Thursday, March 20, 2008

Talking about the economy in the campaign: muddled candidates


The Muddled Candidates

Welcome to the bravery season.

Hillary Clinton bravely accepted Geraldine Ferraro’s resignation after the woman from the first Mondale campaign said some no-no’s about race.

Barack Obama bravely accepted his preacher’s resignation after the learned reverend was revealed as a paranoid who believes that AIDS was invented by the government to kill black people.

Nobody has yet heard “Straight Talk Express” John McCain denounce his Texas preacher, the one who calls the Catholic Church “whore” and “beast” and who instructs us that a unilateral declaration of war against Iran is divinely ordained. But given time, the bravest candidate of all will, one presumes, gird his loins and say “Go.”

Presidential candidates are very good at posturing bravely on race, religion and endorsements.

There is a curious silence, however, on the issue of the financial future of a country currently in the grips of a credit crisis, a Wall Street meltdown, out-of-control healthcare costs, a looming Baby Boom retirement crunch, a short-term drop of an average of 25 percent in the value of most people’s homes and a currency so weak that $70-a-barrel oil costs $100 a barrel.

We even hear the sounds of silence on this week’s biggest news: the rebirth of Lemon Socialism.

“Lemon Socialism” is what critics called it when Washington bailed out carmaker Chrysler in the 1970s.

That’s what just happened, again, when the Federal Reserve Bank loaned $30 billion to Morgan Stanley so that it could buy up Bear Stearns, the investment company that led the parade of Wall Street geniuses into creating a widespread credit crisis by over-leveraging mortgages held by people too broke to pay them.

Back during the Chrysler crisis, then-chairman Lee Iacocca made a point of cutting his own salary down to $1 a year. Iacocca also made a point of putting his own face on the transaction.

Lemon Socialism for investment bankers, sadly, is different. There isn’t a high-profile villain to be had—just scores of nameless speculators who gambled, and who would have lost, but for the rescue.

What is scary about the presidential campaigns is that nobody can tell which, if any, of the candidates will commit to a new regime of smart, tough governmental oversight.

The politics of pretend

The silence you hear from the candidates concerning the dollar, the credit crunch and the need for financial regulation is not the worst of it. The muddled, middling, offend-no-interest positioning makes one wonder if much will change after January 20, 2009.

Take healthcare. Clinton and Obama differ but slightly, but neither is brave on the real issue: that America pays twice as much as other industrialized countries for worse healthcare outcomes.

Both Clinton and Obama commit to extending medical insurance to those who have none, but neither proposes to overhaul the system that leaves 30 percent of Americans covered by the government and the rest bumping along with a patchwork system of employer-paid benefits (which no employer wants to pay for any more), self-insurance, gym memberships, herbal remedies and colon-cleansers hawked onTV infomercials.

It’s a politics of pretend.

Meanwhile, McCain’s version of pretend is to embrace the personalization of healthcare—to stay away from any Clinton-style mandate or Obama-style subsidy, and to encourage greater use of tax-deductible medical savings accounts. Meanwhile, McCain would let the rest of the system continue as today.

Everybody is afraid of proposing the big change that works in the rest of the industrialized world—not just because anti-government rhetoric dominates our Lemon Socialist state, but because there are so many drug companies, insurance companies, physician associations and medical-equipment manufacturers who want their own squeeze of the citrus.

The international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rates countries on their business-friendliness, and one of its measures of fiscal fitness is the share of spending that a country does on social programs, including healthcare.

Europeans, Britons and Canadians score well on these ratings because they spend seven or eight percent of their gross output on healthcare, and everybody (including immigrants) gets covered, and everybody lives longer than we do. Americans spend twice as much—15 percent of our gross domestic output—on healthcare, and we still leave tens of millions of people uninsured.

Even the smartest policy wonks in Washington continue to advise the candidates not to go anywhere near proposing a program of universal healthcare that would address the issues that dog us decade after decade.

Hope in a Democratic sweep?

Princeton economist Paul Krugman, who likes Clinton’s healthcare plan more than Obama’s or McCain’s, addresses the other financial issues facing us this election year with more than the cavalier wave of the hand that the candidates have adopted.

Even Ben Stein, the comedian who used to be a Richard Nixon speechwriter, complains that the candidates aren’t taking the looming deficits in Medicare and Social Security seriously. Upwards of 35 million Baby Boomers will be retiring in the second term of the president we elect in 2008, and so far no candidate is venturing much clarity about fundamental fixes.

Will paralysis, pretense and pussyfooting end if the Democrats control Congress?

A Democratic sweep of the White House, plus big majorities in both houses of Congress, could get us what we need:

■ a reassertion of federal regulatory oversight in the made-up world of Wall Street speculators;

■ a Robert Rubin back in the Treasury Department, so that the next president can clean up the second Bush’s deficit mess;

■ a new Daniel Patrick Moynihan to thoughtfully pull together the senior Congressional leadership for a new fix for Medicare and Social Security, such as he engineered in the 1980s; and maybe even

■ a new monetary policy, because the current one has given us a weak dollar and $100 oil that would be $70 oil if only the dollar weren’t so weak.

But don’t count on it.

Congress doesn’t lead on these issues. Presidents lead. And until somebody breaks out of the cautious policy crouch that the candidates are in, not even the bravest senator or congressman will do more than shout from the sidelines.