BRET STEPHENS: BARACK OBAMA A PEDDLER OF SPENT IDEAS
Yesterday’s man of destiny is today’s peddler of spent ideas.
On the eve of the U.S. presidential election four years ago, educated people nearly everywhere understood that China was the country of the future, green was the energy of the future, and Barack Obama was a man of destiny. How quaint it all seems now.
In a remarkable piece of investigative journalism last week in the New York Times, reporter David Barboza identified assets worth $2.7 billion belonging to various members of the family of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, including his 90-year-old mother, a retired schoolteacher named Yang Zhiyun.
“The details of how Ms. Yang, a widow, accumulated such wealth are not known, or even if she was aware of the holdings in her name,” Mr. Barboza reports. “But it happened after her son was elevated to China’s ruling elite, first in 1998 as vice prime minister and then five years later as prime minister.”
The Times report would be interesting were it about any leading Chinese official. But Mr. Wen is in a category unto himself, having spent his political career cultivating the image of a kindly old man—”Grandpa Wen”—with a humble background, a common touch, a scientific mind and an uncorrupted soul. In March he was instrumental in firing disgraced Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, another fabulously wealthy servant of the proletariat. The prime minister is supposed to embody the moral fiber of the Communist Party.
Perhaps he does. Perhaps he’s even the best of the bunch: In February, Bloomberg reported that “the net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress . . . rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, a gain of $11.5 billion from 2010.” That averages out to more than $1 billion per delegate, and we’re not even talking about the senior party leadership.
All this is good to know as a reminder that China, so recently extolled as the very model of technocratic know-how, turns out to be a country heavily populated at the top by rent-seekers and kleptocrats. Should that be surprising? Not if you think that nothing else can come from the lucrative crossroads where politically directed capital and politically connected individuals meet.
This brings us to Al Gore.
Earlier this month the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig reported that the former vice president’s wealth is today estimated at $100 million, up from less than $2 million when he left government service on a salary of $181,400. How did he make this kind of money? It wasn’t his share of the Nobel Peace Prize. Nor was it the book and movie proceeds from “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Instead, as Ms. Leonnig reports, “Fourteen green-tech firms in which Gore invested received or directly benefited from more than $2.5 billion in loans, grants and tax breaks, part of President Obama’s historic push to seed a U.S. renewable-energy industry with public money.”
That’s nice work if you can get it—at least if you’re on the investment-management end of the deal. But what if you’re on the worker-bee end?
The Post story mentions one of the beneficiaries of Mr. Gore’s investment acumen, Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, JCI -1.34% which won a $299 million award from the federal government in 2009 to make electric-car batteries. Here’s how that worked out:
“The company has dramatically scaled back, after executives concluded demand for electric cars was far lower than the administration forecast. The factory outfitted with stimulus funds is nearly idle, and plans to build a second plant have been postponed.”
And so to Barack Obama.
When the history of this administration is written, maybe someone will note the dissonance between the president’s hip persona and his retro ideology. Here was a man who promised a “transformative” presidency. Yet when transformation came, it amounted to a two-pronged attempt to impose, from one side, a version of European social democracy by way of ObamaCare, and from the other side a version of Chinese state-directed “capitalism” by way of the stimulus.
As a political matter it may have been Mr. Obama’s good luck that the bankruptcy of both models became obvious only after he had gotten his way legislatively on both. Yet the president’s sagging fortunes have everything to do with his buying into an ideological enthusiasm too late. In a different age, Mr. Obama would have been the guy who went out and bought an Edsel. In this age, Mr. Obama is the guy demanding that you buy an Edsel, too. That car is today called the Volt.
Mr. Obama might still squeak by. He has, in addition to incumbency and a vestige of likability, the benefit of a challenger who only found his stride very late in the campaign. But a second term will mean four years of spent ideas packaged in shopworn rhetoric, to be shoved down the national throat by a president with nothing politically to lose.
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