:25 PM (EST)
As Mr. Dickens might say: It was the best of books, it was the worst of books. And the rest of it fits, too: It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Let's do worst first, and review the life-so-far of a book that is truly the avatar of wingnut-inspired foolishness, incredulity, darkness and despair: Obama Nation by WorldNetDaily writer and swift-boating smear-lackey Jerome Corsi. This 384-page menace of malicious libel and slander was ushered onto the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists by longtime GOP hack-cum-editor Mary-Mrs.-James-Carville-Matalin, aided by bulk buys from right-wing membership groups and the Conservative Book Club, and via right-wing talk radio and Fox News Channel. It has now received nearly two straight weeks of saturation mainstream media coverage, including a front-page news story and excerpt in the Times.
The sad thing, however, is that this pathetic excuse for a book is just one more example of how the right effectively coordinates and moves their ideas (and lies) into the national discourse, while the left seems unable or unwilling to absorb the important lesson about supporting progressive books so they, too, will debut on bestseller lists, monopolize media coverage and--say it with me now: DRIVE PROGRESSIVE IDEAS INTO THE NATIONAL DISCOURSE.
Even more sad? This week, a hefty faction on the left--primarily independent booksellers (following Barnes and Noble's lead)--is actively boycotting a brave attempt to bring the book-publishing industry into the 21st century, and effectively trying to keep a progressive, pro-Obama (and fact-based) title called Obama's Challenge out of the marketplace of ideas. This is a book that Hendrik Hertzberg at The New Yorker calls "the fruit of [American Prospect co-founder] Bob Kuttner's lifetime of engagé reporting, analysis, and advocacy," and goes on to say that the book "was written in a white-hot fever of urgent inspiration over mere months. I've been carrying around a draft manuscript for most of the week, reading it in every spare moment--on the subway, on the street, during stretches of Olympic longueur...it's riveting, brilliant, and persuasive."
The Obama's Challenge 75,000 print-run is on a crash schedule, due out September 15, from the independent, activist publishing house Chelsea Green (full disclosure, I worked as an editor/marketer for the house from 2004-2006) in an effort to help fight the smears against Obama in time for the election. The book will go from final edits to bound books in less than four weeks. With so little lead time until the book's publication date, Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin decided to try an innovative approach for building early buzz by making 2000 early copies of the book available at next week's Democratic National Convention, as part of a deal with Amazon's print-on-demand arm, BookSurge.
Baldwin says, "This election is too important to wait around for traditional publishing lead times. The book needs to come out now if it's to have a major impact."
You might think, just as the right rallies around their books to push them onto bestseller lists to monopolize the national debate, that the left might do something similar with Obama's Challenge. You would be wrong--at least so far.
Instead of receiving kudos for taking the financial risk of publishing an instant pro-Obama book, Chelsea Green is facing angry calls for regressive business tactics based on an archaic system of book distribution, and cancelled orders from booksellers large and small. These business-related, bookseller reactions are in addition to the usual apathy, which meets most progressive books upon their debut, from the very community (Democrats and progressives) that would benefit most from seeing those books sell well in the marketplace, and again, say it with me now: DRIVE PROGRESSIVE IDEAS INTO THE NATIONAL DISCOURSE.
When news of the deal broke on August 15th, independent booksellers and other online retailers were enraged about the deal with BookSurge, which has Amazon providing the 2000 early copies for the Convention, and 15,000 coupons for the book to go into Convention goody bags, redeemable at Amazon. The deal also makes the book available exclusively through BookSurge's print-on-demand (POD) service from August 25-September 15, when the formal print-run would be available in all bookstores and via other online retailers, through traditional book distribution channels.
On Monday, former indie nemesis Barnes and Noble cancelled an order for 10,000 copies of Obama's Challenge and released a statement saying, "The initial order was based on the book being available to all booksellers simultaneously -- an even playing field -- which is common practice in book publishing." Many smaller stores are following suit.
Read the whole review here.