Republicans lost the presidency in 2008 in large part because of the worst economic crisis since World War II. Republicans have now regained the House of Representatives for the same reason. In the interval, Republicans ferociously attacked the Obama administration’s economic remedies, and there certainly was a lot to attack. But the impulse to attack, it must be recognized, was based on more than ideology; it also served important psychological imperatives. Not since Jimmy Carter handed the office to Ronald Reagan—arguably not since Herbert Hoover yielded to Franklin Roosevelt—had a president of one party bequeathed a successor from another party so utter an economic disaster as George W. Bush bequeathed to Barack Obama. And while the Bush administration took wise and bold steps to correct the disaster, the unpopularity of its Troubled Asset Relief Program bequeathed the Obama administration a political disaster along-side the economic disaster.
It’s an uncomfortable memory, and until now Republicans have coped with it by changing the subject and hurling accusations. Those are not good enough responses from a party again entrusted with legislative power. If Republicans are to act effectively and responsibly, we need to learn more positive and productive lessons from the crisis.
Lesson 1: The danger of closed information systems. Well before the crash of 2008, the U.S. economy was sending ominous warning signals. Median incomes were stagnating. Home prices rose beyond their rental values. Consumer indebtedness was soaring. Instead, conservatives preferred to focus on positive signals—job numbers, for example—to describe the Bush economy as “the greatest story never told.”
Too often, conservatives dupe themselves. They wrap themselves in closed information systems based upon pretend information. In this closed information system, banks can collapse without injuring the rest of the economy, tax cuts always pay for themselves and Congressional earmarks cause the federal budget deficit. Even the market collapse has not shaken some conservatives out of their closed information system. It enfolded them more closely within it. This is how to understand the Glenn Beck phenomenon. Every day, Beck offers alternative knowledge—an alternative history of the United States and the world, an alternative system of economics, an alternative reality. As corporate profits soar, the closed information system insists that the free-enterprise system is under assault. As prices slump, we are warned of imminent hyperinflation. As black Americans are crushed under Depression-level unemployment, the administration’s policies are condemned by some conservatives as an outburst of Kenyan racial revenge against the white overlord.
Meanwhile, Republican officeholders who want to explain why they acted to prevent the collapse of the U.S. banking system can get no hearing from voters seized with certainty that a bank collapse would have done no harm to ordinary people. Support for TARP has become a career-ender for Republican incumbents, and we shall see what it does to Mitt Romney, the one national Republican figure who still defends TARP.
The same vulnerability to closed information systems exists on the liberal side of U.S. politics as well, of course. But the fact that my neighbor is blind in one eye is no excuse for blinding myself in both.
Lesson 2: “The market” (the whole free-market system) must be distinguished from “the markets” (the trading markets for financial assets). Perhaps it’s because the most influential conservative voice on economic affairs is The Wall Street Journal. Perhaps it’s because conservatism disproportionately draws support from retirees who store their savings in traded financial assets. Perhaps it’s because a booming financial sector is uniquely generous with its campaign contributions. Whatever the reason, the intellectual right accords a deference to the wants and wishes of the financial industry that is seldom accorded to agriculture, manufacturing, transport or retailing.
But it’s not always true that what’s good for Goldman Sachs is good for the economy, or vice versa. Nor is what “the markets” want the same as what free-market economics require. Finance plays with other people’s money: financial dis-asters damage people and businesses who never participated in the fatal transaction. For that reason, financial firms are justly regulated in ways that other firms are not. And yet nearly 80 years after the creation of the Securities and Ex-change Commission, influential conservatives—including The Wall Street Journal editorial board—argued that trillions of dollars of derivatives trading should be exempt from regulation.
Lesson 3: The economy is more important than the budget. During the recession of 1981-82, Democratic politicians demanded that a Republican president set a balanced budget as his top priority. Ronald Reagan disregarded this advice. He held firm to his tax cuts: once the economy returned to prosperity, there would be time then to deal with the deficit.
Today, the positions are reversed. The big Republican idea of 2010 was Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget road map, which offered a serious plan to address Social Security and Medicare shortfalls. But what’s the most striking fact about Ryan’s budget plan is precisely that it is a budget plan—it’s a document concerned with government finance, not the crisis in the economy. How will balancing the budget in the 2020s and 2030s, which is when the plan has most of its impact, create jobs and save homes in the here and now? This was the kind of problem that preoccupied the supply-siders of the 1980s and should again preoccupy Republicans today.
