In the clash over tax cuts and social programs, much of what progressives need to do is defensive. But it would be a mistake not to float new ideas, too.
In recent months, as a newly elected senator, I have had to decide whether to join the Democratic Leadership Council. I have chosen not to because while I shared its founding purpose, which was to frame a successful response to President Reagan's efforts to portray Democrats as the party of "tax and spend," social engineering and failed personal responsibility, I believe that purpose has been largely accomplished.
Today, I believe that it is vital for Democrats to stand up for a sharply defined progressive agenda--one that is committed to fighting for practical and progressive policies for working families and America's middle class--even when that means challenging powerful interests and the status quo. I am absolutely convinced that, standing on the foundation of fiscal stability that Democrats have built and to which the DLC contributed, we now have to fight for our convictions. If we begin to negotiate from the middle, the end result inevitably takes us to the right of where I believe our nation should be.
Nothing is more relevant to this point than today's debate over the Bush tax cut proposal. Democrats must remain firmly opposed to this budget-busting plan, which provides disproportionate benefits for the richest 1 percent of our population. It is relevant and essential to our argument that this tax cut is not only unfocused and poorly timed but also unfair. In fact, if we yield on fairness before the debate begins, we forfeit our fundamental ground. That is one reason I have proposed a tax cut that gives an immediate break to everyone equally and is targeted toward working families.
Moreover, the DLC has not convinced me that we should turn away from advocating an activist government--one that, for example, sees healthcare as a basic right for all Americans. And while compromise is an acceptable end, too much of it too soon has led to a paralysis on fundamental concerns such as healthcare, gun safety, the environment and educational opportunity.
The critical point to be made by progressives in our national debate is this: While there are programs that have failed and should be reformed or eliminated, proactive government has often succeeded. An activist government was a driving force in the prosperity of the 1990s, as well as in providing our historic safety net, including Social Security, Medicare and Head Start. An activist government invested in the development of the Internet and the space program and spurred today's technological revolution. It was government investment that built our highways, air transit system and much of our communications network. And the list goes on. Without progressive leadership, would segregation have been outlawed? Would women have achieved as much access as they now have to equal rights? The pressure for advancement came from grassroots progressives. That said, reform and progress required our government to respond and lead. We're still far from the ideal, as racial profiling and unequal incomes for women and minorities attest. There are no African-American or Latino senators, but at least there are thirteen women senators--surely not enough, but more than there have ever been before. The lesson of history is clear: Equal rights for all depend on public action and so do equal pay, worker safety and retirement security. The barriers to opportunity for all don't just fall on their own.
Today, the progressive agenda must address the great unfinished challenges--for women, for middle-class families, for minorities and the poor. It's a hopeful agenda rooted in ideas and our ideals. As I put it in my Senate campaign, "Everyone ought to have the same access to the American promise I've had." America must be a society of equal opportunity and equal protection before the law. So I believe the progressive agenda of our party is more important than ever. And the principle that should guide us is clear: While we can't achieve equal outcomes, we can and must assure equal opportunity.
We also have to articulate the truth that advancing social and economic justice advances everyone's prosperity. We need to challenge the special interests that would limit the rights of labor and the opportunities of women and minorities, because we need all the talents of all our people to achieve maximum productivity and growth. We need to challenge the health insurance industry and finally win the battle for universal access to healthcare, because it is morally right and economically rational. Just because conservatives have demonized the term "universal healthcare" we should not walk away from that battle for the sake of a calculated centrism that splits the difference between right and wrong.
When I was a candidate, the polls said that the majority of New Jersey voters disagreed with my opposition to the death penalty. I'm grateful the voters respected that I said what I believed even when it wasn't popular. As progressives, we must be ready to do that. Most of the progressive agenda--healthcare, the environment, gun safety, a progressive tax policy-- reflects the values and the ideals of the majority of our people. They will vote for our agenda if we present it in practical terms and fight for it.
So while I respect the contribution of the DLC and while I respect its leaders, I'm not ready to join. The answer to "compassionate conservatism" isn't timid progressivism. It's a real commitment to equal opportunity, to fiscal responsibility and a fair society. We can and must be a party with the courage to stand tall for our beliefs because that's how we will be able to win as the party of the people.
