Democracy and Prosperity (part 3)

July 19, 2019

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I have been discussing the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and democracy as described by Torben Iversen and David Soskice. So far I’ve ignored variations among advanced capitalist democracies. But the authors warn against using any one country–such as the United States in discussions of the “Washington Consensus”–as a model for how ACDs have developed or should develop.  The American version of the emerging knowledge economy is only one version, and one that has its origins in a certain kind of history.

Two paths to capitalist democracy

The symbiotic relationship between democracy and capitalism developed along with the industrial economy. One link between the two was human capital development. Industrialization required a labor force with at least some basic skills, such as reading and writing, and that required some commitment to democratic institutions such as the public school.

How was the political order to be broadened to include the opinions and interests of workers? In some countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, pressure from the working class itself played a major role. In others, such as Britain, U.S., France, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the initiative came more from modernizing elites who were challenging the power of agrarian interests unsympathetic to industrialization and democracy.

Those differences had their origins in preindustrial patterns of organization:

[T]he countries in which democratization was eventually the result of working-class pressure were organized locally on a quasi corporatist basis both in towns, with effective guild systems, and in the countryside with a widespread socially rooted semiautonomous peasantry, rural cooperatives, and/or dense rural-urban linkages…. [A]ll of these states were Ständestaaten in the nineteenth century—a system in which the different estates (including organized professions) played a direct role in governing. We therefore refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protocorporatist.

The authors do not give any simple definition of corporatism, but I think of it as the opposite of rugged individualism. While classical British and American liberalism celebrates the self-interested individual, corporatism sees people more as representatives of strong group interests, such as guilds or churches. To make a long story short, the protocorporatist countries provided more fertile ground for the emergence of strong worker organizations.

Things were different in Britain and America:

The elite-project societies, in essence Anglo-Saxon (apart from France, which we discuss separately), functioned quite differently: well-developed property markets with substantial freedom of labor mobility, towns with limited local autonomy, and guild systems which had either collapsed (Britain) or had hardly existed (the settler colonies and the United States, minus the South). We refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protoliberal.

In both kinds of countries, some democratization accompanied industrialization, but it took different directions. In the protocorporatist countries like Denmark and Germany, “effective training systems were built on guild and Ständestaat traditions and provided a large pool of skilled workers, which in turn led to unified labor movements with the capacity to extract democratic concessions from elites.” In the protoliberal countries like Britain and America, “the absence of either guild or Ständestaat traditions led to fragmented labor movements with privileged craft-based unions but no effective training system. Here democracy emerged as the result of industrial elites compelling a reluctant landed aristocracy to accept expansion of education and other public goods required for industrialization.”

Political representation

These two paths to democracy had consequences for electoral systems. Where the working class was highly unified and organized, the more socialist left came to be better represented in politics. The elites and other prosperous members of society might resist democratization until the demands of the working class became too strong to ignore. Then they supported a system of proportional representation rather than winner-take-all elections, to protect themselves against the possibility of a working-class majority. Some of these democratic countries (Germany, Austria, Italy) reverted to authoritarian rule for a time in order to counter a perceived threat from the left, but democracy eventually prevailed.

In countries like the United States and Britain, where organized labor was weaker and more politically divided, majority rule worked better for the modernizing elites and other beneficiaries of industrial capitalism.

In these cases industrial elites had little fear of the working class, but they had a strong incentive to expand public goods, especially education and sanitation, required for the development of an effective labor force (in part to circumvent union control over the crafts). The key obstacles to this project were landowners and more generally conservatives who had no interest in an expansion of public goods and who held strong positions politically, especially at the local level. Majoritarian democracy in these cases essentially emerged as a means to force the landed elites to accept major public investments in education and infrastructure needed for modernization. At the same time, a majoritarian system with a strong bias toward the middle classes effectively excluded the radical left from influence over policies.

Iversen and Soskice see a perfect correlation between the alternative paths to democracy and the electoral systems. The “protocorporatist” countries adopted proportional representation systems that gave worker parties more voice, while the “protoliberal” countries adopted majority-rule systems where major parties had to be more-or-less centrist to win a majority.

Inequality and educational opportunity

Democratic governments of different kinds have adopted many of the same policies to support the growing knowledge sectors of their economies, for example by liberalizing trade and investing more in education. All of them have experienced some increase in inequality as technological innovation has rewarded workers with the right skills and penalized those without them. However, they differ markedly in the extent of the inequality and the associated decline of economic opportunity. The U.S. Council of Economic Advisers introduced the term “Great Gatsby curve” to describe the inverse relationship between economic inequality and intergenerational mobility among countries.

In general, the countries with weak worker organization and majoritarian electoral systems now have relatively high economic inequality and relatively low social mobility. This is true of the United States, United Kingdom and France. Canada and Australia are more average in inequality and social mobility.

In contrast, the countries with strong worker organization and proportional representation systems now have relatively low economic inequality and relatively high social mobility. This is especially true of the Nordic countries: Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Germany is more average in inequality and social mobility.

I think this is an important finding, because it means that even in a world of global, hi-tech competition, countries have choices. Economic growth and global competitiveness do not necessarily require the extravagant executive salaries and tax cuts enjoyed by the American 1%! Nor do they require tossing aside former manufacturing workers without making provision for their economic security or retraining.

One of the biggest factors in economic opportunity is education, and here the international findings reflect badly on the United States. Here the authors use an index of educational opportunity based on such variables as the availability of vocational training, the public spending on preprimary education, the public/private division of higher educational spending, and the age at which students are tracked (since early tracking can restrict opportunity). Among advanced democracies, only Japan and South Korea scored lower than the U.S. on this index. The Nordic countries scored the best.

Many readers may find this puzzling because the U.S. has so many fine schools, especially major research universities. But the quality of individual schools is not the same thing as educational opportunity. A good prep school that serves only the affluent does little to provide upward mobility.

In our majority-rule system, the interests of the downwardly mobile minority are not being well served. Their interests have diverged more sharply from those of more successful workers, making it harder for the traditional party of labor to represent them. This relates very much to the next topic, the threat that populism poses to democracies with high inequality.

Continued


Democracy and Prosperity (part 2)

July 18, 2019

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In Democracy and Prosperity, Iversen and Soskice contrast the emerging knowledge economy with the system that preceded it in the mid-20th century.

The “Fordist” political economy

What many economists call the “Fordist” system was dominated by giant manufacturing corporations such as the Ford Motor Company. They performed a range of functions from “production to logistics and sales and marketing,” and usually had a very hierarchical structure of decision-making.

Assembly-line technology featured “strong complementarities in production between skilled and semiskilled workers. The companies needed large numbers of both, and either of them could obstruct production if they were well organized but dissatisfied. By the 1970s, unionization was at a peak in the advanced capitalist democracies, and so was “wage coordination,” the cooperation of large numbers of workers and companies in setting wages and working conditions.

Economic inequality declined during this period, as even workers with limited educations could quickly acquire the skills needed for many industrial jobs. Poverty declined, even for segregated racial and ethnic groups. “The Fordist economy was…by and large a force of integration and equalization of incomes across industries, skill groups, and geographic space.” The most advanced companies were concentrated in big cities, but peripheral areas often supplied them with materials or components for their products.

National governments helped organize and maintain the system. They supported the collective bargaining rights of labor. They provided a safety net of unemployment and retirement benefits, which gave workers a source of security in addition to short-term wage demands. They invested in public goods like infrastructure and education. They often engaged in Keynesian economic policies, using government spending to stimulate the economy and maintain low unemployment. It was a period of rapid economic growth and relative harmony among business, labor and government.

The knowledge economy

Much of this has changed since around 1980. Information and communication technologies have not affected all jobs equally, but have most easily substituted for routine semiskilled tasks. In some ways, this is a blessing, as such work was often deadly dull and uncreative. But, “As less-skilled workers became increasingly segregated into a growing tier of low-productivity service sector occupations–especially in low-end personal and social services–the complementarities between high- and low-skilled workers unraveled.” Inequality generally increased in advanced capitalist democracies, although with important variations to be discussed later.

New technologies can put a lot of computational power into the hands of individual workers, if they have the analytic skills to use it. In organizations of knowledge workers, decision-making becomes less vertical (hierarchical) and more horizontal (network-based), and relational skills also become more important. Knowledge workers benefit by participating in skill clusters, in which they can play specialized roles, and yet find other work within the cluster when and if a particular role is no longer needed.

