Doubleday • 2006 • 320 pages • $26.00
Economics professors often present public-policy issues as though well-intentioned leaders pull the levers of government to maximize the welfare of the people. Bruce Bartlett in his new book, Impostor, tells the dark side of public policy: what happens when a president pulls the levers of government for short-term political gain with no concern for the long-term consequences to public welfare.
Impostor lays out numerous charges that Bush administration economic policy has been driven by short-term political goals. Early on, a 30 percent tariff was slapped on steel imports. The main political goal, according to many observers, was to shore up political support for Republicans in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where some companies and workers would benefit from high steel prices. The tariff also helped Bush work with protectionist Republican members of Congress. In what Bartlett calls doublespeak, the administration said that the tariff was a step toward free trade.
Put aside the question of what President Bush’s motivations actually were. Does our structure of economic policy allow the president to conduct policy for short-term political gain, even to the detriment of the welfare of the public? The answer is sadly yes. Although one can fault a president who uses such tools, the greater fault lies with the Congress, which put those tools in place, and with the public, which tolerates the system.
As another example, the President’s push for a larger federal role in education is described by Bartlett as an effort to bribe soccer moms into supporting him. This decision didn’t convince advocates of a larger federal role in education that Bush was their man. Instead, it merely moved the battlefield so that two sides fought over how to expand the federal role. That the Constitution prescribes no role for the federal government in education was of no concern to the administration.
Similarly, Bartlett sees the President’s support for the Medicare drug benefit as Bush’s attempt to buy the backing of senior citizens. Bartlett describes the huge unfunded liability created by this benefit as another case of long-run expansion of government undertaken just for fleeting political advantage.
Bartlett’s view of President Bush and other recent White House occupants is enhanced by conclusions reached by Public Choice theory. One key conclusion is that politicians will seek programs that have benefits concentrated in a small, cohesive group and costs spread over a population so large that each person’s share is inconsequential. Even if the costs far exceed the benefits, so long as the benefits are concentrated and the costs are diffused, political gains are achieved. Again and again, the Bush administration provides examples.
Even the most partisan supporters of the President must recognize that our current structure of economic policy presents the opportunity for bad policy by vote-seeking incumbents. This is the most valuable lesson from Impostor.
Although Bartlett wrote his book as an attack on President Bush, along the way he does an excellent job of explaining economics. His discussion of tax policy—incentive effects versus Keynesian theories—is first class. His discussion of the benefits of foreign trade will help any economics student.
For those interested in political battles, Bartlett draws some sad conclusions about how to fight the increase in government. The old-fashioned Republican approach had been to argue for higher taxes to lower budget deficits. The Reagan administration followed a different course: cut taxes to stimulate the economy and to “starve the beast.” In the wake of the Reagan tax cuts, the deficit blossomed and Congress felt the need for fiscal restraint. Thus was born the idea that tax cuts would reduce the size of government. According to Bartlett, though, Republicans during the George W. Bush administration assumed that all they needed to do to restrain government was to cut taxes. They never followed the tax cuts with fiscal restraint. As a result, the government has grown larger since the Bush tax cuts, not smaller.
Although Impostor offers valuable lessons in policy and economics, it’s not without some drawbacks. First, some readers will be turned off by the strident tone. In addition, Bartlett spends a fair amount of space laying out what the GOP needs to do to regain political power after the current anti-Bush backlash. That will be irrelevant to many readers who have become disillusioned with partisan politics.
Moreover, Bartlett portrays President Bush as if manipulation of economic policy for political purposes is unusual. A similar book could have been written about almost every past president, Democrat or Republican.
The ultimate takeaway from Impostor is simple, although Bartlett doesn’t express it directly: those of us who believe in limited government should not put our faith in politicians.