Twenty years ago this season, when another new Republican President arrived in Washington to push for massive income-tax reductions, I was having breakfast every other Saturday morning with David Stockman, the brainy young budget director, and collecting his insider account of the Reagan revolution. Stockman was the enfant terrible who implemented the supply-side agenda and promised to achieve the improbable--reduce taxes dramatically and double defense spending, while cutting other federal programs sufficiently to produce a balanced budget. It didn't work out that way. Ronald Reagan's great legislative triumph of 1981 destabilized federal fiscal policy for nearly two decades, creating the massive structural deficits that were not finally extinguished until a few years ago. Washington seems about to replay history as farce, albeit on a less threatening scale. It prompts me to reflect on what, if anything, was learned from the revolution.
My private sessions with Stockman stretched over nine months and led to a controversial magazine article, "The Education of David Stockman," in which I disclosed the contradictions and internal swordplay behind Reaganomics, but the real sensation was Stockman's own growing doubts and disillusionment with the doctrine. Both of us were excoriated in the aftermath. The Gipper likened me to his would-be assassin John Hinckley. Stockman was roasted for duplicity and cynical manipulations; for concealing the truth about the looming deficits while Congress plunged forward in fateful error. Stockman was guileful, yes, but it was his intellectual honesty that shocked Washington. That brief moment of truth-telling resonates with the current delusions and deceptions. A lot of what he said twenty years ago seems painfully relevant.
"None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers," the budget director confided during intense budget-cutting battles in the spring of 1981. That admission should be engraved over the door at the Treasury, the Capitol and the White House. Projections of fabulous budget surpluses that provide the premise for this year's political action are no less airy-fairy. Nonetheless, official fantasy becomes the operating truth, so long as everyone bows to it. Stockman's wishful forecasts on economic growth were nicknamed Rosy Scenario by his colleagues, but now the Congressional Budget Office has matched his rosiness. The economy is expanding this year by 2.4 percent and faster next year, according to the CBO. Actually, right now it's headed into the zero-minus territory known as recession.
Stockman's boldest accounting gimmick--reporting $40 billion in budget cuts but declining to identify them--was dubbed by insiders "the magic asterisk." Bush has already topped him with his "magic blueprint" and the miraculous "trillion-dollar reserve" he saves and spends at the same time. The new President has not actually issued a real budget, only a "blueprint" that leaves out the grisly, painful details of what spending will get whacked. Dubya sounds like the Queen of Hearts: Tax cuts first, punishment later! Congressional nerds protest, but Bush intends to ram through his tax cuts before anyone has been given an honest picture of the fiscal consequences.
"Do you realize the greed that came to the forefront?" Stockman exclaimed to me twenty years ago. "The hogs were really feeding." As the Reagan White House lost control of the action, Democrats and Republicans engaged in a furious bidding war to see which party could deliver more tax breaks and other boodle to the special-interest hogs (Republicans won, but the Dems gave it a good try). The Bushies recognize this danger and are trying to wall off the usual business greedheads from exploiting the same opening this year. The deal-making may still begin, however, if the White House is a few votes shy and needs to seduce a few hungry senators with special favors. As Stockman learned, if you buy one senator, you might have to buy them all.
Another of Stockman's vivid metaphors is the centerpiece for 2001--the "Trojan horse" approach to rewarding the rich. Giving everyone the same percentage rate cut sounds fair, but actually delivers most of the money to the very wealthy, who pay the top rate. Supply-side doctrine "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate," Stockman revealed. "It's kind of hard to sell trickle-down economics, so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really trickle down." This year's new wrinkle is a Keynesian twist. Instead of talking about rich investors who need a little encouragement to invest in America, Bush talks about the waitresses who need a little cash to pay off their credit-card debts.
The most disturbing difference I see in 2001 is political--the role reversal between the two major parties. What Republicans learned from the revolution is this: Deficit spending doesn't really count for that much in politics--not among average voters--and a party will not be punished for creating fiscal disorder as long as other good things seem to happen. Democrats used to understand this as a visceral matter but have forgotten the street-smarts their party knew in olden days. On fiscal discipline, the two have swapped positions. Republicans, once the scolds, are now the reckless feel-good party, willing to risk big deficits in order to deliver goodies to main constituencies. Democrats, perhaps wishing for respectability, have become the party of rectitude, preaching forbearance of pleasure. Republicans want voters to have a little fun. Democrats sound like nervous bookkeepers.
