June 26, 2013

Now he tells us!

Buried deep inside “Balance,” his illuminating new book on the history of the decline of great powers, Glenn Hubbard, Mitt Romney’s top economic adviser and the dean of Columbia Business School, says we need a third political party to shake things up and get the debate the country needs.

I wish I could say Hubbard is a tortured soul driven by Romney’s disappointing campaign to seek a better way. That would be a dramatic story, but it’s not true. Hubbard is loyal to Romney and proud of many of the campaigns’s proposals. The soft-spoken dean is more green eyeshades than bomb-thrower. But Hubbard is also convinced that the two party “duopoly” is failing the country. Sometimes our subversives show up in shades of gray.

Hubbard’s and co-author Tim Kane’s book is a chronicle of the institutional and political stagnation that has led great polities from ancient Rome to contemporary California to squander their position and eventually fall. But tucked away amid these historical case studies is a surprisingly fresh vision from a top Romney insider as to what’s needed to spare the United States the same fate.

For starters, Hubbard thinks the difference between our political parties is exaggerated, saying “the contrast is cartoonish.” He and Kane continue:

“Most liberals recognize the vitality of the private sector, not the state, as the foundation of prosperity. And most conservatives believe in the modern federal role in our economy — for the central bank’s authority, for programs that fight poverty at the federal level, for national security, and even for social security . . . The budget proposal crafted by . . . Romney . . . envisions a federal level of expenditures equal to one-fifth of gross domestic product. That spending level is not far away from the level under President Obama of one-fourth of GDP.” (Italics mine).

So much for Kenyan socialism. Let us say again: Now he tells us!

Hubbard’s most controversial argument is that Citizens United can help move us past the narrow boundaries of debate that have proven unequal to our long-term challenges. The very thought can make progressive heads explode, but Hubbard isn’t trumpeting money to enhance the power of the plutocrats; he’s making a subtler point about what ails us.

In Hubbard’s view, well-meaning campaign finance reform since the 1970s has helped fuel gridlock and stagnation by channeling big political money exclusively to our two major parties and their inadequate ideas. Hubbard thus sees Citizens United as holding the potential to liberate the country from a duopoly that is not delivering meaningful progress on everything from the national debt to jobs to schools. With big political cash unbridled, Hubbard and Kane write, “we anticipate a third party that stands for something radical, like the abolitionists of the 1860s did, and a fourth party, a fifth party, and most important of all, truly independent legislators.”

“A third party that stands for something original,” they add in a Foreign Affairs piece on how the Supreme Court’s decision might create space for new ideas, “might well gain ground.”

Speaking as someone who’s long been vulnerable to third party temptation for much the same reasons, I say, “Come on in, the water’s fine!”

In an interview, Hubbard told me he and Kane simply want “greater competition.” “The right number of parties in the U.S. is still two,” Hubbard says. “The question is whether its these two in their current form.” He finds the Ross Perot model of 1992 — where the Texan’s deficit fetish was co-opted by Bill Clinton and altered his party’s agenda — compelling.

I asked Hubbard if he expects to take flak from Republicans for his Republican-ideas-are-inadequate views.

“Probably,” he says, pausing for a moment. “But I’m not saying the Republican party will go away. What I hope is that we’ll have the strongest ideas emerging . . . and I don’t see how anyone can object to that.”

Hubbard laments that the quality of debate in 2012 was poor. He gives his party the edge when it comes to good ideas on tax reform, and Democrats the edge on immigration, but he says too many critical issues were talked about “in a non-serious way.”

Education was the biggest offender. Both parties were just “mouthing the words,” he says. In Hubbard’s view, smart human capital initiatives are likely to be expensive and also innovatively tailored to individuals. Democrats won’t embrace needed innovations because they’re under labor’s thumb, and “Republicans don’t want to spend the money.”

“People think I’m crazy” when it comes to Citizens United, Hubbard acknowledges. But without the backing of big money, he insists, “it’s very difficult for a new idea or a new politician to break through the duopoly.”

Hubbard’s fear is worth taking seriously: if something new doesn’t shake things up, we’ll head into 2016 with the same pinched debate that has us on track to follow Rome and many other proud regimes into the dust.

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