Recently I read Jack Kemp's 1979 book, “An American Renaissance.” More than any other political figure, Kemp laid the foundations for Reaganism in the late 1970s. Reading the book, my mind kept lingering on the fact that the Kemp-Reagan tradition is actually quite rare in Republican politics.
What Kemp understood was that austerity is the flip side of redistribution. The old right, in his view, saw politics in the same light as liberal Democrats:
[T]he greatest obstacle to opportunity and advancement we face as a nation [is] static thinking, the idea that life is a 'zero-sum' game. According to this view, there are only so many jobs to go around. Only so much energy to go around. A fixed amount of prosperity, and a fixed amount of poverty. And so it is government's job to divide up these fixed amounts until, say, the sum of prosperity (a plus) and poverty (a negative) comes to zero.
The missing element, Kemp said, is economic growth. Not the “quantity” growth reflected in GDP numbers thanks to government spending and asset bubbles and Federal Reserve money creation. Kemp was talking about “quality” growth driven by advances in productivity and scientific, technological and creative innovation. Yet growth is only one part of the equation:
Think about a wagon. It is a simple but forceful way of visualizing an important aspect of government. The wagon is loaded here. It's unloaded over there. The folks who are loading it are Republicans. The folks who are unloading it are Democrats. You need both groups, both parties. The Democrats are the party of redistribution. The Republicans must be the part of growth. It is useless to argue, as some libertarians do, that we do not need redistribution at all. The people, as a people, rightly insist that the whole look after the weakest of its members.
Kemp was unusual among Republicans in that he defended the social safety net. Cuts in government were less important to him than aligning incentives to produce high-quality growth:
Real economic expansion is the surest remedy for this divisive sport of mutual plunder. We can’t progress as a society by using government to diminish one another. The only way we can all have more is by producing more, not by bickering over how to share less. Economic growth must come first, I believe, for when it does many social problems tend to take care of themselves, and the problems that remain become manageable.
Today no less than in Kemp’s time, it’s difficult to find Republicans with a dynamic mental model of politics who understand the necessity of the welfare state while advocating economic opportunity and growth. The conservative temptation is to cut, cut, cut. Of course, circumstances are slightly different. The central domestic issue of Kemp’s time was stagflation. The central domestic issue of our time, in the view of most conservatives, is the size, scope, and solvency of the American government.
Kemp argued that cuts in marginal tax rates and a tight monetary policy would end the economic malaise. He was right. In its April 15 budget vote, the GOP argued that the way to preserve the safety net in a fiscally responsible manner and promote economic growth is through a series of changes to the tax code, Medicare and Medicaid. We will have to wait until after the 2012 election to see if they are right.
The architect of that budget, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is a Kemp protege. Like Kemp, Ryan has come under fire from conservatives like Rand Paul for accepting the welfare state in principle. But Republicans’ greatest successes have come when they followed in Kemp’s footsteps, reminding Americans that the way to keep the safety net in place is to put the priority on economic growth. It'’ a tricky needle to thread. But it has to be done.
With that, I'm out. Thanks again to Jen for giving me free rein in this spot for a week. And have a Happy Passover and a Happy Easter!