Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Does it Matter if Obama Can't Tell a FICA from a 6672?

Yesterday I let loose with a few testy remarks about how Obama doesn't understand business.   Just after I posted I got the bright idea to cook up a little "Do You Live in a Bubble?" quiz, in the manner of Charles Murray, designed to show the test-taker (maybe the President) really doesn't understand the world he lives in.

I think I recognized that as an idea, it was pretty callow from the start.  After all, for nearly 50 years now I've had the police to collect my salary.  Otium cum dignitate.  What that hell could I know about the poor slob who is just trying to make a living?  Well, yes, but I have spent a bit of time hanging out at the bankruptcy court, which can be a culturally broadening experience. So I repackaged a few of  my war stories. But I wasn't able to come up with enough good ideas and so I emailed my homies for help.  

And hoo boy, did I get blowback.  Almost instantaneous.  Blowers made several points but the chief one seemed to be that I was being unfair or unkind to Obama, asking an  irrelevant or totally bogus question.  "Could Franklin Roosevelt have answered?" responded one of the first, in a tone I took to be rhetorical (suggested reply: no, he could not).  Could Ronald Reagan?

My rejoinder: actually, no.  I'm reasonably certain that FDR had not the foggiest notion of how to cope with (the 1932 equivalent of) a 1099, or Section 6672, or a FICA limit.  He had people to do that.  But Roosevelt did have something essential that I had failed to put my finger on.  That is: he had a knack for making you feel that he understood--maybe not in detail, but in a way that would make your life easier, more reassured.  It's why--I think--Roosevelt was able to ride to a landslide reelection victory in 1936, even though his own first term had been pretty much of a mess.  He kept you believing that he was on your side, that with him, things eventually would work out.

So also in a slightly different way, Reagan.  Actually with Reagan, I suspect that even most avid partisans knew he didn't sweat the details.  I think a lot of them even knew that most of those little moral fables he liked to dispense--that most of them were just threads spun out of his own gizzard.  They knew that he was a President who thought World War II was a movie, but that was okay with them--they knew he let them share in the movie with them, and that was all that mattered.  Contrast: a President who has to say "I feel your pain"--that President sounds like a guy who does not feel your pain.

Clinton is a somewhat more complicated case. Of all the examples, he is perhaps the one most likely actually to have known what a FICA limit is.  We all know about his almost protean capacity for assimilating detail. Yet as I've argued before, I think Clinton succeeded in spite, rather than because, his mastery of the intricacies of policy.  Mr. Detail was Jimmy Carter and we know how that ended.  

Which morphs into the flipside problem--not just whether I think you feel my pain, but whether too much detail in a President is positively harmful.  I think this is a complicated question: almost every example has a counter-example.  To my taste, perhaps the best response comes from Elliott A. Cohen's fine book, Supreme Command, in which he explores political leadership in time of war.   None of his examples of successful leadership was himself a military man.  What they did seem to have is a capacity to talk to military leaders, to understand them, and (what may be more important) to make them understand him.  Contrast, say, Lyndon Johnson, a bottomless well of energy and manipulative management, who never seems to have figured out how to establish the right kind of conversation with the military.

So I'll grant that the issue is a good deal more complex and subtle than I let on in my previous blog post (or in my email).  But on my main points, I think I'll stick to my guns.  Refining my expression somewhat: I think it's a failure on Obama's part that he doesn't seem to know how to talk with the finance types the way Lincoln knew how to talk with generals.    At the same time, he doesn't seem to know how to convey to "the business people" (whatever that may mean) that he understands what they are up against--in short, that he feels their pain.

Statement of disinterest: this screed should not be read as an endorsement of the Republican aspirant. I think he, for his part, has made it pretty clear that he really doesn't give a rat's hind end whether you live or die.

Now I think I'l take a whack at that bubble quiz.


Dan Mulligan said...

Um, it's FICA limit or FICO score. Slightly different animals. Don't know which President knows about the difference.

Buce said...

Nice catch, thanks. Shows what I know.

Ken Houghton said...

I can't tell you exactly what the FICA limit is (not my job, it moves annually), but I can tell you as a ballpark that it's around--I think just below--$110,000.

Which means that for those individuals who make more than $110K, the tax is regressive. And since that's a 6.2% subsidy if you're not your own employers (more if you are), having to pay an "extra" 4.6% on marginal income that is more than twice that isn't exactly a burden.

Which Obama knows. Remember, not only was he a law professor, his wife was a high-level official at a large health care facility.

Unless you assume that (1) community organizers don't get told exactly what the community wants, (2) that law professors don't know about business (or tax filings), and (3) that his wife never discussed her work issues with her, the idea that Barack Obama doesn't understand "business" is laughable.

Finance, as you note, is another question.