by Henry Oliner
Obama lovers and Republican haters highlight the booming stock market, record low interest rates, the drop in unemployment, the drop in oil prices, the drop in the uninsured, declining deficits, the growth in jobs created, and the duration of the current trend of economic growth to state how great their president is doing and how wrong the opposition is. Therefore the only explanation for the obstruction and criticism of Obama is racism toward the first black president. Their simplistic bragging memes adorn Facebook and the social media.
The Conservative opposition points out the anemic growth rate, low business startup rate and high rate of business closures, stagnation of middle class incomes, high rate of people leaving the workforce (and thus improving the unemployment rate), low rate of workforce participation, increasing debt, and costly regulations.
This only addresses economic issues. Liberals brag on the ending of the Iraq engagement; conservatives see only the growth of ISIS and terrorist attacks as a result. Liberals brag on the growth of alternative fuels; conservatives see crony capitalism as Solyndra and other efforts fail and the coal workers lose their jobs.
No one should be surprised that each side selects its points of confirmation. They do not even share interpretations of old history. For the liberals FDR saved the country from collapse after the Great Depression; for the conservatives his bureaucracy and micromanagement caused the Depression to last much longer than it would have otherwise.
History makes the president more often than the president makes history. Every president inherits problems and opportunities. Sometime you can easily correlate successes or failure with specific presidential actions and policy, and sometimes good or bad things happen in spite of the actions of leadership. Meaningful perspective is not only missing from the short spaces of social media where shallowness is amplified by millions with a big microphone; it is also missing from much of the mainstream media.
The economy does not turn on a dime every four or eight years when a new name is anointed by an increasingly bizarre electoral process. In a healthy economy we should be concerned with our own lives and the presidential race should matter a lot less. The hyper elevation of the importance of this election while so many voters are repelled by the leading candidates indicates an unrest that may be pivotal.
The stock market boomed under Obama because he took office in the early years of the worse financial crisis since the Greatest Depression. Timing was far more critical than policy for his success. Coming off such a low point hid much of the costs of his policies, leaving some to conclude that greater regulation and higher taxes is the key to economic growth. Nonsense.
After WWII our economy was protected by the devastation of our global competition. We could pay high wages and high taxes and expand government programs. We would be foolish to attribute our booming economy at the time to the effects we could enjoy and ignore the truer causes.
Lower oil prices came from a weak economy and commercial technology that was neither supported nor wanted by this administration. It happened in spite of the government, not because of it. The stock market was propelled by lower interest rates and regulatory hurdles that advantaged insulated public companies over smaller private competitors.
Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism observed both parties obsess over their nostalgia for a better time, but the conditions that supported their mythical utopias no longer apply.
Conservatives need to come to grips with the imperfections of capitalism and recognize that a century of Progressivism is not simply going to go away. Tax cuts can theoretically pay for themselves at certain points on Laffer’s curve but this is not always the case, and may not be the case today. It depends on many other factors besides the statutory rate.
Liberals need to come to grips with the limits of the state. A state that is involved in every aspect of our life becomes oppressive and corrupt. Political self-interest is not inherently more effective than economic self-interest. The economy is not some social justice machine that can be fine-tuned with credentialed hands at the levers.
Besides the enormous burdens placed on this economy by an accumulation of friction costs predating this president, we remain stifled by the uncertainty of economic and tax policy that changes every time some politician is near a TV camera. Hillary laments the short termism of public corporations, but ignores the far more damaging short termism of government tax policy.
We are a restless people, but there is a great unrest that has propelled the worst elements of both parties to the forefront. We should look a little deeper at our problems and be a lot more skeptical of the simplistic analysis and solutions offered by these candidates. Our problem is not just anti-intellectuals and populists who think that problems created by the intelligent can be solved by the ignorant; we suffer more from the pseudointellectuals who think credentialism reinforced with moral supremacy can overcome the limitations of sound principles and objective reality.
How a country that has such stellar leaders in the private commercial sector can project such lackluster leaders in the public sector is a statement of how irrelevant or toxic the political parties have become. A government that tries to do too much is likely to increase the number of citizens it alienates. Tough choices do not disappear just because we abdicate them to bureaucrats.
Periods of great unrest precede periods of great change. Historically, it is punctuated with disasters but the long term trend remains one of dramatic improvement.