Sunday, January 22, 2012

From rhetoric to platform

Modern presidential campaigns come close to resembling a freak show.  What will they say/do next?  It is partly our fault ("the media" do represent their audience).  And we expect much too much of politicians -- and we do enjoy some circus. 

George Will once referred to Mitt Romney as the Republican Michael Dukakis because Romney chose to simply define himself as a "competent manager."  That is apparently not enough to energize enough people.  Most suspect there is no "there" there. 

In an effort to garner the most votes, the candidates inspect the established cliches of U.S. politics and select the ones they think they can mold into sound-bites -- testing and modifying as they go along. 

Once in a while, we get a Lincoln, an FDR or a Ronald Reagan.  They win by going a little bit beyond the standard cliches.   Any leader who fancies him/herself as a "great communicator" will take on the great challenge of identifying a sound but novel idea and finding a way to make it presentable, thereby setting him/herself apart.

Here are some unconvential (by the standards of modern presidential politics) platform planks that wait to be honed and made presentable by the next great communicator (in no particular order):

1.  My economic advisors and I do not understand the business cycle well enough to involve ourselves in a serious way.  Our plan is to govern in such a way so as to not add to the uncertainties that risk-takers normally face.  I will appoint Federal Reserve Board members who will make clear and credible commitments re their monetary targets.

2.  Envy is one of the seven deadly sins and leaders should never incite it.  Equal opportunity beats equal outcomes.   Competition in the lower schools is a step in that direction.  Giving parents explicit school vouchers (as opposed to the implicit vouchers with strings they now get) is a step in that direction.  The Department of Education will do one thing only and that is award matching grants to school districts that move in a parental choice direction.  This will be the #1 social policy priority.  It will end the disastrous practice of forcing the poorest students into the worst schools.

3. The 65,000-plus page IRS code will be abolished in favor of a flat tax with generous exemptions at the lower end.  No VAT, no double-taxation (e.g., no corporate or estate taxes). This will end the myth of "progressivity" now attached to the IRS code.

4.  The federal "War on Drugs" will end.  Federal criminalization of drug use will end.

5.  Expand the talent pool. Immigration quotas will end.  Anyone without a record of criminal activity is welcome.  If they do crime after admission, they will be sent back to their place of origin.

6.  The bully pulpit of the President will be used to explain to the American public that most discussions of "inequality" are misleading.  A much better standard is upward mobility.  It makes no sense to compare snapshots of distributions because, over time, people move between quintiles (or whatever).  Many people now in the lowest quintile were not even here 20 years ago and most of them are better off than they were 20 years ago (wherever they are). 

7. Social Security and Medicare will be means tested.  And young people will have the option of directing their FICA "contributions" (including "employer share") to a 401k plan of their choice.

8.  Our strength will be our freedom and prosperity.  But there are crackpots in the world and some of them are very dangerous.  Nevertheless, no more nation building.  Adventures abroad will be limited to Congressionally approved drone/special ops attacks on leaders who seriously threaten us or our allies.  The crackpots will have to live with this credible threat.

9.  People have their limits and make mistakes.  But we recognize unfettered markets as a powerful and indispensible error-correction device.  Politicized choices, on the other hand, are far less amenable to correction.  Picking industrial "winners" will be left to capital markets.

10.  Hard choices must be made, but must always be cognizant of the paramount importance of human liberty.  All judicial and administrative appoitnments will be screened with this in mind.

To avoid the Dukakis label (and fate), a candidate has to find a way to package and promote just one interesting and timely idea.  (There are many others beyond these ten.) Blandness does not work.  And never underestimate the power of rhetoric.


re immigration.