Populist pap

Alan Reynolds
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Posted: Nov 30, 2006 12:00 AM
Populist pap

"Here Come the Economic Populists," according to New York Times reporter Louis Uchitelle. Thanks for the warning, Lou.

This is stale wine in new bottles. The word "liberal" lost its appeal after being strangely transformed from describing an advocate of limited government into meaning an advocate of nearly unlimited government. Collectivists have experimented with alternative euphemisms for their fundamental goal -- which is to grant politicians and lawyers the power to run everything and boss everyone.

Early efforts with "economic planning" and "social democracy" (a twist on democratic socialism) were too obvious. Most recent re-labeling efforts have focused on defining big government as "progressive." Yet that never really caught on, either. It sounds pretentious, as though calling yourself "progressive" means you get to define what constitutes progress and then to label as an opponent of progress anyone who disagrees.

The word "populist" is a strange choice -- an indefinable expression used by irrational hot-heads of all sorts. The last time the hard left made a serious effort to seize that old "populist" label was in 1972, when the late Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield (now with CNN) wrote "A Populist Manifesto."

"The majority of Americans are victimized," wrote Newfield and Greenfield. They carefully named the privileged "epicenters of power" behind all this victimization: "General Motors and the First National City Bank, the National Broadcasting Company and Columbia University, the American Medical Association and the AFL-CIO, Getty Oil and AT&T." That is now a comically quaint list, yet it conveyed the still-essential paranoid element of them against us.

The "new populist movement" of 1972 was supposedly "a broad popular upsurge," according to Newfield and Greenfield. But naming the book after "The Communist Manifesto" was no accident -- the so-called populist manifesto was just socialism with a more confusing label. There was no "broad popular upsurge" behind the policies advocated by leftist journalists and economists in 1972, and there is none today.

In the name of populism, Newfield and Greenfield wanted "public ownership of utilities ... limits on land ownership ... strict controls on the profits of banks; and an end to corporate power and control." They wanted to redistribute land and restrict its use. They wanted to "break up" the biggest corporations, with the five divisions of General Motors (which shared many parts) "sold to new owners." Most of all, they wanted punitive, confiscatory taxes -- including a 90 percent estate tax -- on anyone foolish enough to build a business or accumulate stocks, bonds or real estate.

Compare that old fiasco with Uchitelle's description of the newest reincarnation of economic populists. Populism is described as a Democratic "party faction" that is "coalescing around the Economic Policy Institute" -- a "labor-oriented research group partly financed by the AFL-CIO." Indeed, "the AFL-CIO is "a very visible member of this coalition," to put it mildly.

Populism is thus redefined as a small group financed and organized by big labor and intent on wresting power from "establishment" Democrats, such as former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Peter Orszag of The Brookings Institution (who teamed-up in a paper I critiqued in a 2004 paper available by searching my name at www.treasury.gov). This looks like a petty struggle for political influence between two partisan think tanks, one of which has an ally at The New York Times.

The union bosses' version of populism shares several features with the 1972 quasi-socialist variety. Like McGovern-era populists (but quite unlike McGovern in recent years), the new group "would intervene in markets and regulate them much more." That ensures more work for lawyers, who write big checks to politicians and think tanks that support such lucrative opportunities.

Like the old "Populist Manifesto," the new AFL-CIO group is focused on bringing down those who become rich from business or investing (as opposed to those who become rich as trial lawyers, actors or movie producers). Rare gestures toward the poor are of the routine sort, like raising the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit.

When it comes to lavish subsidies to everyone, rich or poor, the new populists are even more generous with other peoples' money than Newfield and Greenfield. The "Populist Manifesto" contemplated "free medical care for everyone." But there is no such thing as free medical care.

Countries with heavily subsidized medical care pay their medical bills with brutal taxes that are far less "progressive" than ours. Medical care in Sweden requires fees and deductibles and is managed by local governments, and many prefer private alternatives. Partly because of the large subsidies, however, ordinary Swedish workers face a payroll tax of 40 percent, a national and local income tax of at least 50 percent in Stockholm (the rich pay 5 percent more) and a 35 percent value-added tax on everything they buy.

If populists feel tempted to use Swedish nearly proportional taxes as a role model, they should first take notice that Sweden's tax on corporate profits is just 28 percent, while our corporate tax is above 40 percent in many states.

In marked contrast to the costly reality of such welfare states abroad, the new "economic populists" in this country are still trying to peddle free lunches. Uchitelle says: "The populists are pushing much harder than the Rubinites for government-subsidized universal health care. They also favor expanding Social Security."

More subsidies to the health-care lobby? Expanding Social Security? The U.S. government cannot even begin to finance the health subsidies already promised under Medicare and Medicaid, or to finance the purely hypothetical Social Security benefits for the looming avalanche of aging baby boomers.

The distinguishing characteristic of "economic populism" is that empty assertions of beneficent intent are considered a viable alternative to honest statistics and common sense. Promising to expand Social Security and Medicare when both systems are broke is no more "populist" than Herbert Hoover's 1928 promise of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.

The prophetic introduction to "A Populist Manifesto" noted, "It is one of the depressing characteristics of America that an idea can travel from the underground to showbiz popularity, to nostalgia in six months." Economic populism didn't last that long in 1972, and it won't fare much better this time around.