Government by Cliche

Rich Tucker

3/23/2008 6:49:11 PM - Rich Tucker

If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times: Avoid clichés. Well, all right. At the end of the day they probably won’t do any harm. Still, is it too much to ask that our policymakers present some actual ideas, instead of clichés?

Last week, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., held a news conference to attack President Bush’s economic policies. These days Bush is “more and more like Herbert Hoover, sort of whistling a happy tune as the economy heads south,” Schumer intoned. “The president’s proposals are always a day late and a dollar short.” Hum. Maybe in this, supposedly recession-wracked economy, being only one dollar short wouldn’t be so bad.

Anyway, Schumer concluded, Bush’s “reluctance to roll up his sleeves and deal with this crisis stands in the way of any kind of real recovery. The bottom line, it seems as if the president is on a different economic planet than most Americans.” No doubt. As is Schumer, by the way, since he’s a member in good standing of the world’s most exclusive millionaire’s club, the U.S. Senate.

All right, so Schumer’s speech was a seething nest of clichés. But while sticks and stones may break bones, words will never hurt, right? Still, Schumer’s empty rhetoric highlights a big problem for the Left. While liberals are eager to attack Bush and say our country’s in a recession (it’s an election year, after all) they seem bankrupt of any good ideas of their own.

Consider Schumer’s only substantive comment in his speech. Bush “says he will not do simple things like deal with the foreclosure crisis.” Hold on. Dealing with the foreclosure crisis is likely to be as “simple” as picking the entire NCAA basketball bracket correctly: It’s possible, but it’s not easy.

Schumer highlights a big problem, but offers the wrong solution. “When there is a crisis in confidence of credit, you need the federal government to do things to re-assure people that things will get better,” he says. But history should warn us that when the federal government gets involved, things usually get worse.

You can find numerous examples in the book “That’s Not What We Meant To Do” by scholar Steven Gillon. He reviews some of the big government interventions of the 20th century (welfare reform, mental health reform, affirmative action and immigration) and shows how they triggered unintended consequences. Gillon’s no conservative, but his case studies end up proving the wisdom of the conservative position that less government involvement is usually desirable.

In the 1960s and 70s, “the public saw a direct connection between government ambition and the events that accompanied it: racial violence, the war in Vietnam, student protest, Watergate and economic stagnation,” Gillon writes. “Not only was government unable to solve these problems, but many people believed Washington had accidentally created them in the first place.”

This year’s Democratic presidential candidates seem poised to repeat the mistakes of the past. Hillary Clinton, for example, wants Washington to impose a five year freeze on adjustable-rate mortgages and provide $5 billion to help troubled homeowners. But that would only prolong the economic suffering. As painful as it may be, loans that are bad must be allowed to fail. If capitalism’s going to work, people must be responsible for their bad decisions.

The same thing should be true, by the way, for big companies. Lawmakers and the Bush administration must allow credit markets to locate and deal with bad loans on their own. That’s the only way to allow Wall Street bankers to back away from their failed investment strategies without causing a panic or rewarding bad behavior.

Federal interventions, after all, often backfire. “In trying to calm financial markets, the Fed has spewed out enormous amounts of money and credit that have depressed the dollar’s exchange rate and could aggravate inflation,” Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson wrote recently. “The effort to fix one problem may lead to others.”

Indeed, the weak dollar is a major problem. One reason gas prices are so high is that oil is priced in dollars, so as the greenback loses value, oil becomes more expensive. In the long run, high gas prices will harm the economy by driving up the cost of just about everything.

Our economic picture, of course, isn’t bleak. The U.S. has an efficient, well-educated workforce, unemployment is low and our standard of living is high.

So while it’s difficult for politicians to accept the wisdom of leaving markets alone to work on their own, that’s exactly what they should do. Instead of trying to protect us from every blip, Washington should be willing to “Not just do something. Stand there.”