These skill clusters are also embedded in larger social networks in which educated workers participate. “Big-city agglomerations” of knowledge are the “dynamic drivers” of the knowledge economy. They are usually places that already had a range of professional services and a strong university or two. Fordist-era cities whose prosperity rested on a single manufacturing industry, such as steel, have had trouble adapting, and many smaller cities have been left behind altogether. (Rapid transit between thriving cities and peripheral areas would help, but people who are already doing fine in the city may not have much incentive to support it with their tax dollars.)

The fact that education, urbanization and high incomes tend to go together increases the inequality among both households and places. Educated people live and work with other educated people, and also socialize with them and marry them, often forming affluent, two-income households. By clustering together, affluent households drive up the cost of good schools and housing in the successful cities, creating barriers to entry for the less educated.

The dynamic cities in the advanced economies of America, Europe and Asia compete with one another to attract capital and market their innovations. “Multinationals play a central role in tapping into multiple skill clusters and tying together complementarities of knowledge. The result is a major increase in multinational investment, trade and competition.

The “embedded knowledge”-based political economy

A central point of Iversen and Soskice’s argument is that knowledge within the knowledge economy is geographically embedded in innovative urban centers within the advanced democratic countries. That gives governments some power over activities that cannot easily be moved from where they are. It also gives them an incentive to support the knowledge sectors of their economies, for the good of the nations where they reside.

The availability of information and communication technologies does not automatically transform an economy. The authors believe that the Soviet Union collapsed partly because it resisted the decentralizing power implied by the new technologies. “It was felt necessary to maintain prohibitions on personal computers until the late 1980s.” The lesson to be drawn: “Without politically initiated reforms economies stagnate, even when they possess the necessary technologies and know-how.”

Beginning in the 1980s, advanced capitalist democracies made a number of “strategic choices” to promote the growth of their knowledge sectors. “Knowledge economies have been enabled by a different political economic framework from that which supported Fordism. We describe this framework as “embedded knowledge-based liberalism.” (In Britain and the United States, many of the leaders in this effort–Thatcher, Reagan–are known as conservatives, but they were working to liberate economic activity from what they saw as outdated restrictions. In that way, they were acting in the tradition of classical liberalism.)

Governments generally worked to reduce barriers to competition, free trade and international flows of capital. The authors measure this with an index of regulation covering eighteen regulatory domains, including such matters as trade barriers, differential treatment of foreign suppliers, and administrative burdens on creating new enterprises. The U.S. and Britain led the way toward competitiveness and away from protectionism, and the rest of Europe followed.

Governments also worked to transform the financial and insurance sectors, so that they went beyond their traditional financial products to provide more complex and customized services for knowledge workers and enterprises. Greater access to credit was important for new businesses, but also for workers following more complicated careers, with many changes in jobs, periods of schooling, and shifts in work/family arrangements.

Governments shifted their macroeconomic priorities from fighting unemployment to fighting inflation. One reason for this was the decline of unions and large-scale wage coordination, which had provided a degree of predictability and moderation to wage demands. A tight monetary policy was a more centralized way of curbing wage-price spirals. Another reason was to stabilize the exchange rates among national currencies for purposes of global trade and investment. Other countries would not be eager to invest in America if they couldn’t count on receiving their returns in dollars with a stable value.

And of course, governments continued to work for an educated workforce, again with important variations to be discussed later. Over the past twenty-five years, attainment of higher education has more than doubled in the ACDs.

Such policies have been most responsive to the needs of knowledge industries and knowledge workers, but less so to the needs of less-educated workers displaced or threatened by new technologies. “Unlike the Fordist economy, there is nothing that binds together the interest of the main social classes. A majority gains, and a small minority gains a great deal, but a large minority loses.” Whether that continues to be the case is an important question for the future.

Continued

 


Democracy and Prosperity

July 17, 2019

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Torben Iversen and David Soskice. Democracy and Prosperity: Reinventing Capitalism through a Turbulent Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019

The authors are professors of political economy, Torben Iversen at Harvard and David Soskice at the London School of Economics. Their focus is the relationship between capitalism and democratic government in the most advanced capitalist democracies (ACDs).

The authors complain that too much of the recent literature describes that relationship too pessimistically, emphasizing the potential of capitalism to undermine democracy by generating too much inequality. In particular, they summarize Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century as arguing that “the power of capital to accumulate wealth is governed by fundamental economic laws which democratically elected governments can no longer effectively counter. If they try, capital just moves somewhere else.” This may be a little unfair to Piketty, since he does look to democratic government to curb wealth accumulation: “Although the risk is real, I do not see any genuine alternative: If we are to regain control of capitalism, we must bet everything on democracy–and in Europe, democracy on a European scale.” Nevertheless, Piketty does not seem entirely confident that democracy is up to the task, whereas Iversen and Soskice believe that it is.

