One of the most frustrating things for me about politics is that the need to reduce every issue to the straightjacket of a 30-second television spot – and now to 140 characters on a Twitter account – tends to eliminate all the things that those of us trained in Clio’s craft most relish: The sense of historical contingency, the interplay of ideas and events, the usually complicated relationship, especially in a democracy, between leaders and the led, the sheer complicatedness of human culture. All this gets lost when issues must be reduced to soundbites.
Another frustrating dynamic in politics is the way a given narrative takes root which may or may not have made sense at an earlier time, in different circumstances, but which fails to take account of new facts and, even more, proves itself barren of new policy approaches. It is easy to arm oneself with statistics to bolster almost any claim, and soon you go on Fox News or MSNBC and the narrative is reinforced instead of questioned, its adherents dig in rather than re-evaluate, and the potential for anything like a new and fecund idea breaking forth seems ever more remote.
This year, the economy is THE issue. I can scarcely think of an issue that is more inherently opaque than economic growth. For starters, almost every citizen is an economic actor and because economic decision-making is discrete and closely tied to ephemeral, almost psychological issues – can I afford this? Do I really want that? Why should I start saving for my retirement now? – mapping the past, let alone the future, seems almost like a fool’s errand. Macroeconomics always seems to invite microeconomics and I have yet to find an economist who can concisely and persuasively explain to non-economists how the two cohere in a single theory of economic growth. You get nibbles, insights, a crumb from the table of the wise, but in the end, most end up invoking the orthodoxy of Keynes or the orthodoxy of the Austrians and, in a flash, you find yourself thinking – how did the modern academy grow suspicious of theology as an academic discipline and not economics?
Politicians contribute to the fog in countless ways and for a variety of reasons. Here comes Bill Clinton. We all know the Clinton years were boom years. The economy did well over all and despite growing income inequality, most people were happy to have a job, everyone was happy to see the federal budget deficit eliminated, etc. Clinton, keen to burnish his place in history, understandably wishes to take as much credit as possible for the good times that occurred on his watch. I do not doubt that his decision to place the government’s finances on a stronger footing by raising taxes in 1993 had something to do with the economic growth that followed. Newt Gingrich wants us to believe that when he led the GOP-takeover of Congress in 1994, it was their budget-cutting that closed the deficit gap and produced a budget surplus and the millions of new jobs. Let us stipulate that both men are partially right but does anyone think that it was any particular government policy that created the boom years of the 90’s? It was the Internet and all the productivity gains and new businesses the Internet spawned that created the boom.
Yesterday, in his speech at Georgetown University, Cong. Paul Ryan invoked the memory of Ronald Reagan’s presidency to bolster his case for his own reforms. Of course, he failed to mention that while Reagan succeeded in getting his massive tax cuts through Congress, but failed to get his budget cuts through as well, the result was as Keynesian as anything to come from the Obama White House. And, any account of the economic growth of the 1980s should at least tip its hat to Paul Volcker, whom Jimmy Carter appointed to the Fed and who, once there, stamped out inflation, often in painful ways, but with the understanding that until inflation was tamed, nothing else mattered.
Both parties, then, claim credit where some credit may be due but where a variety of non-partisan factors also come into play. I will say this about the Clinton years and the Reagan years: At the end of the day, both men were able to get something done, to develop a rapport, sometimes frosty sometimes not, with those on the other side of the aisle and the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, that allowed them reach agreement at the end of the day. It is the inability of this White House to build any kind of political relationships on Capitol Hill, with Democrats as well as Republicans, that may be more important than this policy or that, because the perception that the country is stuck in a partisan rut surely has a depressing effect on micro-economic activity.
This morning, Michael Gerson has an article about Cong. Ryan and the “Reform Conservatives.” Among the most interesting parts of the article is when he notes that there are weaknesses in their approach – how infrequently do we hear anyone on either side of the debates admit that their side has weaknesses? But, he also points to what I think Democrats fail to perceive as a real danger, the fact that Republicans are branding themselves as the agents of reform and Democrats seems stuck in what Gerson calls “unreconstructed liberalism.” He is on to something. I, for one, am tired of hearing the same rants from the same people defending the same policies. The large number of poor in our land is a moral challenge, and I believe that the Ryan budget unfairly targets government programs that help the poor, but the large number of poor in our land is also a judgment against the failure of liberalism over the past fifty years to address the root causes of poverty. Gerson chides the reform conservatives with not paying attention sufficient attention to social problems and I think the same could be said of large swaths of the left: They rightly wish to meet the needs of the poor but have been shockingly bad at defending, say, the Affordable Care Act in compelling ways that would shift the public policy debate in ways that resonate. To take the most obvious example, conservatives speak the word “entitlements” as if it had only four letters. They spit, they do not speak, the word, and they contrast it with opportunity, an American perennial. But, when was the last time you heard a Democrat defend entitlements with the simple claim: Yes, we believe that all human beings, as human beings, are entitled to health care.
Gerson’s article contains a warning for the Left. Almost by definition, conservatives have been opposed to reform, and ever since Herbert Hoover seemed to stand by idly during the Depression, Democrats have been able to portray themselves as, and govern as, those willing to put policy reform at the front of a political agenda to improve the lot of the average American. If Democrats become so tied to preserving a status quo that has succeeded in many ways but failed in others, and they cede the reform label to conservatives, they will have no one but themselves to blame for the consequent politic problems they will face. I think Ryan's ideas are bad, but at least he has some.