Leaving aside economic consequences, Democrats have dealt themselves a very weak position, even though they're largely right about the budget accounting. Most Americans are not fiscal experts and cannot be expected to absorb all the fine-print arguments about cause and effect. Think of the old Far Side cartoon with a dog listening to his master. All the dog hears is: "Fido, blah, blah, blah, Fido, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Republicans is: "Want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah, want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Democrats is: "Must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah, must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah." For skeptical voters with already low expectations of government, this is not a tough choice.
The great accomplishment of Reagan and the supply-siders was to persuade the old-guard Republican Party that its root- canal approach to fiscal policy was a loser--and that recklessness can be a win-win proposition for their side. If the Trojan horse approach succeeds in winning regressive tax-cuts, the GOP delivers huge rewards to its favorite clients. If this also creates a big hole in the federal budget, that's OK too, since runaway deficits will throw another collar around the size of the federal government and provide yet another reason to slash the liberals' social spending. With clever marketing, the GOP may even persuade voters it was spendthrift Democrats who created the red ink. Even recession is OK if the timing is as lucky as the Gipper's. When this recession ends, Bush will credit his tax cuts for the recovery and claim vindication in time for re-election.
Democrats, meanwhile, are the "responsibles," telling the people to save their allowance for a rainy day. They were led into this cul-de-sac by the champion of artful deception, Bill Clinton. Two years ago, when the prospect of burgeoning federal surpluses arose, Clinton devised a very clever ploy to hold off Republican tax-cutters. We will not spend the extra trillions, he announced, we will pay off the national debt. Democrats felt exceedingly virtuous about this position, although they understood that the subtext was quite different: The surpluses would allow government to do big things again for people--someday, but not yet. A different kind of leader might have recognized that politics doesn't wait for ten-year budget projections. If Democrats wished to accomplish big things like universal healthcare or helping debt-soaked families, they should have gone for it right then while the resources were available. Instead, Clinton's stratagem actually adopted the old-time religion that Reagan had shed--a loss of nerve that is the opposite of activist government. Some Dems are agitating to change that, proposing a genuine commitment to healthcare reform and other measures, but others have internalized the bookkeeper politics and are preaching hair-shirt economics: Cancel any tax cuts if a severe recession wipes out our sacred surplus. That's a righteous recipe for more pain.
One more point: Both parties are playing with a phony deck of cards. No matter what unfolds this season, the government is not going to reduce the "national debt." On the contrary, the government's total indebtedness is going to keep growing steadily, from $5.6 trillion right now to $6.7 trillion by 2011. Despite what you read in the newspapers, that occurs with or without tax cuts and even if all the outstanding Treasury bonds are paid off (if you still don't believe it, check the CBO's latest budget forecast with its chart on page 17). The awkward fact neither party brings up is that federal financing has depended crucially on collecting more money than it needs from working people since 1983, when both parties collaborated in a great crime of bait and switch. After Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy and business in 1981, he turned around two years later and raised Social Security payroll taxes dramatically on workers (earnings above $76,000 are exempted from Social Security taxes). Ever since, workers have been paying in extra money toward their future retirement--trillions more than needed now by Social Security--and the government simply borrows the surplus revenue to spend on other things: upper-income tax cuts or paying off Treasury bonds or reducing the fiscal damage from deficits in the operating budget.
Taxing one class of citizens--the broad ranks of working people--so government can devote the money to other people and purposes is not only wrong but profoundly deceptive, bait and switch on a grand scale. Government still owes workers the money, of course, and someday will have to find the borrowed trillions somewhere, either by raising taxes or borrowing the money or possibly by cutting Social Security benefits. When FICA taxes were raised in 1983, Reagan at first objected and reminded aides that he was opposed to raising taxes--of any kind. David Stockman reassured him. If the rising payroll-tax burden was imposed on young working people, they would eventually revolt and Social Security would self-destruct of its own weight. The Gipper liked that and gave his OK. The same objective, now called privatization, shows up again this year on George W. Bush's agenda. He proposes to "save" Social Security by destroying it.
