Beads on a String

Michael Barone’s analysis of American political history sounds Chinese. Two steps forward one step backward. Forward of course is the direction of “progressive politics”. Backward is that momentary check that occurs when progressive politics takes the curves too fast. These actions alternate every decade or so. But Barone implies that for all the apparent flux one thing remains constant: it’s a brake and throttle world.  The liberals hit the throttle and the Republicans sometimes step on the brakes. Republicans haven’t noticed the steering wheel. He’s wondering whether this time they’ll at least notice the carpet.


Liberal historians like to depict the past 100 years as a story of step-by-step progress from small government to big government, a progress they see as both inevitable and desirable.

But another way to look at it is to note that after each spasm of big government legislation, there has been a strong voter backlash.

Backlashes don’t change the direction of cars. They only alter the rate of acceleration. With congressional victories staring the Republicans in the face Barone says they’re faced with the same problem as the dog that caught the car. “You know the scene. In the 1972 movie ‘The Candidate,’ the Redford character, having won the election, turns to his political consultant and asks, ‘What do I do now?'” The most likely answer for Republicans is hit the brakes. Some optimists think they’ll notice the steering wheel because this time things are so bad. As the Washington Examiner says the economy is in multiple organ failure and the old nostrums don’t work any more.

The economy is stalling, unemployment seems stuck at European levels of idleness, the federal deficit and the national debt are at historic highs, public confidence in Congress is at its lowest-ever level and big majorities of Mainstream Americans say Obama has the country on the wrong path. Obamanomics has failed miserably and it’s time for everybody in this town to admit it so we can move on.


The idea that ‘this time is different’ has been articulated by Victor Davis Hanson and Peggy Noonan.  Both of them argue that something fundamental has changed in the tone of the motor. So something new is bound to happen. Sure, except that new thing might be that everyone will get used to misery. For example New York Times agrees with Hanson and Noonan but recommend accepting it as the natural progression of things, a sort of Kubler-Ross model of economics. According to the NYT, maybe malaise is the “new normal”. The car’s going downhill uncontrollably so relax and enjoy the view. It’s exhilarating.

The “new normal,” as it has come to be called on Wall Street, academia and CNBC, envisions an economy in which growth is too slow to bring down the unemployment rate, while the government is forced to intervene ever more forcefully in a struggling private sector. Stocks and bonds yield paltry returns, with better opportunities available for investors overseas.

In line with those reduced expectations, the pundits are talking about ways to keep the economy chugging along at an acceptably slow rate. Competence has been redefined as acceptable imbecility. When you come right down to it, failure is cool. It may even be Green.  “The new-normal concept is gaining ground.”

Laura Tyson, chief economic adviser to President Clinton, counts herself firmly in the new-normal camp: “I think we’re going to have slower growth, a higher household savings rate and an elevated unemployment rate for several years. …

Roughly 1.4 million people have been jobless for more than 99 weeks, the point at which unemployment benefits run out. “The situation is devastating,” said Robert Gordon, an economics professor at Northwestern and an expert on the labor market. “We are legitimately beginning to draw analogies to the Great Depression, in the sense that there is a growing hopelessness among job seekers.”


All America has to do is wait for the new FDR and the new World War 2 and everything will be hunky-dory. The catch is that aspiring to keep things from getting no worse than a depression requires — guess what — more government intervention. Bond fund manager Bill Gross is quoted by the New York Times as saying that government must realize that it remains part of the solution.

“We think the coma will last for years unless government policy changes to restimulate the private sector and bring unemployment down,” he said. He wants Washington to invest billions on infrastructure improvements and clean energy, along with the expanded job training favored by Mr. Hubbard.

Despite his long-held belief in free markets, smaller government and lower taxes, Mr. Gross said politicians must recognize that this time, “government is part of the solution.” He added, “In the new-normal world, there are structural problems, which require structural solutions.”

Yet why can’t part of the solution be government dealing itself out of places it has no business in?  Why, because it’s unthinkable. And for as long as the only conceivable “structural solutions” are more government the current policy universe will always remain in the brake and throttle world. Given Barone’s 100 year review of party politics the question must surely be if the Republicans haven’t noticed the steering wheel till now why should they ever see it at all? What’s so different about 2010 or 2012 that will somehow bring a new idea forth in the Republican mind?


It’s not exclusively a GOP problem. The liberals, though cognizant of the existence of the steering wheel are unware, insofar as can be determined, that it can be turned. Progressive politics is a locked steering wheel. Marx and Engels are Moses and the Prophets. And even when it points to the cliff nobody can bring themselves to say so. Tim Cavanaugh asks Can Christina Romer Get Her Soul Back? after endorsing this road to the ‘new normal’? “Maybe it won’t matter on the lobbyist/lecture circuit, but at some point a person must say, ‘I told all those lies and this is all I get for it?'”

But maybe they weren’t lies. Just things you had to say because you couldn’t say the opposite. Just couldn’t utter the words.  It may take more than hard times to make a political paradigm shift thinkable. Economic disaster may be the necessary but not the sufficient condition for noticing the steering wheel and observing it can be turned. So many concepts have been ruled out of bounds by decades of liberal ideology that the first task must be to review the code of political blasphemy.  Until that deadly paralysis of mind is shattered, it’s a brake and throttle world.


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