Jonathan Chait

Jeb Bush's Economic Grand Strategery

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Like most people, I've always believed that Jeb Bush is the smart Bush brother. And yet his Wall Street Journal op-ed today shakes that assumption to its core. The entire thing has to be read in its full, I-can't-believe-this-isn't-parody context. But I will helpfully summarize, and Ihope the readers will read it to see that I am not making this up.

Bush, along with co-author Kevin Warsh of the right-wing Hoover Institute, begins by asserting the standard conservative talking point that fiscal stimulus has failed -- ignoring objections such as, oh, that government has been cutting jobs on net since 2009 --promising instead a "Grand Strategy." He proceeds to deliver this grandiose unveiling of his Grand Strategy:

The debt-limit debate caused policy makers to recognize what citizens already knew: We must put our fiscal house in order. Cutting spending is essential. But we will never cut our way to prosperity.

So, what should be the economic grand strategy? In a word: growth.

Growth! Why didn't anybody think of that before? Oh, wait -- everybody has thought of that before. That's the Republican Party's idea (via low and more regressive taxes, deregulation and lower social spending). That's Obama's idea (via education reform, investing in infrastructure and science, and reforming the tax code.) It's the idea of pretty much every economic plan ever.

Shouldn't Bush's grand strategy narrow it down just a bit? Like this:

The scene was played for a joke, but at least he had a specific sector in mind. Imagine if, instead of plastics, the guy had just said, "money!"

Then Bush starts invoking his grand strategy over and over in defense of familiar right-wing bromides:

The grand strategy fights statism everywhere.

The grand strategy goes out of its way to ensure that big companies are not advantaged at the expense of smaller, entrepreneurial competitors. ...

A pro-growth strategy is decidedly long term in orientation. It aims for higher standards of living five, 10 and 20 years out, long past the next election cycle. It replaces the false promise made to the next generation of entitlement-program recipients with a solvent, dependable model that encourages work and savings. Reforming Social Security before costs multiply and uncertainties spread is both fairer and more growth-oriented. And enacting consumer-driven health-care policies represents the best way to control costs and improve patient care.

Okay, so the grand strategy means letting mass unemployment persist for years and years, pretending we won't bail out too big to fail companies when they threaten systemic risk, and privatizing Social Security and Medicare. I think we're familiar with the basic outlines of this plan. Anything else? Well, he name checks tax reform ("The strategy is a threat to those who take refuge in our burdensome tax code, and it is a great source of encouragement to those who seek higher rates of return on physical and human capital.") And then we wind up to this beaut:

The growth strategy also demands an abiding respect for the rule of law, and stable, cost-effective rules of the road from regulators. A constantly changing regulatory regime kills investment and limits economic growth. The strategy also demands investing in our own natural resources, such as shale gas and the commensurate infrastructure to re-industrialize our country, creating jobs here in the U.S. rather than shipping hundreds of billions of dollars abroad.

By stable rules, Bush doesn't mean that we should keep the current rules in place. He means we should change the regulations, one time, to the way he wants them, and then never change them again. Then, forgetting his sacred commitment six paragraphs earlier to never favor one sector over another, he proceeds to extol investment in "our own natural resources," specifically citing shale gas. Of course, energy extraction is already a heavily-subsidized field.

After a brief mention of education -- in a nutshell, Bush believes the children are the future -- he get to this rousing conclusion:

We should resist the temptation to wrangle with the green eyeshade folks who question our prospects. Instead, we must take actions that demonstrate our resolve and resiliency. We must restore our faith in growth economics and reform our policies accordingly. This will bring strength to our markets and reaffirm our place in the world.

Demonstrate strength and resiliency! Now that is a really smart idea. I wonder, though -- did George W. Bush fail to demonstrate strength and resiliency? At some point from 2001-2008, did Jeb ever suggest demonstrating strength and resiliency, and George W. ignored his proposal? Or did Jeb only think of the strength and resiliency demonstration concept after it was too late to help his brother?

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