President George W. Bush's effort to repeal the estate tax has revealed contradictions in the nonprofit sector and confusion about what it values and where it stands.
The loudest applause during George W. Bush's first budget address to Congress--a thumping, shouting, jump-to-your-feet outpouring of enthusiasm--erupted in response to his first mention of his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut. Coming at the end of a masterful but deceitful description, with more concealed trapdoors than a funhouse ride (they have the fun and we get taken for a ride), of how he could do everything from funding Social Security to paying down the debt and have money "still left over," Bush's proposal argued for returning that money "to the people who earned it in the first place."
The country is not buying. The latest Pew Research Center poll finds that only 19 percent of Americans think the current budget surplus should be used for a tax cut, and 79 percent believe the proposed Bush tax cut will most benefit the wealthy. Meanwhile, 60 percent want any surplus used for domestic programs as well as Social Security and Medicare.
Why, then, was the response to Bush's tax cut proposal so enthusiastic? Perhaps for the same reason that the words "campaign finance reform" never crossed Bush's lips, an omission Senator John McCain wryly noted in a CNN interview. The Wall Street Journal reported the morning after the speech that industry groups have formed a coalition to push the tax cuts in what one White House adviser described as "the largest PR campaign this party has ever conducted." The same adviser went on to say that the effort "will test if we can use the power of the White House and congressional control and the lobbying world to work our will."
With the cat thus out of the bag, Bush's budget should be pronounced dead on arrival. Now is the moment for the minority party to put forth a sensible alternative: No new tax breaks for the wealthy. An earlier, bigger check--either in the form of a tax credit or a "prosperity dividend"--for middle- and low-income earners, to jump-start the economy. Prescription drug coverage for seniors and affordable healthcare for all. Investment in schools and teachers' salaries. Investment to combat the growing shortage of affordable rental housing. Electoral reforms that will insure that every vote is counted.
In opposition, Democrats find it difficult to speak with one voice. A few have already thrown in their lot with Bush. Others are looking to deal. Still others seem stuck on paying down the debt as their prime concern. Thus it is vital that progressives in the party--and the increasingly vibrant base of the party that is central to its electoral hopes--speak out independently to force the debate. Here the Progressive Caucus has done well by pushing its prosperity dividend, which would give every American a $300 check in contrast to Bush's tax giveaway to the rich. Responsible Wealth has done remarkable work organizing the statement by about 120 of America's richest men and women against estate-tax repeal. The large coalition of groups convened to fight the tax cuts--under the leadership of progressive unions, civil rights groups and the public interest community--will help stiffen the backbone of faltering legislators. The Campaign for America's Future's plan for creating a progressive leadership organization will help define and broadcast the choice we face.
Bush has benefited, of course, from the continuing press focus on former President Clinton's tawdry unpardonables and his legacy of political timidity and tactical retreat. Now, progressives must force Democrats to shed that defensiveness. The country did not vote for the Bush agenda, and the vast majority will not benefit from it. Time to go on the attack. This is a fight that can be won.
As the proverbial curtain rises on the Bush era in national politics, it's hard to know just how pessimistic progressives should be about the new President's aims and intentions. On a rhetorical level, we were greeted with an inaugural address that with a few minor adjustments could have been given by an incoming president of the NAACP. Look at the substance, however, and we find nominees at the Justice and Interior departments who could have been vetted by the John Birch Society, if not the Army of the Confederacy. The two warring sides of the Republican psyche were neatly illustrated recently at a dinner sponsored by the Philanthropy Roundtable at the Regency Hotel in New York, where two current stars of the Republican rubber-chicken circuit, Weekly Standard editor David Brooks and American Enterprise Institute "research scholar" and Olin fellow Dinesh D'Souza, held forth after a nicely Republican red-meat repast.
Brooks is still riding the wave of his bestselling work of "comic sociology" about America's new elite, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. His talk, like the book, is mostly affectionate ribbing of this class for its bourgeois consumption habits and bohemian self-image. Though he'd be loath to admit it, Brooks is an old-fashioned liberal Republican, not unlike Poppy Bush before he got the bit of presidential ambition in his teeth and found his principles run over by a Reagan landslide. (Just what Brooks is doing in a party dominated not by Prescott Bush and Elliot Richardson but Dick Armey and Tom DeLay is a question for another day.) A self-confessed Bobo, Brooks has only one problem with this tolerant, secular-minded and self-satisfied elite--its lack of civic consciousness.
