Friday, February 24, 2006

Bruce Bartlett's Impostor

I’ve been looking forward for some time to reading Bruce Bartlett’s Impostor, and finally I’ve gotten my chance. It’s very much worth reading. Bruce powerfully makes the case that the current Bush Administration has absolutely nothing in common with principled small-government conservatism, is unique among modern U.S. Administrations in having no policy process, is leading us towards fiscal disaster, and that its budget policy cannot rationally be defended from a conservative viewpoint on “starve the beast” grounds.

As readers of this blog may have discerned, these are all views I share, although my philosophical orientation differs from Bruce’s (mainly in my having more of a taste for progressive redistribution and not as strong a prior as he does - albeit some - about market versus government solutions). But he powerfully makes his case, and I am unaware of any thoughtful or intelligent countervailing point of view on his claims, perhaps because none is possible. (Reciting slogans doesn’t count, even if you are Milton Friedman.)

One reason I consider Bruce’s point of view so important, beyond the politics of the current day, is that a solution to our fiscal problems is politically impossible without bipartisanship. Principled people on the right and the left actually agree about a lot, and could make a deal that both agreed was way better than policy today if they were empowered to do so. But national politics has to permit such an alignment, in the manner of the 1983 Reagan-Tip O’Neill agreement that helped sustain Social Security, or the 1986 tax reform. Bruce is one of the first people on the right to really grasp this, e.g., by calling for a VAT, on top of the current set of taxes, as better than just going on the way we’ve been. The Republican Party’s march to the extreme (albeit not small government conservative) right reflects a lot of political factors such as voter turnout patterns, gerrymandering, and the diminished number of battleground states, but it also reflects the ideological climate of partisan trickery uber alles. People like Bruce Bartlett and William Niskanen restore one’s faith in conservatives even if one has areas of persistent disagreement with them.

One of my favorite tidbits: at p. 32, we learn that Glenn Hubbard was “strongly chastised by Bush for telling him that a decision that he, Bush, had made was not good economic policy. Hubbard was told never to tell him that again.” If only Glenn Hubbard would speak frankly in public about this President and Administration, it would be great fun to hear.

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