I resolutely refused to watch any of the Republican National Convention this past week, and won’t watch the Democrats this week. As I’ve said before: I don’t watch infomercials. I nearly missed the highlight of the convention, Clint Eastwood’s absurdist improv dialogue with an empty chair. Jon Stewart‘s response to Clint was both very funny and oddly insightful: “there’s a President Obama only Republicans can see.” Hilarity aside, the Republicans are trying to combat the impression that they are primarily a party of angry wealthy clue-less old white men, so they feature, during their one hour of prime-time coverage, an octogenarian yelling at a chair? I don’t get it.
I did read the main speeches on-line: Ryan’s, Rubio’s, Ann and Mitt Romney’s. And they said all the right things, about the middle-class and job creation and rebuilding the economy. My son and I set the plus/minus for use of the phrase “the failed policies of the Obama administration” at 60: if you’d bet the plus, you’d have cleaned up. So these two questions suggest themselves: what policies exactly have failed, and what do you propose to do differently?
Let me quickly throw in my two cents: I think the Obama administration doesn’t really know exactly and specifically how to get the economy rolling again. His economic team has some ideas, but they’re unfocused, contradictory. When the President says, “I have a plan,” I don’t know that he really has one. His economic team tends to lurch from idea to idea, from Keynesian stimulus to cost-cutting austerity, and back again. His singular achievement, Obamacare, was compromise legislation, and is flawed. I support it, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s SO much better than the status quo. Obama doesn’t have the gusto, the charismatic confidence of FDR, but his Presidency does remind me a bit of Roosevelt’s restless willingness to try anything. FDR was advised by Keynes himself, and ought to have followed Keynes’ advice more closely, just as Obama would be better off if he’d listened more to Paul Krugman. Obama’s been muddling through, but he did save the auto industry and he did save 3.5 million jobs with the stimulus package (according to the painfully non-partisan CBO). It’s a mixed record, but over-all, some progress has been achieved. And it was never realistic to think he could fix things in four years. After all, Great Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Ireland et. al, faced the same difficulties, and, if anything, are doing worse than we are.
I think the Republicans, on the other hand, think they know exactly how to fix things, exactly how to get the economy rolling. I think they’re brimming with confidence. I think they think they’ve got a genuinely brilliant economic thinker in Paul Ryan, a serious policy wonk, and I think they’re completely on-board with his ideas. I don’t sense any self-doubt at all. I’m sure Ryan is a die-hard conservative ideologue, a man with a plan and a self-appointed mission. I hadn’t thought that described Romney . . . but he did put Ryan on the ticket.
And they’re completely, totally, 100% wrong about all of it.
Their proposals are on-line, and actually fairly specific. Romney is on record as proposing to cut marginal tax rates to 28%. Ryan’s plan cuts them to 25%. Presumably, they’d split the difference somehow when it came time to actually pass legislation. This is a massive tax cut, targeted towards the wealthy, and would add billions (the figure I’ve heard is 4.2 trillion) to the deficit over ten years. The cuts would be partially off-set by cuts in social spending, cutting such programs as food stamps, Pell grants, Aid to Dependent Children, school lunch programs, Meals on Wheels; essentially eroding the social safety net.
This plays into a standard Democratic meme; Republicans as heartless plutocrats, callously enriching the rich on the backs of the starving poor. Democrats like to see themselves as uniquely virtuous and caring–I don’t think that’s true. I think Republicans genuinely do believe that tax cuts will stimulate economic growth, helping the middle class and providing opportunities for upward mobility. I think Republicans genuinely do believe that welfare dependency is a real danger, that generational poverty is bad for everyone, not least bad for the poor themselves. I really do think Romney and Ryan think these tax cuts and spending cuts will pay for themselves in time, and lead to greater prosperity for all.
They’re just wrong about all of it.
Conservatives famously dismiss Keynesian economics, and dismiss stimulus programs like the one Obama implemented. But Keynes did believe that, under some circumstances, tax cuts could prove stimulative. When inflation was high, and interest rates were high, tax cuts for rich people could free up much needed investment capital, stimulating economic growth. This is what happened in 1980. That’s why Reagan’s tax cuts had stimulative value. Those were the conditions that existed then. But that’s not what’s going on right now. Right now, investment capital has never been more plentiful–interest rates could really hardly be lower. Right now, we’re caught in a liquidity trap caused by a demand side recession. What’s needed is more stimulus. And Obama tried a stimulus, and it did work, some. It was just too small to repair all the damage wrought by the financial crisis.
But we can know, for an absolute certainty, that the Romney/Ryan plans won’t work. Spending cuts, these kinds of austerity measures have been tried. Most of Europe suffers under the same conditions we’re facing; something akin to the Ryan plan has been tried. To say it won’t work isn’t just theory. We’re actually in a position to look around and see other countries–Great Britain, France, Ireland–with the same problems we have, with the same causes, and see what they’re trying and what’s working for them. We can KNOW, with something approaching absolute certainty, what doesn’t work.
So in this election, we have a choice, between uncertainty shading towards truth, and certainty in the service of untruth. I’m not certain Obama knows how to fix things. I am certain that Romney thinks he can. But he’s wrong, and Obama is closer to right.