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Who Do You Trust?

The Wall Street Journal     APRIL 14, 2011

Obama and Ryan agree: This is a “defining moment”

They say America is politically divided. But in the days following the appearance of Paul Ryan’s GOP budget in the firmament last week, the planets of political debate finally aligned. We were all agreed: The issues before us were the future of federal spending, the future of federal entitlement programs, and the future of federal taxes. The terms set, the debate would proceed—after the president of the United States addressed the subject in a major speech on the nation’s fiscal future.

Instead, Barack Obama at George Washington University poisoned the well. Where is Rahm Emanuel when we need him? Mr. Emanuel was Little Lord Fauntleroy compared to the tone of discourse Bill Daley loosed on the body politic. What Mr. Obama delivered yesterday was a campaign speech, and a petty rank one at that.

After Republicans won the House in November, the question was whether a standard-issue politician named John Boehner had it in him to rise to the responsibility of being Speaker of the House. There’s near universal agreement he has.

As if in some reverse force-field, Barack Obama, who so impressed the nation with his demeanor and stature as presidential candidate in 2008, has suddenly decided to engage the great fiscal debate at the level of a vice-presidential attack dog. Spiro Agnew, the presidency has finally caught up with you.

The expectation in Washington was that the president would offer a kind of “white paper” of his views on spending and deficits. What he delivered instead was an invitation to the Gunfight at the OK Corral. So be it. And maybe just as well.

In all the pages Paul Ryan produced for his budget, its most important five words were: “This is a defining moment.” The president proved that yesterday.

The question voters are going to have to come to grips with between now and November 2012 is, Who do they trust to take the U.S. forward into the 21st century?

After spending about a decade getting a feel for the realities of a new century—itself defined by a constant state of financial and physical vulnerability—Americans next year have to decide which of their institutions are most likely to take the nation forward to a successful result. Is it Democrats or Republicans, Washington or the states, the public sector or private sector?

The Ryan-GOP budget’s core goal is to pare spending as a percentage of GDP to 20%. Mr. Obama, referring obliquely yesterday to his two successive $3-trillion-plus budgets as “emergency steps,” has reset federal spending at 24% of GDP.

With annual national output now at $14 trillion, within those four points of GDP are trillions of dollars of public spending and taxation decisions. Inside those four points, you can define and decide the nation’s future.

At 24%, you are entrusting the trillions to Washington, the Democratic Party and the public sector—a triumvirate Mr. Obama yesterday referred to as “we,” as in, “we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.”

At 20%, you’re entrusting that wealth to someone else. That someone else is either the private sector or the 50 separate states. This would expand the meaning of “we.”

The Ryan Medicaid proposal illuminates the choice. He’d allow individual states to decide how to spend their share of federal Medicaid trillions. Nearly everyone agrees that Medicaid needs rehab. It’s destroying state budgets, doctors shun it, and the poor are driven to the mayhem of emergency rooms for routine care.

Someone has to decide how to spend those Medicaid trillions and repair the program. That someone will continue to be whoever shows up for work every day at the offices of HHS’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at 200 Independence Ave. in Washington—aka “we.” Or it will be 50 different teams assigned to figure out a fix appropriate to their states. The left says that “they,” the states, would throw the poor into the streets. This is 2011. Either you believe that the states are stuck in 1933, or you don’t.

The central trust issue is taxes. The Ryan budget proposes a maximum tax rate of 25% for individuals and corporations. The president dragged the “millionaires and billionaires” onto the stage yesterday for another round of pistol-whipping (three mentions of the shameless duo).

It may be that Mr. Obama is obsessed by this subject, but that misses what he really wants. Since FDR, the Democrats (and Washington) have depended on maintaining a tax system with no identifiable ceiling. Taxes can always “rise.” Simpson-Bowles or anything likely to emerge from Rep. Dave Camp’s Ways and Means Committee would formalize a rate ceiling. Reviling “the wealthiest” is most of all a tactic to prevent what would be a Democratic catastrophe. Simpson-Bowles would reorder economic and political power away from Washington and out toward the states and their millions of non-millionaire citizens.

Simpson-Bowles was clear about that. Paul Ryan was explicit. So yesterday was Barack Obama. “We,” Washington, gotta have that money.

It was a useful speech. A defining moment.

