WASHINGTON -- Early in George W. Bush's presidency, liberal critics said: The economy is not growing. Which was true. He inherited the debris of the 1990s' irrational exuberances. A brief (eight months) and mild (the mildest since World War II) recession began in March 2001, before any of his policies were implemented. It ended in November 2001.
In 2002, when his tax cuts kicked in and the economy began 65 months -- so far -- of uninterrupted growth, critics said: But it is a "jobless recovery." When the unemployment rate steadily declined -- today it is 4.5 percent; time was, 6 percent was considered full employment -- critics said: Well, all right, the economy is growing and creating jobs and wealth, but the wealth is not being distributed in accordance with the laws of God or Nature or liberalism or something.
Last Sunday, eight Democratic presidential candidates debated for two hours, saying about the economy ... next to nothing. You must slog to page 43 in the 51-page transcript before Barack Obama laments that "the burdens and benefits of this new global economy are not being spread evenly across the board" and promises to "institute some fairness in the system."
Well. When in the long human story have economic burdens and benefits been "spread evenly"? Does Obama think they should be, even though talents never are? What relationship of "fairness" does he envision between the value received by individuals and the value added by them? Does he disagree -- if so, on what evidence? -- with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that "the influence of globalization on inequality has been moderate and almost surely less important than the effects of skill-biased technological change"?
What Samuel Johnson said of Milton's "Paradise Lost" can be said of the debate's short discussion of economic matters: No one could wish it longer. Granted, the candidates had bigger fish to fry -- one another, for their various positions on starting and ending the war. And the questioners set the debate's agenda. But if the Democrats had anything pithy to say about the economy, they would have said it.
They have a problem. How do you exclaim, as Hillary Clinton does, that today's economy is "like going back to the era of the robber barons," and insist that the nation urgently needs substantial tax increases, in the face of these facts: