Coming storm of foolishness

Louis Rukeyser

December 17, 1991|By Louis Rukeyser | Louis Rukeyser,Tribune Media

Quick, folks, we're almost out of time. Only a few days left before the start of a presidential election year, when it is illegal in America to talk sense about the economy.

Already, to be sure, it's unfashionable. Candidates warming up their acrobatic rhetoric for the quadrennial political circus are far more interested in sending your emotions soaring than in actually getting anything accomplished on the ground.

Indeed, from the opposition point of view, the worst thing that could possibly happen between now and November would be a solid economic recovery. Given the common analysis that only the recession can defeat Bush, a partisan Democrat may not spend every waking hour wishing devoutly for a healthier economy real soon.

Understand this, and you understand the widespread effort to overdramatize the present cyclical downturn. To tell people accurately that it is of less than average severity, that it came after the longest peacetime expansion ever and that the unemployment rate is four full points below what it was in our last recession, might inspire calm thought and analysis -- two attributes foreign to our American electoral process, which thrives on anger and envy.

So it will be the Democrats' election-year job to convince us that the prosperity and growth of the 1980s never occurred, that the explosion of new jobs and higher living standards benefited only Michael Milken and Donald Trump, and that things are in such a horrible mess under the present set of bums in the White House that any alternative set of bums would be preferable.

But there will be no lack of election-year pretense from the Republicans, either. The first bit of forget-the-facts phoniness will be the attempt to convince us that Bush was in fact craftily on top of the economy all the way. It may even be contended, against all evidence, that he actually was in possession of an economic policy.

Don't hold your breath waiting for the president to 'fess up that he was snookered by his own staffers in 1990 -- that they persuaded him, as Ronald Reagan was similarly gulled in 1982, that if he gave way on higher taxes, Congress would finally get serious about cutting spending. No politician likes to admit that he's been duped.

So the outlook on both sides is for infinitely more propagandizing than progress on economic policy. Take the dilemma of those Democratic lawmakers who, after all their success in denouncing a reduction in capital-gains taxes as a sop to the "rich," were reported this week to be wrestling with the bipartisan reality that such a cut would create jobs and spur growth.

To find a way to keep the public inflamed while surreptitiously doing something useful, they're talking about loony compromises like taking away with one hand (higher marginal rates) what they are giving with the other (capital gains).

It would be nice to think of a truly useful national economic debate next year, about how the debilitating growth of the federal bureaucracy can be halted and reversed, about how we can foster American productivity and competitiveness in the 1990s, about how we can resume the rates of capital investment and modernization that have infallibly raised the country's living standards in the past.

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