Obama’s Tax Hikes to Soak-the-Rich Won’t Work

The Wall Street Journal          APRIL 14, 2011          By ALAN REYNOLDS
Income tax revenues have been remarkably stable at 8% of GDP,

regardless of tax rates.

 The way to increase revenue is to grow the economy.

President Obama’s response to congressional efforts to curb runaway federal spending is to emphasize, once again, his resolve to greatly increase tax rates on married couples whose joint incomes are above $250,000. This insistent desire to raise taxes—which he repeated in a speech yesterday while complaining about “trillions of dollars in . . . tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country”—is a distraction. It won’t solve our nation’s fiscal problem.
Preliminary estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) project that federal spending under the president’s 2012 budget plan would average 23.3% over the coming decade—up from 19.7% in 2007 and 18.2% in 2001.

Even if the president could persuade Congress to enact all of his proposed tax increases, in addition to surtaxes already included in ObamaCare, the CBO finds we would still face endless budget deficits averaging 4.8% of GDP.

“Federal debt held by the public would double under the President’s budget,” says the CBO, “growing from $10.4 trillion (69% of GDP) at the end of 2011 to $20.8 trillion (87% of GDP) at the end of 2021, adding $9.5 trillion to the nation’s debt from 2012 to 2021.”

And yet, enormous as they are, these deficit and debt estimates assume that the higher tax rates called for under the president’s 2012 budget plan do no harm to the economy, that interest rates stay unusually low, and that the economy avoids recession for a dozen years. Those assumptions require taxpayers to behave much differently than they ever have before.

The revenue estimates are even more unbelievable. According to the Office of Management and Budget, total revenues would supposedly exceed 19% of GDP after 2015, rising to 20% by 2021—a level briefly reached only at the height of World War II (1944-45) and the pinnacle of the tech-stock boom (2000). Moreover, these unprecedented revenues would supposedly come from the individual income tax, which is even less plausible.

It is not as though we have never tried high tax rates before. From 1951 to 1963, the lowest tax rate was 20% to 22% and the highest was 91% to 92%. The top capital gains tax rate approached 40% in 1976-77. Aside from cyclical swings, however, the ratio of individual income tax receipts to GDP has always remained about 8% of GDP.

The individual income tax brought in 7.8% of GDP from 1952 to 1979 when the top tax rate ranged from 70% to 92%, 8% of GDP from 1993 to 1996 when the top tax rate was 39.6%, and 8.1% from 1988 to 1990 when the highest individual income tax rate was 28%. Mr. Obama’s hope that raising only the highest tax rates could keep individual tax receipts well above 9% of GDP has been repeatedly tested for more than six decades. It has always failed.

Federal revenue from the individual income tax exceeded 9% of GDP only eight times in U.S. history—during World War II (9.4% in 1944), the recessions of 1969-70, 1981-82 and 1991-92, and the tech-stock boom-bust of 1998-2001. Revenues were a high share of GDP during the three recessions because GDP fell.

The situation of 1997-2000 was unique. Individual income tax revenues reached an unprecedented 9.6% of GDP from 1997 to 2000 for reasons quite unlikely to be repeated. An astonishing quintupling of Nasdaq stock prices coincided with an extraordinary proliferation of stock options, which the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances found were granted to 11% of U.S. families by 2001, and with a reduction in the capital gains tax to 20% from 28%, which encouraged much greater realization of taxable gains through stock sales. Revenues from the capital gains tax rose to 10.8% of all individual income tax receipts in 1997 and 13% by 2000. The unexpected revenue windfalls in President Bill Clinton’s second term were largely a consequence of lower tax rates on capital gains.

Using IRS data, Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley have estimated that realized capital gains accounted for just 13%-22% of reported income among the top 1% of taxpayers from 1988 to 2006, when gains were taxed at 28%—but that fraction swiftly reached 29%-32% in 1998-2000, when the capital gains tax fell to 20%.

The average tax rate of such top taxpayers was mechanically diluted by the greatly increased realizations of capital gains after 1997 and 2003, since a larger share of reported income consisted of capital gains. Yet the amount of taxes paid by top taxpayers reached record highs for the same reason—there was more revenue to be had from taxing many gains at a low rate than from taxing fewer gains a high rate. Nobody can be forced to sell assets in taxable accounts. To complain that a low tax on realized capital gains is “unfair” is to suggest it would be fairer for affluent investors to sit on unrealized gains, as though an unpaid tax is morally superior to one that collects billions.

