Monday, May 4, 2009

The Quarterback of Supply-Side Economics Passes

One should not speak ill of the recently deceased, but is it ok to be a little bit snarky? Perhaps if you're very good at it, like Michael Kinsley is. Of Jack Kemp, the late Republican Congressman who championed "supply-side" economics, Kinsley writes:
As a rule, there are two ways to get a reputation in Washington for being “thoughtful,” neither of which requires having a lot of ideas rattling around in your head. In fact one method is to avoid, as much as possible, any ideas beyond a general desire for everyone to sit down in good faith and a cooperative spirit and reason things out.

Alternatively, you can simply be “unpredictable.” The more you can surprise people with your position on an issue, more thoughtful you are considered to be. This technique has served Arlen Specter, to choose a currently newsworthy example, well over the years.

Jack Kemp was not unpredictable, and he did not strike poses of moderation and statesmanship. He might be accused of a third device: Like Gary Hart on the Democratic side, he was deeply committed to the idea of ideas, as opposed to ideas themselves. And if he mentioned, say, Say’s Law (a famous principle of economics), he was likely to offer up the author’s full name -- Jean-Baptiste Say -- as a way to establish his bona fides.

But Kemp did have one idea that he was introduced to in the mid-1970s, stuck with, and saw triumph.

That, of course, is supply-side economics, and in particular its policy prescription: cut taxes and you will increase government revenues. Among Republicans, this became more like a religion than a policy, with all the fixin’s: miracles, saints (Ronald Reagan, Arthur Laffer, Kemp) and total immunity from factual refutation. Kemp probably went to his grave believing that this victory was an intellectual one -- a triumph of persuasion. In fact, it was an example on the other side of the argument: that material forces, not ideas, are what move history.

After all, the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves is not a hard sell. It comes with a built-in bribe. The inherent implausibility -- not to mention 30 years now of experience to the contrary -- is no match for money in your pocket....
Brad DeLong is, more appropriately under the circumstances, quite gracious:
One of the few senior Republicans to try to undo the curse of Richard Nixon, Jack Kemp 1935-2009 was a pillar of and an ornament to the American republic.
Howard Gleckman emphasizes the positive: Kemp's role in the 1986 tax reform. Kemp's former staffer, Bruce Bartlett looks back at the Kemp-Roth bill, which became the centerpiece of "Reaganomics." The NY Times obituary has more on Kemp's football and political careers.

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