Reincorporating Bush

Posted: Jul 15, 2002 12:00 AM
It's hard to know what exactly the critics of President Bush want. What they are saying is: (1) The reforms Mr. Bush is proposing would have forbidden corporate maneuvers he engaged in, in 1990. And (2) he didn't go far enough in backing reforms that are needed.

The performance of the commander in chief, riding horseback, sword flashing in his charge to save the national economy, was accompanied by ghoulish wallpaper, as they term it in cyberlanguage. As he spoke, a little ticker-crawl under the screen recorded the movements of the seasick market. Every time he uttered a sentence, it seemed, the Dow would go down a notch. It was the equivalent of a movie director crying and tearing off his shirt while the star is reciting her lines.

Viewed as pure drama, it is not easy to know what a president could do to raise the market there and then. He might say that he would propose to Congress the next day a 50 percent reduction in the business tax. That would bring on speculative buying, but conservative thunderclouds would gather, unless he thereupon said that he would reduce government expenditures by an equivalent amount.

Hmmm. Suppose he had said he would ask the government to reduce the tax of anyone by the amount spent in the next 24 hours buying stock. That's cartoonville for you, but serves the purpose of suggesting the limits of presidential power as affecting market upturns. It is an economic truism that many things can be done by the public sector to depress market conditions, but practically none to cause people to buy stocks. Buying is a groundswell, not an avalanche.

But the emphasis of the past few days has been on the personal record, and therefore the character, of the president. Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal chooses his language carefully. "Harken Director George W. Bush pocketed over $300,000 by selling weeks before the company reported unexpected bad news. If nothing else, this certainly impacts his credibility as a crusader against corporate abuse."

Oh? Did the old ways of Augustine impugn his preachments on changing his ways? Should St. Paul have stopped preaching? Was George W. Bush's background as a tippler disqualifying of his resolution to sobriety?

What critics seem to be saying is that anybody who drove more than 70 mph back when it was legal to do so can't persuasively call for reducing the speed limit. That is not only bad psychology, it leaves the president absolutely helpless. His critics aren't saying so in as many words, but what it would seem to add up to is: Resign, because you are morally unequipped to lead the country to salvation.

Now to this personal charge of disqualification to lead, Mr. Bush faces the further difficulty that many critics are asking for anti-corporation measures, which in the view of many would hinder the operation of American business. Al Hunt commented in his jeremiad that "the substance of what (Bush) didn't propose" was the most disturbing aspect of his speech.

Like what? There are those who believe that a law should forbid accountants from acting both as auditors and consultants. The proposal would appear perfectly reasonable, but has the shortcoming of a law that would forbid a doctor who advises on stomach ailments from advising also about throat problems. The deficiency in the proposed reform was early on targeted by economist Lawrence Kudlow, who said that reforms appropriate to large corporations could be severe and even unsupportable burdens for a hundred thousand smaller corporations.

Well, what about the proposal for an oversight board to pass on the procedures of accountants?

That suggestion is not extreme, but why should that be an object of legislation? There are legal and medical associations that pass on practices of their members. Why should not the same pattern be followed in corporate affairs?

One comes then to the inevitable money side of the question. Why did the president ask for a mere $100 million more for the SEC, considering that some in Congress had already proposed three times that much?

Well, one answer to that is that Congress wants to spend three times as much as the executive on that particular nosebleed. That doesn't in itself tell us that the president is underrating the problem, or unwilling to spend as required to remedy it.

What galls is the willingness of the critics this time around to suggest the disqualification of a chief executive who in past days used practices, however common, which we are now called upon to reject as abusive of refined corporate manners.

Applying such standards retroactively to other presidents, and to Congresses, how would we justify any respect for any president in modern history, let alone any Congress? Government alone, Lord Keynes reminded us, has the power to debauch the currency. How should we treat such presidents as Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Clinton, under whose tutelage the value of the dollar traveled from approximately 100 cents to 35 cents? And the Congresses that permitted this inflation by overspending? How is it that we are now supposed to be confident that this Congress, and this president, will effect reforms?

The answer is: We can't be confident reforms will be effective. But we are confident we can disregard phony arguments against the qualifications of Mr. Bush to preside over his own reforms.