It’s an Election, not a Revolution

That’s the title they gave my latest NYT column.  Excerpt:

To put it simply, the public this year will probably not vote itself
into a much better or even much different economic policy. To be sure,
the next president – whoever he or she may be – may well extend health
care coverage to more Americans. But most of the country’s economic
problems won’t be solved at the voting booth. It is already too late to
stop an economic downturn. Health care costs will keep rising, no
matter who becomes president or which party controls Congress. China is
now a bigger carbon polluter than the United States, so don’t expect a
tax or cap-and-trade rules to solve global warming,
even if American measures are very stringent – and they probably won’t
be, because higher home heating bills are not a vote winner. A
Democratic president may propose more spending on social services, but
most of the federal budget
is on automatic pilot. Furthermore, even if a Republican president
wanted to cut back on such mandates, the bulk of them are here to stay.

Yes, the election does matter. Even small differences on
economic issues affect millions of Americans. But the record of the
Bush administration should prove sobering to all those who expect the
American political economy to turn around in the next four years.

Many
conservative and libertarian economists supported President Bush,
thinking they would be getting policy drawn from the work of Milton Friedman
and Martin Feldstein, two respected market-oriented economists.
Instead, in economics, the Bush years have brought an increase in
domestic government spending, and some poorly-thought-out privatization
plans. For all the talk of an extreme right-wing revolution, government
transfer programs like Social Security and Medicare have continued to grow. And despite big mistakes involving the Iraq war, Mr. Bush wasn’t punished by voters in 2004.

There is much more, and it is a more political column than I usually write.  My final conclusions:

And if you’re still worrying about how to vote, I have two pieces of
advice. First, spend your time studying foreign policy, where the
president has more direct power, and the choice of a candidate makes a
much bigger difference. Second, stop worrying and get back to work.

And there are points I could not cover for reasons of space, such as the constraining need to provide an AMT fix, or the ability of a party to sound more intelligent when it is out of power.

Addendum: Here is coverage from Mark Thoma and commentators; do they support or contradict Mark’s last sentence?  And here is commentary from John V.

Comments

Overall, well-argued points ... and foreign affairs is a safe conclusion for Executive effectiveness - but why the cynical
ending (THX1138 came to mind)?

I don't consider the last sentence cynical at all. The payoff of 500 years of economic growth and large-scale democratization is that we've come to a place where politics matters less than it ever did. This means the choice of who becomes president matters less (at the margin, check the blog title) than most people seem to realize. America has changed enormously since I was born in 1965. Politics has changed very little. The reasonably conclusion is that politics isn't driving the changes. Instead, it's people getting back to work. That's not cynicism. That's victory.

Nice. But I do wonder is the average voter any better off learning about foreign policy rather than economics? At least economics can make accurate predictions, so that if one makes the effort to learn it, it can be useful. Can the same be said for foreign policy? Well, perhaps other than, "It's generally a bad idea to invade foreign countries. It's expensive and things don't usually go as well as planned."

Just vote for whoever makes you feel best about yourself. Who's bumper sticker do you proudly sport on your car? Who makes you feel closer to all your friends and colleagues?

This is how I vote. My coalitions are more important to sustain than an interest in the commonweal.

"Here is coverage from Mark Thoma and commentators; do they support or contradict Mark's last sentence? "

Heh. They contradict Mark's last sentence, and confirm Buchanan, Mises, Bastiat, Krugman, and Caplan in a big way. Every man his own economist, you know.

It's disingenuous at best to claim that who is president doesn't matter much.

Consider America's standing in the world now vs 10 years ago. It can be argued that our interventionist foreign policy hasn't changed much over that period - Iraq notwithstanding - but the face of our leadership has drastically.

The world loved Clinton and hated Bush. The devil is in the details.

Beyond dramatic qualitative shifts, numbers matter, and reducing the federal deficit amounts to a pretty radical change in economic policy.

Sure, if I had any reason to believe that a Democratic candidate would reduce the federal deficit, that might matter. All of the Democratic presidential candidates available in the current election are explicitly campaigning on increasing taxes while increasing federal spending by even more. In other words, increasing the federal deficit.

In fact, the eight years of the Bush administration have been largely about turning back the social reforms of the New Deal.

Huh? Bush hasn't touched any of the remaining New Deal policies, except to increase Medicare. The brief attempt at suggesting that it was time to reform Social Security was quickly dropped, to no effect.

It's not so much that I'm disagreeing with you, as wondering what the hell you could possibly be talking about.

Consider America's standing in the world now vs 10 years ago.

10 years ago they hated us enough to start planning an attack on the WTC, and today they hate us enough that we can assume there is a similar attack being planned.

Eric, the "they" was not a reference to the mean ole terrists, but to those who historically have been our allies who are now less so. And who can blame them? Bush and his cronies have portrayed our nation as the angry drunk with a pistol in the local bar.

The last fifteen years have demonstrated that the best governing happens when the President and Congressional majority are from different parties. Dividing the government is more important than the personality of the president.

Since it doesn't look like the Democrats will loose Congress, the best vote will be for McCain.

Mark Thoma in his EconView comment thread about Cowen's article.

Interesting article - lots to think about. But holy crap do Thoma's commenters engage in ad hominem! I guess I've just returned the favor, but it certainly makes me understand why Tyler and Alex appreciate MR commenters - much more reflection and learning, much less vitriol.

I think the relative unimportance of the president is due to the fact that government can be pretty bad without hurting a country much. As Adam Smith put it all you really need is a tolerable administration of security and justice. Presidents may be mediocre or they may be bad (on very rare occasions they might actually be good!), but intolerable? That's a very low hurdle to stumble on.

"Well, perhaps other than, "It's generally a bad idea to invade foreign countries. It's expensive and things don't usually go as well as planned."

Name one that ever has. Biggest problem with people that they don't know that war is ugly and messy. Don't mean that in the end it was not better to have fought, though.

As for the rest of the world, they liked Clinton because he let everyone walk all over us. In regard to foreign relations, we finally got stricter 'parent' back instead of the parent who smoked pot with the kids.

I have to admit that Anne, over at Thoma's, actually had an interesting fact she cut and pasted.
"Non-defense discretionary spending as percent of GDP

2002 3.7 initial budget under George Bush
2003 3.9
2004 3.8
2005 3.9
2006 3.7
2007 3.6
2008 3.6

Defense discretionary spending as percent of GDP

2002 3.4 initial budget under George Bush
2003 3.7
2004 3.9
2005 4.0
2006 4.0
2007 4.0
2008 4.3 "

Not that it shows the point she was trying to make, but it does show that Bush is not the spender that everyone (including me) seems to make him to be. There is more on military, which I'm OK with since we are still historically low. The non-defense discretionary is looking not so bad.

While I do see the need to contain the non-discretionary portion of the budget, I want to know Bush takes as big a beating for Medicare D, if as reported, it saves more than $2 for every dollar spent. Seems to be a good method to contain TOTAL Medicare spending.

[Though the paragraph is clearly about finance, when dealing with the war, unless you are explicit, people assume so much more.]

Nobody knows when the politician man is talking truth, when is talking nonsence

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