If Republicans reject Obama-style fiscal stimulus, what do they advocate instead? A monetarist might recommend more money creation, even at the risk of inflation: “quantitative easing,” as it’s called. Yet leading voices in the Republican Party have convinced themselves that the country is on the verge of hyperinflation—a Weimar moment, says Glenn Beck. But if fiscal stimulus leads to socialism, and quantitative easing leads to Nazism, what on earth are we supposed to do? Cut the budget? But we won’t do that either! On Sean Hannity’s radio show, the Republican House leader John Boehner announced just before the election that one of his first priorities would be the repeal of the Obama Medicare cuts.
Lesson 4: Even from a conservative point of view, the welfare state is not all bad. G. K. Chesterton observed that you should never take a fence down until you understand why it had been put up. We should remember why the immediate post-Depression generations created so many social-welfare programs. They were not motivated only—or even primarily—by “compassion.” They were motivated as well by the desire for stability.
Social Security, unemployment insurance and other benefits were designed as anti-Depression defenses, “automatic stabilizers” as economists called them. When people lost their jobs, their incomes did not drop by 100 percent, but by 30 percent or 40 percent: they could continue to pay rent, buy food and sustain society’s overall level of demand for goods and services. State pensions created a segment of society whose primary incomes remained stable regardless of economic conditions. The growth of the higher-education sector and of health care had a similar effect.
This shift to a more welfare-oriented economy helps explain why business cycles in the second half of the 20th century were so much less volatile than they were in the 19th century. And fortunately enough, this shift put a floor under the economic collapse of 2008-09. Retirees who lost their savings had to cut back painfully. But at least their Social Security checks continued to arrive. People who lost their jobs might lose their homes. But they continued to buy food and clothing. And the industries that sold those basic necessities continued to function—unlike in 1929-33, when the whole economy collapsed upon itself.
Those who denounce unemployment insurance as an invitation to idleness in an economy where there are at least five job seekers for every available job are not just hardening their hearts against distress. They are rejecting the teachings of Milton Friedman, who emphasized the value of automatic stabilizers fully as much as John Maynard Keynes ever did. Conservatives should want a smaller welfare state than liberals in order to uphold maximum feasible individual liberty and responsibility. But the conservative ideal is not the abolition of the modern welfare state, and we should be careful of speaking in ways that communicate a more radical social ideal than that which we actually uphold and intend.
Lesson 5: Listen to the people—but beware of populism. Listen to the people and politicians who gather under the label “the Tea Party,” and you are overwhelmed by the militant egalitarianism of their message, the distrust of elites, the assertion that the Tea Party speaks for ordinary Americans against a privileged ruling class.
Non-Tea Party Americans may marvel that any group can think of itself as egalitarian when its main political goals are to cut off government assistance to the poorest and reduce taxes for the richest. But American populism has almost always concentrated its anger against the educated rather than the wealthy. So much so that you might describe contemporary American politics as a class struggle between those with more education than money against those with more money than education: Jon Stewart’s America versus Bill O’Reilly’s, Barack Obama versus Sarah Palin.
For that reason, conservatives in recent years have ridden populist waves more successfully than liberals have done. Yet conservatives will not find it much easier than liberals to govern a society where so many people feel themselves cheated—and where so many refuse to believe that the so-called experts care for the interests of anyone beyond their narrow coterie and class. In the face of such disbelief, how to champion free trade? How to reduce America’s very high corporate income tax? How to lower the trajectory of health care spending? How to sustain international commitments? How to upgrade educational standards?
The U.S. political system is not a parliamentary system. Power is usually divided. The system is sustained by habits of cooperation, accepted limits on the use of power, implicit restraints on the use of rhetoric. In recent years, however, those restraints have faded and the system has delivered one failure after another, from the intelligence failures detailed in the 9/11 report to the stimulus that failed to adequately reduce unemployment, through frustrating wars and a financial crash. The message we hear from some Republicans—“this is no time for compromise”—threatens to extend the failures of governance for at least two more years. These failures serve nobody’s interest, and the national interest least of all.