Monday, June 9, 2008

Are McCain and Obama really that opposed on economics?

Now that the general election campaign is effectively underway, we can start looking at the matchup between Barack Obama and John McCain. In economic terms, we have, says Peter Dreier at the Huffington Post, an advocate of "sensible regulation" facing off against a "free market fundamentalist." Robert Lenzner of Forbes is a tad more neutral, describing the race as a contest between "McCain's free-market laissez-faire and Obama's tax 'em high and create new programs."


A lot of ideas and policy proposals can be attributed to John McCain, but anybody who sees anything resembling pro-market economic ideas is following a political contest in a parallel universe. In this universe, McCain openly told the Wall Street Journal, "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated." In that same interview the only economic policy about which he showed enthusiasm is his hero Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting -- hardly an example of laissez-faire.

Two years later, he repeated his caveat to the Boston Globe, saying, "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should. I've got Greenspan's book."

So where does this newfound allegiance to the free functioning of the billions of individual choices that make up the market come from? From thin air, so far as I can tell.

Well, Dreier is a political science professor who writes for The Nation, so perhaps like many academics nostalgic for the heady days of nineteen-sixty-whatever, he just has his head firmly ensconced up his ass. But Lenzner is the national editor of Forbes. He's supposed to have a handle on this stuff. What's his excuse (and that of the multitude peddling similar stories)?

It's not as if they're simply extrapolating from the conduct of the Bush administration. Bush is the biggest spender since LBJ, and his Medicare prescription drug benefit is one of the more massive expansions of the welfare state ever. Free-marketeers consider the Bush administration generally weak when it comes to limiting the costs and impositions of government regulations.

If you're expecting a McCain presidency to be the "third Bush term" as some folks would have it, on the economic front you must be forecasting profligate spending, an expansive welfare state and indifference to deregulation.

So what's with the meme that has McCain channeling the spirit of Adam Smith?

Honestly, I think much of the political battle waged on blogs and oped pages uses the candidates as rough proxies for positions pundits wish were being taken. So Dreier pits a virtuous social democrat against a nefarious government-minimalist because that's the campaign he wants to see waged -- damn the facts. And Lenzner sets a socialist against a free-marketeer the better to set off the mushy middle way that he's touting.

I think that, for a lot of people, the campaign they see going on around them has more to do with the political warfare waged in their own minds than with the positions the actual candidates advocate -- to the extent they can be pinned down at all.

That's why we end up with bloggers and columnists painting such a supposedly stark contrast between two political candidates who both, in reality, favor higher government spending and who both see a large role for the state in economic matters. Obama is a bit more explicit about his statist economic views, while also not afraid to muddle the message he sends, while McCain is more of a seat-of-the-pants believer that he should be wielding the big stick in all matters, including the economy, though he leaves room for a few market-oriented gestures. There's no real free-market voice -- certainly not a laissez-faire one -- speaking for either of the major political parties in this year's presidential campaign.

It has to make you wonder about the rest of the oh-so-stark differences with which we're supposedly presented in this endless campaign for the White House. It's unlikely that people limit themselves to projecting their own political fantasies on often-vague candidates just on the economic front. Maybe the parties should just run two mannequins with blank platforms and let those members of the public so interested wage whatever good vs. evil battles they please. Hell, we'd all get the candidates we want!

As for the issue at at hand ... It's a shame. I was hoping that, just once, there would be a major-party candidate who really is a "free market fundamentalist."


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