Friday, June 10, 2011

Conservative Optimism

Somebody on Facebook posted this article in which a self proclaimed "child of the '60s" sheds his Lisa Simpson liberal stereotype and emerges the as stereotype of a modern moderate with his eyes wide open and his cynicism about government and business and military partially melted away under the harsh glare of the "truth". The protagonist who was brought up to hate these institutions found himself more agreeable to all three; finding the good in the checks and balances of the Constitution and discovering that he felt empathy for those who fight overseas.  The story itself isn't interesting.  The tale is common in Boulder or the Bay area; men and women whose world view has softened with the passing of time and acquisition of wealth.  And that world view isn't that surprising either. Despite the classic stereotypes and loud cries from the media most Americans subscribe to similar ideals.  What was interesting to me about the article was the belief that to move right on the political spectrum is to become more trusting and more positive about the world and players within it.

I've thought about this theme before.  A while back I realized that many of the tenants of modern conservative economic theory are based on unbridled optimism.  Optimism that all industries will find a way to police themselves correctly all the time.  Optimism that given more money in business leaders pockets they will choose to put that money back into hiring.  Optimism that that left alone the economy will grow.  This brings to mind the end of Atlas Shrugged.  As the book closes John Galt has formed his perfect society populated with the brightest and hardest working industrialists and we are left with the same sense of optimism. But what would would happen if one of Ellis Wyatt's oil rigs hit a methane pocket and exploded? Or if there was a season of unseasonable warmth and the crops failed? Or a winter of great cold and snow?  What if somebody got cancer?  Or lost a leg?  Eventually somebody in Galt's perfect society is going to need to depend on others to survive and thats where the whole concept starts to break down.  The problem with optimism is that optimism is based on perfect world.


In order to believe that optimism (and by extension unregulated business and tax cuts for all) is possible we must be constantly reminded that the world is perfect most of the time and that it is not our fault when it isn't.  Among the tools are the time tested debates over man-made global warming, entitlements and welfare but for this election cycle a new narrative is emerging:  American exeptionalism.  Rather then try to explain it myself, I'll let the Washington Times take a crack at it.  Here is the money quote:
Tea Partyers and others who look to America’s past for inspiration are appealing to the great national narrative that the left has rejected. In essence, we have become two peoples: one with a vision of America as an exceptional country with a heroic history, and another believing the country and its people are burdened by a multitude of original sins and populated by groups who are owed continuing and endless debts because of that corrupt past.
This is optimism run amok.  The idea is that if we choose not to remember that we've done wrong in the past then we pull no ideas off the table.  That to suggest anything less then complete American dominance is to hang our heads in shame.  That we alone determine our course in the world.

There is no doubt that this is a great place to live and work and thrive.  We are free, we are empowered, we are safe.  Nearly everybody who lives here would live nowhere else, and many more risk everything to come.  That isn't what American exceptionalism is about.  American exceptionalism is about forgetting that the world is complex and trying to pretend that all our problems can be polished away with a little elbow grease.  That there is no cost to conducting military operations anywhere on earth.  That we can trust industry.  That we can trust ourselves.  That people don't get sick, or poor or oppressed or disadvantaged through no fault of their own.  That what we choose to believe about the past is more important than the truth.  That what we choose to believe about the future could be is more important then what the future will be.

This is why I'm not buying.  I would rather assure deficit reduction through increased taxes then hope for unprecedented growth.  I would rather scale back the military and concentrate on homeland security.  I would rather keep business regulations to prevent the dishonesty inherent in the system.  I would like to find ways for all Americans to have a safety net when (not if) they get sick.   And I think we need to honor the heroes and denounce the villains in our own history.  Be true about who we are, what we have done, and what we have screwed up.  Only then can we really profess our exceptionalism to the world.  Hey world we have grown and we have the scars to show it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Wednesday Roundtables - Week 1: The Pawlenty Plan

I'm going to try something new for a few weeks, to see how it works out.  Economics is going to be the key to the 2012 election, and I think it would be beneficial to try out a little bit of friendly debate amongst us amateurs to gain a greater idea of the problems we face and and the various viewpoints.   Rules are simple - keep it calm, leave the rhetoric and the Nazi/Stalin/Communist/Socialist/Fascist name calling at home. Provide citations where applicable and try to enjoy the experience.

Week 1 topic:  The Pawlenty Plan.  Read up on the details, but the executive summary is that the core of the plan are large tax cuts which would be offset by a ~5%  sustained growth in the economy over a decade which accompanied by large spending cuts should lead to a balanced budget by 2017.   The point I want to discuss here is the 5% year over year growth.  Right now we are at 2% and struggling to maintain that. Where does the 3% come from, and more importantly, can that 3% come from tax cuts alone?

Here is some supporting information:  Wall Street Journal is proEzra Klein is con . Both articles point out that Reagan and Clinton had 4.9% and 4.7% growth over a four  year period, but four years is not ten and in both cases, the economy took a dive immediately after.  

My viewpoint is that this is absolutely unsustainable. That sort of economic growth is unparalleled in our history, and the economy isn't like the Apollo project.  We can't just buckle down and put more elbow grease in it.  We can say all the right words and do all the right things and even then we're just one earthquake or volcanic eruption or terrorist attack or major fire away from disaster. Lowering taxes first and then crossing our fingers for 10 years seems like a fools errand. Better to plan for 2 and be surprised by 5 then plan for 5 and be devastated by 2. Discuss.