Taming Voodoo Economics

Americans have once again finished a presidential campaign season in which the quality of the debate over economic policy was abysmal. On the Republican side, hacks, spin masters, and many people who ought to have known better suddenly developed an extraordinary appreciation for something called the "CPS Household Survey of Employment" as a supposed guide to month-to-month changes in the labor market. The CPS survey was never designed to do this, but it offered the most favorable gloss on the Bush administration's dreadful record on employment.

On the Democratic side, the same sorts of hacks and PR men focused like a laser beam on the bad employment news of the George W. Bush years, ignoring the good news about output and productivity. And, again, Republicans responded tendentiously, by focusing on the unemployment rate rather than on the job numbers - as if it were a good thing that the lousy labor market since 2001 has artificially depressed the number of people looking for work.

Similarly, Republicans glibly touted the Bush tax cuts - the equivalent of which President Bush's father, President George H. W. Bush, two decades ago called "voodoo economics" - as the acme of economic wisdom. They paid no heed to the large drag that Bush's unbalancing of America's public finances will impose on the US economy over the next several decades. Democrats, for their part, pretended that the tax cuts had already harmed the economy, when they ought to know that the greatest damage is still to come.

The Republicans magnified their economic quackery by frantically trying to minimize public perceptions of the long-run fiscal problems of America's social-insurance system, largely to deflect attention from the fact that Bush threw away the budget surpluses President Clinton had bequeathed him - and with them what may have been the country's last best chance to fix things in this regard short of some form of disaster. These same Republicans also argued for government spending restraint while blocking the institutional changes to Congressional procedures needed to make spending restraint possible.