There are no poor people in the Bobo world--even illegal Guatemalan nannies are treated as if they are taking care of your children and cleaning your bathroom as a lifestyle choice rather than out of economic necessity. "The new elite," as Brooks explained to the assembled philanthropists, "has no ethic of chivalry." Charitable giving as a percentage of assets has not remotely kept up with the unprecedented explosion of wealth in the United States during the past decade.
The virtues of such selfishness, on the other hand, have never escaped Dinesh D'Souza. The young Indian immigrant made his name in this country giving eloquent voice to the most morally repugnant aspects of Reagan-era Republicanism. He began his career as an obnoxious Dartmouth undergrad, publishing crude racist attacks in the off-campus conservative newspaper, followed by a stint at a Princeton magazine where he delighted in exposing details of female undergrads' sex lives. His first book was a loving appreciation of aspiring ayatollah Jerry Falwell.
D'Souza became a national phenomenon with a book attacking PC culture at universities, which was defensible, if overstated, and an apologia for American racism, which he termed "rational discrimination." With its pseudointellectual patina, D'Souza's work, even more than Charles Murray's, seems designed to offer solace to those who miss the good old days of Jim Crow laws and late-night cross burnings. Segregation, he argued, was designed to protect African-Americans and "to assure that [they], like the handicapped, would be...permitted to perform to the capacity of their arrested development." It would end when "blacks as a group can show that they are capable of performing competitively in schools and the work force."
D'Souza is touring for a new work, The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence. (It is a measure of how well-funded are right-wing arguments that I have so far received four unrequested copies.) The thrust of his argument is the opposite of that of Brooks. Simply put, wealth has no obligations to poverty except to avoid it. As he once argued for the logic of racism, he now speaks for the morality of parsimony. The United States, he asserts, is "probably the best society that now exists or has ever existed."
D'Souza is the kind of moral philosopher who pays more attention to the musings of the Ayn Rand-spouting entrepreneur T.J. Rodgers, who races his BMW over speed bumps while attacking the moral probings of the clergy, than he does to the combined works of John Rawls and Richard Rorty. (Terming the latter "Rip Van Rorty" is what passes for wit in these pages.) Reinhold Niebuhr receives no mention at all.
Of course, it's not exactly hard to find billionaires who think of themselves as altruists regardless of the obscene amounts of wealth they accumulate. But it is much more cost-effective to induce "intellectuals" to say it for them. D'Souza fills this purpose not only by celebrating mass wealth but by abolishing poverty. "Poverty," he argues, "understood as the absence of food, clothing, and shelter, is no longer a significant problem in America." His evidence for this breathtaking claim is that even poor people have refrigerators these days, and many of them are fat. That 30 million Americans still struggle beneath the poverty line and 42 million lack the benefit of health insurance represent, to D'Souza, mere speed bumps on our highway to capitalist utopia.
When Bush père was inaugurated, he too made a great show of what was not yet called "compassionate conservatism." He acknowledged that poor people exist and that somebody should do something about it, but as a society, he warned, we had "more will than wallet." (And anyway, his contributors were demanding a cut in the tax on capital gains.) Dubya closed his inaugural with a similar flourish, in which he promised to work "to make our country more just and generous."
To show that Dubya is even remotely serious about his agenda for the poor, he and his Administration will have to ponder the kinds of questions raised by Brooks about the moral obligations of wealth. That is, after all, about the best one can expect from Republicans. But to the degree that he wishes to prove what his enemies insist to be true--that all this compassionate conservatism is simply a frilly frock in which to clothe the Reaganite Republican values of top-down class war--expect to hear plenty more from Dinesh D'Souza.
