It's not the President, stupid

Posted: Oct 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Remember "voodoo economics"? The phrase comes from the first President Bush. During the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, the current president's father famously denounced Ronald Reagan's supply-side economics as "voodoo economics."

What seemed like exotic hocus-pocus to the elder George Bush was the idea that if you cut taxes, people might work more, and hence earn more, which would then result in higher tax revenues. I never understood why Bush thought this was akin to Haitian head-shrinking and black magic.

Regardless, voodoo economics became known as "Reaganomics" once the Gipper was elected and the terrible 1980-1982 recession kicked in. Today it's difficult to exaggerate how vicious the press and the Democratic Party were in their attacks on Reaganomics.

And then the economy launched like a rocket. When the government announced that the economy was growing at a 5 percent growth rate, Reagan declared, "It's funny, but they don't seem to call it Reaganomics anymore."

Reagan, alas, was wrong. Instead, Reaganomics got redefined. In the early '80s, it may have been synonymous with economic failure. Later, in the face of a roaring economy in the mid and late '80s, Reaganomics came to mean greed, materialism and indifference to the poor and downtrodden. The press became fixated on income inequality, "junk bonds" and the "go-go" culture of Wall Street.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. According to almost every measure, the Clinton economy was "worse" than the Reagan economy, if you go by these standards. Income inequality increased. More junk bonds were sold in 1993 alone than from 1982 to 1986 (when Mike Milken was the "Junk Bond King"). And don't even get me started about the go-go Wall Street culture created on Clinton's watch - a culture that brought us all of the accounting scandals, Enron, day-trading, etc., which have been unfairly laid at the feet of the Bush administration.

And yet, we're told Bill Clinton's economic success was the greatest accomplishment of the Democratic Party since FDR. As my friend and colleague Rich Lowry notes in his outstanding new book, "Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years," this is all nonsense on stilts.

Clinton started talk of his economic legacy, notes Lowry, by declaring over and over again, that the historically mild 1990-91 recession constituted "the worst economy in 50 years." And that he - and he alone - had to "rebuild" the entire $11 trillion U.S. economy. Never mind that the recession actually ended in March 1991, seven months before Clinton had even announced his candidacy.

I don't think Bill Clinton deserves any credit for creating the 1990s boom. The idea that Clinton's teensy-weensy economic plan - "Putting People First" - launched the high-tech boom of the 1990s is laughable. As were the predictions from Newt Gingrich and others that Clinton's plan would "destroy" the U.S. economy.

Clinton probably does deserve a reasonable amount of credit for not derailing the boom. And I do think Ronald Reagan deserves a bit more credit for the good 1980s economy, in part for the historically radical changes in tax policy, but mostly for his decision to fire those striking air traffic controllers, which sent a major signal that "Eurosclerosis" wasn't going to happen here.

But that's where I get off the reservation.

Presidents like to claim they "create jobs." Well they do - a few thousand of them, mostly around Washington, D.C. But they don't create millions of jobs in the private sector, at least not with any precision or in a way that can be replicated by flipping some job-creation switch. Even the New Deal was largely ineffective until the onset of WWII. What creates economic growth are billions of decisions all over the world, made according to a timeline that only vaguely coincides with the political calendar.

It now looks like the economy's about to take off again. President Bush will surely claim more credit than he deserves. President Bush's tax cuts were in, my book, a good idea. But they surely didn't restructure the U.S. economy.

All of this is the real "voodoo" economics. And by all of this, I mean the nonsense spewed by Democrats and Republicans alike about the economy. Not only does this voodoo economics ascribe powers to presidents they don't have, but it allows the personality of the president to color the morality of material progress. When President Reagan was in office, wealth creation was evil. When Clinton was in office, it was good.

In other words, the voodoo trumps reason. It's all hocus-pocus and mumbo-jumbo. Howard Dean even believes that a massive tax hike would create jobs simply because that would be the Clintonesque thing to do. "I would go back to the Clinton era of taxes," Dean told NBC's Tim Russert, "because I think most Americans would gladly pay the same taxes they paid when Bill Clinton was president if they could only have the same economy that they had when Bill Clinton was president."

Why not just say he's got a recession doll and he's going to stick pins in it?