A symbiotic relationship

Looking back at the last hundred years, the authors argue that “the advanced capitalist democracies, for all their instability and social problems not least at present, have been remarkably resilient and effective over this whole period.” The key to this resilience is the symbiotic relationship between democracy and capitalism. The democratic nation-state pushes advanced capitalism forward, and advanced capitalism reinforces democracy.

The first reason for this symbiotic relationship is that the state has to be strong enough to perform several crucial roles in the economy, if capitalism is to remain vibrant and innovative. The state must require businesses to engage in fair competition, as opposed to tolerating self-serving monopolies. It must require labor to moderate its demands and cooperate with management initiatives. It must invest in such public goods as education, research and infrastructure. It must negotiate changes in the rules to respond to shocks to the system, such as technological change.

A second reason for a symbiotic relationship is that the democratic electorate expects political leaders to manage advanced capitalism effectively. They have a stake in its success, and they expect results that they can see in their own lives. This is especially true of the citizens that the authors call “decisive voters.” These include the employees of advanced capitalist companies, who are usually well-skilled. In addition, they include many voters with aspirations for themselves or their children for upward mobility.

[T]he aspirational vote has a particular relevance in relation to advanced capitalism. By contrast to status-ordered societies, growth in the demand for skilled and educated labor is core to the idea of advanced capitalism as a result of technological change….Hence, while aspirational individuals, parents, and families have always existed to some extent, it is particularly associated with advanced capitalism.

Rather than simply being divided into the opposing interests of capital and labor, advanced democracies have a large middle class of actual or potential beneficiaries of capitalism. They support the system to the extent that they perceive themselves to be benefiting from it. But their incomes are lower than those of the principal owners and managers, and they depend more on public programs and services like public education and Social Security. “Accounting for more than one third of GDP on average, wide-ranging tax-financed middle-class programs ensure that those with high and rising incomes share some of their wealth with the rest of society.” The large middle class is a moderating influence. It doesn’t want the government to radically redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, but it doesn’t want it to let the rich hog the wealth either.

A third reason for the symbiotic relationship is that capital remains “geographically embedded” within nation-states. A common initial reaction to global electronic communications was that geography might not matter much anymore. Work could be done anywhere, perhaps far from established urban centers. Instead, “knowledge-based advanced companies, often multinational enterprises (MNEs) or subsidiaries…are increasingly immobile because they are tied to skill clusters in successful cities, with their value-added embedded in largely immobile, highly educated workforces.” Skilled workers have many good reasons to locate close to others with similar or complementary skills, especially when skills are acquired through face-to-face interaction rather than from some manual. And companies that depend on multi-skilled workforces cannot easily move their entire operation elsewhere, although they can more easily outsource particular low-skill tasks. The dependence of capital on geographically embedded skilled labor gives national and even local governments some power to regulate capital, as well as some incentive to invest in human capital development for the good of the nation or other geographic territory.

For these reasons, democratic governments promote advanced capitalism, but also try to manage it in the interests of a large class of voters. Capitalism thrives, but democracy also works to the extent that voters get a good return on their political investments.

Challenges to the symbiotic relationship

The symbiotic relationship is not a static equilibrium. Capitalism is inherently dynamic, and democracy has to be flexible in order to manage it in the public interest.

Technological change is an important driver of economic change, but not in a simple deterministic way. The authors see a new technology as a political opportunity, something that can be managed for the good of the many, although not usually the all. How political responses to the revolution in information and communications technology (ICT) have shaped the knowledge economy is a central concern of the book.

Another challenge for democratic societies is the recent increase in economic inequality and the decline in economic mobility, which is especially pronounced in the United States. “We see the division between the new knowledge economy and…low-productivity labor markets as a new socioeconomic cleavage that has crystallized along educational lines and a deepening segregation between successful cities and left-behind communities in small towns and rural areas.” The rich have been getting richer and the poor have been left behind, but the impact on the middle class is more complicated. A modest reduction in their share of national income has been accompanied by an absolute increase in income, especially in the more educated middle class. The ultimate impact on democracy is yet to be determined.

A third challenge is political populism, an anti-establishment reaction from those who feel threatened by economic and cultural change. Whether it is a powerful enough reaction to do serious damage to either advanced capitalism or democracy is another issue to be considered. The authors doubt that it is.

Maintaining the equilibrium

Iversen and Soskice acknowledge the tension between democracy and capitalism. “One is based on a principle of equality (‘one person, one vote’), while the other is based on a principle of market power (“one dollar, one vote”). In practice, what democratic electorates support is neither an absolute economic equality inimical to capitalism nor a monopoly of market power inimical to democracy.

“Democracy has a built-in mechanism to limit anti-systemic sentiments.” Voters with a stake in capitalism support the freedom of capitalists to invest in profitable enterprises and keep a lot of their profits, but voters also have a stake in the extension of opportunity so they can earn a good share of the economic benefits.

The historical experience has been that joining the ranks of the advanced capitalist democracies is not easy. Many countries have gotten stuck in a system with powerful capitalist enterprises but weak governments, in which politicians are paid off to protect firms against market competition. On the other hand, where advanced capitalist democracy has become established, it has so far proved to be highly resilient. A long-run perspective on ACDs supports an optimistic view, one that is not too dismayed by recent increases in inequality and reactionary populism.

The next post will discuss the emergence of the knowledge economy and the role of government in that transition.

Continued


The Attorney General vs. the Rule of Law

May 3, 2019

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A pretty strange headline, yes. But what can I say? Attorney General William Barr’s Senate testimony provided more insight into his thinking about the Mueller investigation, and what he thinks is troubling.

Who decides?

Recall that Robert Mueller stopped short of deciding whether or not the President had committed a crime. He accepted the Justice Department guideline that a sitting president cannot be indicted. He also believed that it would be unfair to accuse a president of a crime without indicting him, since the president would be deprived of the opportunity to clear his name in court. So he just laid out the facts, and then left it to Congress to begin an impeachment proceeding if the facts warranted it.

Attorney General Barr sees it very differently. He told Congress that a Special Counsel investigation is no different than any other criminal investigation. “Once a prosecutor has exhausted his investigation into the facts of a case, he or she faces a binary choice, either to commence or to decline prosecution. At the end of the day, the federal prosecutor must decide yes or no.” Barr went so far as to say, “I think that if he felt that he shouldn’t go down the path of making a traditional prosecutive decision, then he shouldn’t have investigated”!

Apparently, Barr sees no value in an investigation that might lead to Congressional action rather than Justice Department prosecution. He prefers to keep a legal decision about the executive within the executive branch itself.

Since in Barr’s eyes, Mueller failed to do his job by not making a decision, Barr felt justified in making the decision for him, instead of referring it to Congress. In fact, he rushed to make it before Congress had a chance to see the report. He even referred to the case as “my baby.”

No obstruction?

Attorney General Barr’s judgment is that the President committed no crime. He bases his judgment of “no collusion” on Volume I of the Mueller report, which failed to find sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy. He bases his judgment of “no obstruction” on Volume II…or does he?

Actually, his four-page “summary” of the Mueller report says that the lack of conclusive findings in Volume I eliminates the “underlying crime” that is relevant to the President’s intent. If there was no conspiracy, what corrupt motive would the President have to obstruct the investigation? That enables him to clear the President without taking very seriously the voluminous evidence of obstruction in Volume II.

There is a gaping hole in this logic. If the evidence in insufficient to establish conspiracy, that could be largely due to a successful coverup. Mueller reported that “several individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign lied to the Office, and to Congress, about their interactions with Russian-affiliated individuals and related matters. Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.”

One can easily imagine a scenario in which the President does something wrong, but then obstructs the investigation so well that the wrongdoing cannot be firmly established. His Attorney General then concludes that the President couldn’t have had a motive to obstruct justice, since he hasn’t been proven to have done anything wrong!

But it gets worse. In response to Senate questioning, Barr also took the position that the President can rightfully terminate an investigation if it is based on “unfounded allegations.” Who decides if the investigations are unfounded? The President, of course. So an investigation to determine if the allegations are true becomes unnecessary.

That assumes that the President is the best judge of the legality of his own conduct. It also assumes that he is omniscient enough to know what everyone else in his campaign or administration is doing. For Barr, it is justification enough that President Trump had a “sincere belief” that his administration was unfairly under attack. How many of us would be willing to place our trust in this president’s sincerity?

