Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Republicans and revisionism

Life was simpler when I were a lad - choices were always between two things: Gibson or Fender; Clapton or Hendrix; wine or beer; Wrangler or Levi; Labour or Conservative. Then there was economics, dividing between monetarists or Keynesians; the former was Bad, the latter Good - this conclusion drawn from the fact that Thatcher and Reagan were associated with monetarism, rather than from any proper understanding of economics on my part.

Then things got a bit more complicated - or, to be more accurate, I merely came to realise that they were more complicated. It's the primary elections in America that's been reminding me of this, specifically an article by Paul Krugman, which I found via Illiberal Conspiracy.

Paul Krugman, unhappy that Obama had praised Ronald Reagan, wrote that:

"Historical narratives matter. That’s why conservatives are still writing books denouncing F.D.R. and the New Deal; they understand that the way Americans perceive bygone eras, even eras from the seemingly distant past, affects politics today."
He then goes on to point out that successive Republican administrations have been characterised by economic slowdown and not dynamic growth, as Obama seemed to suggest. The thing is, I'm not sure the record actually fits the leftwing narrative either. The Reaganites adopted monetarism, one suspects, merely as an excuse to kick fuck out of the unions and give tax cuts to their friends because in other respects, the Republican fiscal record is distinctly unmonetarist.

Some Republicans used to (maybe they still do - I wouldn't know) advocate a balanced-budget amendment. This always struck me as an odd thing to do because not only is it a stupid idea, such an amendment would have radically circumscribed the activities of successive Republican administrations, who - as the graph below shows - have had a tendency to spend money like drunken sailors with credit cards. The only years showing a budget surplus were four when Clinton was in power.

Source: US Census Bureau

The thing is, arguably deficit-spending like this in an economic slowdown is a rather Keynesian thing to do. Tax-cuts for the rich certainly aren't but other aspects have been. You could complain that Reagan's deficits resulted from a colossal increase in defence spending - but then again, you could argue that it was rearmament in the run-up to WWII, rather than public works, that rescued the US economy from depression and cemented FDR's reputation.

It isn't only this. Despite the rhetoric, and attempts to make AFDC more difficult to claim, the welfare bill grew under Reagan, whereas it was Clinton, with his promise to 'end welfare as we know it', who shifted the responsibility for distributing welfare back to the states, thereby dismantling a major plank of the New Deal.

Bush seems to have followed a similar pattern to Reagan, only more so. The growth in the deficit shown above is, according to the Economist, the "fastest fiscal deterioration in US economic history". Again, as with Reagan, this was the result of a combination of tax-cuts combined with a lack of restraint in spending - not just in defence, as one might assume, but also in things like health expenditure(pdf) and, to a lesser extent, in education(pdf).

Some would take issue with the automatic identification of Keynes with the left anyway but I'm not sure these fiscal habits that Republicans seem to have is what Krugman meant when he said that, "This is...a time when progressives ought to be driving home the idea that the right’s ideas don’t work, and never have."

The criticisms of Obama are fair enough but off-target at the same time. It isn't only the right that produces revisionist histories and one of the reasons they 'take' is because people will often associate Presidents with the mood of the country during the time they were in office, regardless of how they actually performed or whether their actions had any impact on people's economic well-being. Reagan is often credited with making America 'feel good about itself again'. Difficult to understand, perhaps - especially if you're the sort of person who thinks America really has no business feeling good about itself - but this is clearly what Obama is trying to tap into. I don't think he's interested in Reagan's actual record. Come to think of it, I can't say I've been aware of much evidence that would suggest he's interested in anything in particular - except becoming President.

To get there, the plan seems to be to play mood music and emote - so no change there. Perhaps also by identifying with Reagan he's signalling an acceptance of the neoliberal consensus - so no change there either. The no-change candidate wants to get elected by promising 'change' he couldn't deliver even if he were to win office, not least because Presidents - even when their parties have a majority in Congress - don't 'run the economy', or 'create jobs'. You'd think 'progressives', especially when they're economists, would be aware of this. Maybe it's a triumph of hope over experience that allows them to wish otherwise, that allows them to believe their guy, or gal, will 'make a difference'. Or longing for a simpler age that was divided into goodies and baddies? Whatever it is, to believe that whoever is President makes a huge impact on the economic history of the United States requires an approach to the subject that might best be described as, well, revisionist. No change there either, then.

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