Saturday, January 8, 2011

Politics: On Obama's budget battle, advice from Machiavelli.

Nicolo Machiavelli, the original "budget hawk," author of The Prince.
Here's some quick advice for President Barack Obama, from someone who knows  politics--

For Obama, the new year 2011 promises a specular early fight with newly-swaggering Republicans on Capitol Hill over US government spending.  As soon as early March (when the current $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and government-funding Continuing Resolution both expire), Obama will face ultimatums from Republicans demanding massive, perhaps draconian budget cuts, backed by threats to shut down the government, default on US bonds, or worse.   If Obama gives in, liberals will hate him.  If he refuses, the country could suffer.

What should a President do -- or a Prince -- faced by such blackmail?

This issue of government spending is old -- very, very, very old.  Two thousand years ago, Emperors in ancient Rome curried favor with the mob by serving them bread and a circus.  Government-funded "social safety nets" are a 20th century invention, but even in 15th century Italy, local kings and warlords agonized over whether to shower their people with bribes and gifts to make themselves popular, or to pinch their pennies for a rainy day.

Nicolo Machiavelli, the great political maven, spoke directly to this point in his classic portrait of 1520s Italian hard-ball politics, The Prince.  To Machiavelli, to answer was clear: pinch your pennies:  
  • "[A] prince thus inclined [to spend lavishly on his subjects] will consume in such acts all his property, and will be compelled in the end, if he wish to maintain the name of liberal, to unduly weigh down his people, and tax them, and do everything he can to get money."

Sound familiar?  Generous spending, leading to expectations for more spending, leading to high taxes, leading to resentments all around?

  • "This will soon make him odious to his subjects, and becoming poor he will be little valued by any one."

Better to be a miser.

To Machiavelli, rather than spend his Kingdom into poverty, a Prince was better off to be a miser.  Not only was it cheaper, but it will actually made him more popular:

  • "[A] prince... if he is wise he ought not to fear the reputation of being mean.  In this end, people would respect him....   [F]or in time he will come to be more considered than if liberal, seeing that with his economy his revenues are enough, that he can defend himself against all attacks, and is able to engage in enterprises without burdening his people.... [H]e exercises liberality towards all from whom he does not take, who are numberless, and meanness towards those to whom he does not give, who are few."

And today? 

Barack Obama's 21st century post-industrial America is a far cry from Machiavelli's pre-Enlightenment cloak-and-dagger Renaissance Italy.  Governments today no longer stand aside and let people sink in bad economies.  Still, the point remains:  What would Machiavelli do, confronted by Republicans today demanding budget cuts?  What would he advise Obama?

Certainly, he'd tell Obama to never show weakness -- always dangerous then and now.  But I think he'd also tell him this:  Seize the budget-cutting mantle for yourself.  Steal the Republican's issue, put your own stamp on addressing out-of-control spending, and take credit.  Be more like the miserly Prince (or at least a 21st century progressive version thereof), popular and rich at the same time.

Click here to see Machiavelli's full chapter on the issue.  It's a good quick read.  Enjoy.

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