Politics and Economic Policy; Returning to Country's 'Lost History'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 18, 2008 | Go to article overview

Politics and Economic Policy; Returning to Country's 'Lost History'


Byline: John R. Coyne Jr., SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

As Robert J. Samuelson shows us in this crisply written and frequently witty study, politicians

know little about economics, and economists know little about politics. When they think they do, we often get into trouble.

At times, economists sell politicians on their pet theories, much in the manner of the Wall Street operators who sold investors on complex investing schemes - as Warren Buffett called them, geeks bearing formulas. Political economists, like political generals, are to be viewed with suspicion.

At other times, politicians try to devise programs to deal with the economy during periods of unrest - former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and his guns and butter initiatives and Richard M. Nixon with his controls The history of Nixon's controls can be quickly summarized: They worked; they weakened; they collapsed ), Jimmy Carter and the economic programs he developed himself to deal with the malaise of our national spirit (When discussing inflation, President Carter often seemed forlorn ).

In these cases, the results were disastrous, with each successive political attempt to deal with economic problems pouring more kerosene on the fires of inflation, which raged from the 1960s to 1979. That inflation grew in intensity until it finally was extinguished in the first Reagan administration by a resolute president willing to subordinate political concerns to economic realities and a tough nonpolitical chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, who was given the president's total trust and backing with a mandate to beat out that fire.

Beat it he did, and one result was the brutal recession of 1981-82, which brought on a political cacophony a less stalwart president might not have weathered. Press coverage was murderous, Mr. Samuelson writes. On April 21, 1982, CBS broadcast a documentary by Bill Moyers, 'People Like Us.' It condemned Reagan's policies for letting Americans slip 'through the safety net,'" and as Reagan biographer Lou Cannon pointed out, set the tone for television coverage - coverage, he might have added, tarnished and distorted by unthinking bias, short on facts but long on emotion. But then, what else is new?

Nevertheless, despite the media din, the alliance of a president whose basic economic compass had been set by Milton Friedman but who pretended to no particular economic expertise and a hard-nosed economist who didn't give a fig for politics finally succeeded in extinguishing the fires of the great inflation. …

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