President Obama gave a press conference this morning (the transcript is here), and it was really something.
Among the highlights: In response to a question about corruption in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama responded, "we've made progress on some of those fronts. I mean, when it comes to corruption, I'll just give you an example. Four years ago, 11 judges in the Afghan legal system were indicted for corruption. This year, 86 were indicted for corruption."
This is a classic government-process error, so classic that it's almost humorous. Here you have the president boasting that the number of Afghan judges indicted for corruption has soared. This increase could mean several things. It could mean that the incidence of corrupt judges has soared while the percentage of them who are caught and indicted has remained constant. That would be nothing to boast about. It could mean that the incidence of corrupt judges has stayed the same, while the percentage of them who are caught and indicted has increased. That would be something to boast about. Measuring anti-corruption progress on the basis of the number of indictments is like measuring anti-crime progress on the basis of the number of arrests. If the number of homicide arrests on your block went from 11 four years ago to 86 this year, would you consider it "progress"? Or would you consider it a sign of an increase in murders on your block? What matters is how much corruption (or how many murders), not how many indictments (or how many arrests).
Finally, Mr. Obama, as a constitutional law professor, should know better than to cite indictments as evidence of anything at all — an indictment is properly just the beginning of a due process that may result in a conviction or an acquittal.
Another highlight, in response to a question about Guantanamo: "Al Qaeda operatives still cite Guantanamo as a justification for attacks against the United States. Still to this day. And there's no reason for us to give them that kind of talking point." This is silly. Al Qaeda operatives say all kinds of ridiculous stuff. They attacked America on September 11, 2001, well before any of them were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. America should run its affairs the way it wants and not adjust them because of complaints by Al Qaeda. I'm not saying Guantanamo is a good idea or that it should stay open, but, as far as reasons for closing it go, the explanation that we should close it because Al Qaeda operatives have publicly complained about it is just inane. These same Qaeda operatives also complain about women wearing skimpy clothes. What's next — force women from bikinis into burkas to deny Al Qaeda operatives a talking point?
More highlights: President Obama explained why he ran for president: "I ran because I felt that we had to have a different economic philosophy." I didn't recall him emphasizing that during the campaign. But sure enough, Mr. Obama gave an October 2008 speech that referred to the "the Wall Street first, Main Street last economic philosophy we've had for the past eight years - and that's fundamentally wrong."
Mr. Obama came remarkably close to saying that the economy is still in a recession rather than a recovery, referring at the outset to "our continuing efforts to dig ourselves out of this recession" and at another point to "a terrible recession that we're still digging out of today."
There was some extensive discussion of Mr. Obama's case against extending Bush's income tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year. The president summed up his argument as "making sure that tax cuts go to families that need it as opposed to folks who don't." He also framed the issue as "what I've got is the Republicans holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they're insisting we've got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires to the tune of about $100,000 per millionaire, which would cost over the course of 10 years, $700 billion, and that economists say is probably the worst way to stimulate the economy." Again: "We can have a further conversation about how they want to spend an additional $700 billion to give an average of $100,000 to millionaires. That, I think, is a bad idea. If you were going to spend that money, there are a lot better ways of spending it."
That is all really telling language. Mr Obama has decided that a family earning $250,000 in a year doesn't "need" the money — to save for a leaner year, to invest in growing a business, to save for college tuition. He doesn't want to leave it up to the family earning the money to decide whether it needs the money — if the family itself decides it doesn't need the money, after all, it is of course free to donate it to charity or to write a check to the Treasury voluntarily to contribute the unneeded surplus. Instead, Mr. Obama frames the issue as making sure the money goes "to families that need it." But of course, the money taken in taxes from families earning $250,000 a year won't all go to other families that "need" it. It's going to go to Washington to get spent by politicians who will waste some of it on projects popular with lobbyists.
Mr. Obama also frames the issue as "give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires to the tune of about $100,000 per millionaire." But is it a "give" from the government to allow someone to keep the money that they already earned, or to extend the tax rates that exist this year? One can just as easily frame the issue as the government taking an extra $100,000 from each millionaire. To use a very crude example, if you have a hypothetical millionaire who already pays 40% taxes including state and local, leaving him $600,000 a year after taxes, that extra $100,000 is 20% of his new after-tax income of $500,000 a year. Is it right for the government to take away fully half of what a millionaire earns?
Mr. Obama's description of letting someone keep what they earn as equivalent to a government expenditure — "If you were going to spend that money, there are a lot better ways of spending it" — betrays his economic philosophy. He really seems to think that the money belongs to the government, and that it's going to be "better" spent by him, Majority Leader Reid, and Speaker Pelosi than by the families that earned it in the first place.
Anyway, I hope people pay close attention to what the president said at this press conference. For a guy that even conservatives are prone to describe as having "undeniable intelligence" (editor of the Harvard Law Review!), he sure sounds like he hasn't thought a lot of things through clearly.