Something doesn't add up about the new Treasury Secretary nominated by George W. Bush. The supply-side conservatives who live for more big tax cuts on capital and upper-bracket incomes are actively leery about Alcoa chairman Paul O'Neill. Some grumble that he may be a talented corporate manager but that he's ill equipped for the top economic post in the Bush Administration. Meanwhile, George Becker, president of the Steelworkers union, loves the O'Neill selection. "I'm not an economist, I just go on gut beliefs," Becker said. "But Paul is a person working people and labor people can talk to. He is an industrialist who believes in the United States and has maintained a strong industrial base in the United States. I think this is far better than having another bond trader in that job."
Bush's choice has startled many quarters, including Wall Street, because O'Neill comes to the job from old-line manufacturing and with a reputation for independent thinking, albeit in the moderate Republican manner. Above all, he is not a banker or financier--the first Treasury Secretary since the Carter Administration to originate from the business realm that actually makes things (aluminum, in O'Neill's case). Yet, oddly enough, O'Neill is also a government pro. He spent sixteen years as a systems analyst and budget economist in the federal government, rising to deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under Gerald Ford, before a brilliant business career at International Paper and Alcoa (both multinational companies are reviled by environmentalists--he's not Ben & Jerry's). But unlike the laissez-faire crowd, O'Neill understands the power of activist government to intervene in the private economy and has demonstrated a taste for doing so. At a minimum, he represents a refreshing shift from the free-market mantra that has ruled at Treasury for the past two decades.
"I negotiated with Paul for years--he's very tough but fair--and we've always been able to get a fair, decent contract," said Becker, whose union represents 22,000 Alcoa workers. "I had people I could talk to in the Clinton Administration too. They would listen and tell me how much they understand our pain. Then they went out and deep-sixed us. I like [former Treasury Secretary] Bob Rubin, but Rubin killed us in steel. He would say, Let the marketplace decide. Except, when financial firms got in trouble, they went to the rescue."
In contrast, as a business executive, Paul O'Neill artfully engineered a worldwide rescue for the aluminum industry and persuaded President Clinton to make it happen. Prices were collapsing in 1993 because the former Soviet republics were flooding the world market with cheap aluminum--devastating US producers like Alcoa. The temporary agreement amounted to a government-negotiated cartel--every producing nation reduced its output to prop up world prices--and it worked. Yet the political deal was done so skillfully that few in the media even noticed. And nobody complained about the scheme's contradicting Clinton's free-trade rhetoric. O'Neill knows where the levers are located and how to pull them.
While it would be nice to imagine that the Bush/Cheney team is sending a message about new ideological priorities with this appointment, their motivation is probably more pedestrian--personal trust, not policy. O'Neill comes from the same "old boy" circle of policy advisers that includes Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and, yes, Alan Greenspan during the Nixon/Ford years. He is a familiar old friend to all of them, experienced and capable, above all loyal. During George Bush Senior's ill-fated presidency, O'Neill took Alcoa out of the US Chamber of Commerce in order to endorse Bush's deficit-reducing tax increase--the one that got the President into permanent trouble with the party's right-wingers. Around the same time O'Neill proposed a $10-a-barrel tax on oil to force greater energy conservation. He supported Bill Clinton's more modest energy-tax proposal, which failed in 1993. He is quite willing, in other words, to break eggs over the GOP's antitax doctrine.
In another season, these qualities would have made for intriguing possibilities, but O'Neill's strongest asset--he's not from Wall Street--might also become a handicap in present circumstances, because the Bush Administration is assuming power amid a breaking storm--the collapsing stock-market bubble and deteriorating economic growth worldwide. Whether this event turns out to be good luck for Dubya or the ruination of his presidency will depend crucially on the smarts of O'Neill and a team of White House economic advisers that includes former Federal Reserve governor Lawrence Lindsey as principal counselor and, presumably, Stanford economist John Taylor at the Council of Economic Advisers. The old boys from business and finance gathered at the governor's mansion in Texas to throw in their advice, a private conversation that did not include the press and public.
The problem is that none of Bush's lead advisers have displayed any special feel for financial markets--especially markets that are scared and imploding. The conservative financial experts I talked with all delivered the same warning. "O'Neill needs to have a serious banker at his side, someone who has done a lot of financial restructurings and bankruptcies," one of them said. "Because that's what is coming."