The implications of this line of legal reasoning are mind-boggling. The Chief Executive gets to decide whether an investigation is warranted of allegations against himself and his associates. If he ends such an investigation, the Justice Department is fine with that, and Congress is deprived of the information it needs to exercise its impeachment authority under the Constitution. The idea that the administration can also stonewall Congress and not respond to legal requests for information is consistent with this reasoning. The supposedly co-equal lawmakers take a back seat to the executive, no matter how incompetent or corrupt. Goodbye rule of law, welcome back George III.


The Mueller Report–Attorney General Barr’s Distortions

May 1, 2019

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On March 22, Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to Attorney General William Barr. Unfortunately, Barr did not just release the report and let it speak for itself. Before putting out a redacted version, he rushed to conclusions that differed in important respects from the report itself.

Two days after receiving the report, Attorney General Barr released a four-page document that he said was intended “to describe the report and to summarize the principal conclusions reached by the Special Counsel and the results of his investigation.” When complaints began to surface that his summary was incomplete and misleading, he backtracked and denied that it was really a summary.

Barr’s conclusion on conspiracy

Recall what Mueller’s own summary said about a possible conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump Campaign:

As set forth in detail in this report, the Special Counsel’s investigation established that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election principally through two operations. First, a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Second, a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents. The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

Attorney General Barr repeats what the report says about the Russians. But then he skips over the part about the links between the Russians and the Trump Campaign, as well as the part about the mutual benefits the parties were expecting. Barr goes right to his conclusion, “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” In case anyone missed it, Barr repeats the conclusion in each of the following two paragraphs. Apparently, all the wrongdoing was by the Russians, and no misdeeds by Americans are worth mentioning.

Barr also leaves out Mueller’s qualifying statements: first, that a failure to establish facts does not prove the absence of those facts; and second, that the lies told by many suspects impeded the investigation in finding the facts.

At his press conference before he released the report, Barr did exactly what Mueller warned against, turning insufficient evidence of criminal conspiracy into a flat-out judgment of “no collusion,” Trump’s favorite talking point.

President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates….At the same time there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability, yet as he said from the beginning, there was, in fact, no collusion.

Barr’s conclusion on obstruction

Mueller had found considerable evidence of obstruction of justice by President Trump. But he believed that Justice Department regulations prevented him both from indicting the President and from accusing him of a crime. “[W]e determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes.”

In his summary (or non-summary), Attorney General Barr just says, “The Special Counsel…did not draw a conclusion–one way or the other–as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.” That’s technically true. But since Barr does not mention that Mueller was prevented by Department regulations from reaching a conclusion of criminal conduct, he leaves the reader to think that the evidence must have been inconclusive. Note that Mueller was not precluded from clearing the President of wrongdoing, and he says that he would have done so if the evidence supported that conclusion.

Then Barr asserts:

The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.

His determination is that the evidence is not sufficient to establish obstruction of justice.

But Mueller had said nothing about leaving it to the Attorney General, who would be subject to the same regulations that tied Mueller’s hands. In Mueller’s view, it fell to Congress, or to federal and state prosecutors after Trump left office, to make the appropriate legal judgments.

What Barr does is take advantage of Mueller’s restraint, turning a policy of not accusing a sitting president into a conclusion of insufficient evidence, a conclusion that Mueller never reached about obstruction. As Senator Angus King put it, “Mueller passed the obstruction question to the Congress, and Barr intercepted the pass….”

Barr’s willingness to go beyond the report to conclude that Trump and his associates had committed no crimes enabled the President to claim complete exoneration, while characterizing the entire investigation as a witch hunt and an attempted coup against his presidency. Then he proceeded to obstruct any possible Congressional investigation by vowing to resist all subpoenas.

Mueller’s response to Barr

Three days after Attorney General Barr released his misleading “summary”, Special Counsel Mueller wrote him a letter characterizing it this way:

The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions….There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.

Barr kept Mueller’s letter secret and later testified before Congress that he didn’t know what Mueller thought of his conclusions.

In his handling of the Mueller Report, Attorney General Barr did a disservice to the Justice Department and the American people. He acted more like Trump’s personal slick attorney, spinning the evidence for the jury in order to create the best impression of innocence he could. I’m glad that Mueller called him on it, and I continue to hope that the full truth will come out.