Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Bungling National Priorities

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Bungling National Priorities

Article excerpt



The Sixteen-Trillion-Dollar Mistake: How the U.S. Bungled Its National Priorities from the New Deal to the Present. By Bruce S. Jansson. Columbia. $27.50.

There is no other book quite like this, a detailed analysis of the debates over national budget priorities all the way from 1932 to 2002. It could hardly appear at a better time, as President Bush launches the most controversial budget in memory. This subject may sound dreary, but it is not. The book is acceptable to non-specialists and its discussion necessarily involves value judgements not narrowly circumscribed by economics. So this is also national history, of the past seven decades, often rather dense with detail. The history is essential because you can't debate national priorities out of context with the socio-economic political setting, the world.

Jansson's book will engender intense controversy, much disagreement.

Yet it holds up very well. I can reveal at the outset that though Jansson strives scrupulously to avoid partisan party polemics what becomes relentlessly evident is that, on balance, Republicans come off worse in Jansson's conscientious account. He himself is careful never to state such a general conclusion. He does allow himself to indulge the terms "liberals" and "conservatives," however. And his factual history certainly is filled with disclosures of the Democrats' mistakes, too, as obviously Jansson struggles to be evenhanded. He might well have quoted Alexis de Tocqueville's lines from Democracy in America: "This book is not decisively in anyone's camp; in writing it I did not mean either to serve or to contest any party; I undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties; and while they are occupied with the next day, I wanted to ponder the future."

No reader can escape noting the pervasiveness of waste and obvious missed opportunities in each and every successive administration. Indeed, Jansson sums up (in 1992 dollars) the dollars totaling the mistakes of each president. Few should be surprised that President Ronald Reagan takes the prize here. Jansson writes:

In 1981 Reagan managed to frame the policy agenda for the next seven years as well as for the presidencies of George Bush and Bill Clinton. His huge deficits trapped Congress in endless debates about how to diminish them that dominated the entire session in such years as 1985, 1990, 1993, and 1995. These huge deficits in turn placed advocates of domestic reform on the defensive for the next sixteen years until a budget surplus finally surfaced in the late 1990s. No other president has so decisively influenced the course of budgetary and political events for such an extended period. And no other president has wasted more than three trillion.

Jansson writes lucidly and at times with some panache, nor does he eschew comparing the presidents. Thus, for example, in moving from the Reagan administration chapter to successive president George Bush, his opening subhead is "A Dinghy in Reagan's Wake?" He asserts, "I contend here that the Bush administration and Congress made fiscal and tax errors in excess of $642 billion lamentably huge but modest compared to Reagan's gaffes, $3.4 trillion total." As in each chapter for each president, he then spells out how this occurred.

The book opens with two absorbing chapters on FDR that set high standards for the rest of the book. The first is entitled "Roosevelt as Magician," the second, "Roosevelt's Dilemma." "That man in the White House," as elderly reactionaries dubbed him, is shown to be profoundly aware of the grimness of the times as he takes over in the depth of the Great Depression and how ever so bold and clever (and sometimes lucky) he is in creating the New Deal. Jansson reminds us FDR had more than an inkling of the dire threats to the population from his experience as governor of New York, where state and local finances dependent on property and sales taxes had just been devastated. …

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