O'Neill has been relieved of an obvious first challenge--coaxing the Fed chairman into cutting interest rates--because that job was done for him by the frightened financial markets. Falling stock prices and market interest rates, along with plummeting sales and production, delivered a message of terror--the markets' fear that Greenspan was dangerously behind events. He was thus compelled to start cutting rates. Many market players figure it's already too late, however, and Greenspan's wizard status is swiftly evaporating, at least among those who understand what's happening. So Bush's team will begin by blaming Clinton/Gore for the rising unemployment and corporate bankruptcies, while privately nudging Greenspan to keep on easing credit terms. A deep distrust toward Greenspan lingers in the Bush family--a sense that he broke promises and allowed high unemployment to linger much too long after the 1991 recession, effectively dooming George père's re-election campaign in 1992. This time, they will not wait passively on the chairman's wisdom, and Bush Jr. has real leverage he can apply. The seven-member Federal Reserve Board has two vacancies and a third one expected. The White House can surround Greenspan at the boardroom table by appointing friendly critics and even a possible successor.
A recession that comes early in a new President's term--and is over well before he's up for re-election--can wind up as smart political timing, but Bush may lose his Congressional majority in the process. While Ronald Reagan enacted a radical conservative agenda during his first year in office, his popularity sank as the ugly recession worsened; Democrats picked up twenty-seven House seats in the off-year election of 1982. By 1984, however, it was "morning again in America," and the Gipper won in a landslide. If Bush's advisers are as shrewd as they appear, they will push hard for their big ideas up front and, meanwhile, do whatever they must to reverse the economic bloodletting.
The more ominous possibility facing the Bush presidency is that given neglected realities inherited from the Clinton years, this downturn could renew globalized financial crisis in Asia, Latin America or elsewhere. Only this one could not be blamed on "crony capitalism" or other establishment canards. The $360-billion-a-year trade deficit in the United States has kept Japan and many developing countries afloat in recent years, though a long way from genuine recovery. If the United States becomes mired in recession, Americans will buy far fewer imports, and that will reignite financial failures in the exporting nations. Their panic can flow right back into the US financial system, with banks and brokerages demanding another round of IMF bailouts. O'Neill and company may find themselves standing in a circle of bonfires.
The specter of bad times coming does, of course, add momentum for major tax-cutting legislation--a centerpiece in Dubya's campaign--but it's not obvious how Bush's retrograde measure would actually help the economy (40 percent goes to the very wealthy, as that fellow Gore kept reminding us). Some elements, like abolishing the inheritance tax, may even generate drag on economic activity. The Bush team talks like conservative Keynesians, but in the real world, economic stimulus requires steeply progressive tax cuts--putting money in the hands of people who will promptly spend it. That means quick rate cuts or temporary tax credits that skip over the upper brackets for a change and deliver the money to the bottom half of the income ladder. Democrats are wrong-footed by events too. After several years of indulging in Coolidge-Hoover pieties about paying down the national debt, Democrats must scurry now to come up with a progressive--don't say liberal--tax-cutting proposal of their own. Clintonism is over, and they had better shake out the cobwebs quickly, because their choices on who needs tax relief and who doesn't will define them for the 2002 election and beyond.
The essential handicap in using fiscal policy to restart the economy (one that has always burdened Keynesian economics) is the problem of timing. In the best circumstances, it can take six or eight months to enact a major stimulus package, and even if the tax cuts are postdated to January 1, the money arrives too late to stanch the contraction. If Democrats are alert and public-spirited, they will propose a quick, emergency reduction in paycheck deductions with a commitment to support a second, broader tax measure later in the year. They should also call for stand-still protection for those working people drowning in debts who lose their jobs--a temporary safety net that keeps them out of bankruptcy until the economy revives. These and other measures are, of course, way beyond the present imagination of either party. More likely, the tax bill will turn into a special-interest bidding war in which both parties compete to pay back their accumulated obligations to lobbyists and contributors.
The new Republican majority, already frail and dubious, has been taken hostage by these economic portents even before it assumes power. A "normal" recession of brief duration might be manageable. A longer, more profound unwinding will shake the foundations of Republicans and Democrats alike.
We do need government regulation—not to build socialism but to save capitalism.
But as the bankers know, he loves some of us more than others.
Are sanctions ethical--or an ill-used weapon of mass destruction?