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Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once
offered a bit of advice to a youngster whose
First when Bill Greider published the story The Education of David Stockman (Bill Greider, The Atlantic, December 1981) and then when this memoir came out, Reaganites, supply-side ideologues, gleeful Democrats and the Press focussed mainly on the palpable sense of betrayal conveyed by the insider accounts of budgeteering in the Reagan Administration. David Stockman's angst ridden confessions were read mainly as an admission that the whole Reagan economic program had been a knowing hoax, which even it's architects knew to be unworkable. This is indeed a part of the tale and folks will be arguing about the accuracy of this thesis for years to come. Democrats and Republicans have such a vested interest in the debate that it seems unlikely that these discussions can ever produce much of a consensus. Your view of it's truth or falsity is likely to be inextricably tied up in your political allegiance, so there's little point in trying to change anyone's mind at this late date.
However, there is a much more important story here, a cautionary tale that conservatives missed as a result of their visceral anger. The real core of the Stockman story, which should be obvious from the title, is how the political process inevitably corrupts even the most coherent and popular conservative programs. This is so because they ask the impossible, or at least the extraordinarily unlikely, that bureaucrats and politicians surrender some measure of their power and their control over our lives and that the politicos make some constituents unhappy. In the case of the Reagan Revolution, Stockman does an excellent job of demonstrating how even Republicans refused to make the kind of cuts in government spending which would have been required to balance the budget. When it came time to make the tough cuts, Stockman found himself boxed in. On one side you had the Congressional Democrats who opposed all cuts in spending, and always will. On another side, you had the bureaucrats who didn't want their department's budgets reduced and never will--after all, how many people are really willing to threaten their own jobs even when they realize that they are useless or superfluous. On the third side you had Congressional Republicans who simply could not withstand the withering barrage of rhetoric that the Left unleashed about how the GOP wanted to starve women, children and the old. And finally, Ronald Reagan himself, who had spent almost thirty years campaigning against big government, proved unwilling when push came to shove to actually reduce the size of the Federal Government. Even for him, the protestations of those who receive government largesse, outweighed the intellectual understanding that such payments are wasteful and counterproductive. The case of President Reagan illustrates why government programs, once instituted, are almost never ended. There is almost never as impassioned and vocal a constituency opposed to spending on a program as there is benefiting from it. One of the rare cases since the beginning of the Social Welfare State was the Welfare Reform bill, where average taxpayers finally came to so resent payments to the unemployed that it actually was possible to make some minute changes in our welfare policies. But, of course, even in this instance, spending wasn't reduced.
Unfortunately, when faced with this disappointing reality Stockman and his allies in the Administration (Baker, Darman, etc.) and on the Hill (Domenici, Dole, etc.) tried to follow the dictates of conscience, rather than joining battle with the forces which caused the situation. Even though he understood intuitively that big government was in itself a threat to freedom and the economy, Stockman decided that in the absence of the required cuts the administration should support increased taxes as a means of reducing the deficit. Sure there's something noble about this willingness to "do the right thing" even at the expense of abandoning closely held beliefs, but it also betrays a fundamentally naive understanding of politics. Democrats understand well that if they engage in a sufficient level of hyperbolic demagoguery then Republicans will always fold and go along with more spending and more taxes. That's is a simple matter of political expediency.
But this was one of those rare instances where the GOP actually had the whip hand. The economy had been driven into the tank by the accumulated weight of forty years of New Deal and Great Society spending along with the expense of the Cold War. Reagan had campaigned and won on the need to cut government, cut taxes and win the Cold War. The tax cuts and increased military spending had been passed. But because the accompanying budget cuts were not made, the deficit was about to explode out of control. Someone was going to have to back down, but the GOP was in an extremely strong position. They held both the Senate and the Presidency and they'd already taken the political hit for proposing budget cuts. The only thing that remained was to earn that political damage by actually making the cuts. But thanks to Stockman and company they instead got the worst of both worlds--Democrats got their taxes back and Republicans were perceived as uncaring budget slashers anyway, despite not actually getting any of the cuts.
Had conservatives better understood the real lesson of this book they could have won the 1995 budget confrontation with President Clinton, when they were in an even better position. The economy was in the middle of the long Reagan/Bush/Clinton expansion. Republicans held both the House and Senate, where the budgets are actually written, and the President was relatively unpopular. This was a golden opportunity to make genuine reductions in the Federal Budget, to finally start reducing the size of the Federal Government. They started out okay, sending Clinton some reasonably aggressive budget bills and eagerly embracing Clinton's government shutdown. But then, when the Press and Democrats predictably attacked them for the shutdown, Republicans folded again. The result? They didn't get their cuts, but they did sustain the political damage of the Left's attacks on them as Scrooges. What the heck is the point of having the entirely justified image of the anti-government party if you aren't going to actually reduce the size of government? If you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk, and let the chips fall where they may.
While it offers an instructive portrait of the genuinely disgusting budget process, this is not a great book. There is entirely too much axe-grinding, score-settling and self-justifying going on here. Stockman's view of events is so personal that he seems unable to perceive the bigger picture. Perhaps it is a function of being a glorified accountant, but he is so concerned about the debits and the credits that he loses sight of the reason why the business exists in the first place. The business here is the US Government and Stockman's original principles, when he was a maverick supply-sider in the House, were right. Government is too big and it takes too much of our money. Both of these warp the health of our economy and retard growth. The fact that he went over to the enemy and advocated that taxes be raised, offers an illuminating but disheartening lesson, one which conservatives ignore to their own detriment.
See also:Presidents (Reagan)
-The Education of David Stockman (Bill Greider, The Atlantic, December 1981)
-PROFILE: Another Sixties: The New Right, Part II (Paul Lyons, Richard Stockton State College)
-ESSAY: THE REAGAN BUDGET: The Deficit That Didn't Have to Be (David Boaz, Policy Analysis, August 1982)
-ESSAY: Government's End (Jonathan Rauch, National Journal)
-Government's End (website)
-ESSAY: Twist of Lemon: A Brief History of the Budget Process (The Barnburner, Intellectual Capital)
-ESSAY: THE RISE OF SUPPLY-SIDE ECONOMICS (THE REAGAN YEARS: A Statistical Overview of the 1980s)
-ESSAY: Where Did Reagan's Tax Cut Go? ( J. Bradford DeLong)
-ESSAY: Government by the Numbers: Reliable or Not? (K. Daniel Glover, Intellectual Capital)
-ESSAY: Unbalanced Amendment: Balanced Budget Amendment, R.I.P. (Alan Reynolds, Reason)
-REVIEW: of STOCKMAN The Man, the Myth, the Future. By Owen Ullmann (Peter T. Kilborn, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE TRIUMPH OF POLITICS How the Reagan Revolution Failed. By David A. Stockman (Michael Kinsley, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE TRIUMPH OF POLITICS: How the Reagan Revolution Failed. By David A. Stockman (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
Gosh, let's hope so, given that we're in the 20th year of the Reagan recovery.
- Sep-13-2003, 05:21
Perfect book to understanding supply economics in goverment. Also a good study for the present adminstration budget numbers and its creatve book keeping; the magic * is back.
- bill neil
- Sep-12-2003, 23:43