As a result of the conventional confusion between tax rates and revenues, some stories in the media have abetted the delusion that the huge gap between spending and likely revenues could be narrowed by simply increasing the highest tax rates on capital gains and/or dividends.

A recent cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek by Jesse Drucker, “The More You Make, the Less You Pay,” reported that, “For the well-off, this could be the best tax day since the early 1930s. . . . For the 400 U.S. taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross income, the effective federal income tax rate—what they actually pay—fell from almost 30% in 1995 to just under 17% in 2007, according to the IRS.”

Among the top 400 taxpayers (rarely the same people from one year to the next), the average tax rate fell to 22.3% in 2000, when the capital gains tax was 20%, from 29.9% in 1995 when the capital gains tax was 28%. But that same IRS report also shows that real tax revenues from the top 400 more than doubled after the capital gains tax fell, rising to $11.8 billion in 2000 from $5.2 billion in 1995, measured in 1990 dollars.

The same thing happened after 2003, when the capital gains tax was further reduced to 15%. The average tax rate of the top 400 fell to 16.6% in 2007 from 22.9% in 2002. Even though there was no stock market boom as in 1997-2000, real revenues of the top 400 nevertheless doubled again—to $14.5 billion in 2007 from $6.9 billion in 2002. Instead of paying less when the capital gains tax rate went down in 1997 and 2003, the top 400 instead paid much, much more.

The trendy talking point of blaming projected deficits on “tax cuts for the rich” is flatly absurd.

Both individual income taxes and overall federal taxes have long been a surprisingly constant percentage of GDP—8% and 18%, respectively— regardless of top tax rates on salaries, small business and investors. It follows that the only reliable way to raise real federal revenues over time is to raise real GDP.

Mr. Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of “Income and Wealth” (Greenwood Press 2006).

The Tea Party’s First Victory

The Wall Street Journal  APRIL 11, 2011
Obama opposes spending cuts right up to the time he calls them historic.


This is getting to be a habit. President Obama ferociously resists tax cuts, trade agreements and spending cuts—right up to the moment he strikes a deal with Republicans and hails the tax cuts, trade agreements and spending cuts as his idea. What a difference an election makes.

This is the larger political meaning of Friday’s last minute budget deal for fiscal 2011 that averted a government shutdown. Mr. Obama has now agreed to a pair of tax cut and spending deals that repudiate his core economic philosophy and his agenda of the last two yearsand has then hailed both as great achievements. Republicans in Washington have reversed the nation’s fiscal debate and are slowly repairing the harm done since the Nancy Pelosi Congress began to set the direction of government in 2007.

***
Yes, we know, $39 billion in spending cuts for 2011 is less than the $61 billion passed by the House and shrinks the overall federal budget by only a little more than 1%. The compromise also doesn’t repeal ObamaCare, kill the EPA’s anticarbon rules, defund Planned Parenthood, reform the entitlement state, or part the Red Sea.

On the other hand, the Obama-Pelosi Leviathan wasn’t built in a day, and it won’t be cut down to size in one budget. Especially not in a fiscal year that only has six months left and with Democrats running the Senate and White House. Friday’s deal cuts more spending in any single year than we can remember, $78 billion more than President Obama first proposed. Domestic discretionary spending grew by 6% in 2008, 11% in 2009 and 14% in 2010, but this year will fall by 4%. That’s no small reversal.

The budget does this while holding the line against defense cuts that Democrats wanted and restoring the school voucher program for Washington, D.C. for thousands of poor children. Tom DeLay—the talk radio hero when he ran the House—never passed a budget close to this good.

The political gains are also considerable. When Mr. Obama introduced his 2012 budget in February, he proposed more spending on his priorities in return for essentially no cuts. Two months later, the debate is entirely about how much spending to cut and which part of government to reform. Democrats were forced to play defense nearly across the board, obliged to defend programs (National Public Radio) that were once thought to be untouchable shrines of modern liberalism.

Republicans also showed they are able to make the compromises required to govern. We realize that “governing” can often be an excuse for incumbent self-interest. But this early show of political maturity will demonstrate to independents that the freshmen and tea party Republicans they elected in November aren’t the yahoos of media lore. A government shutdown over a spending difference of $7 billion and some policy riders would have made the GOP look reckless for little return.

Now the battle moves to the debt ceiling increase and Paul Ryan’s new 2012 budget later this year, and there are lessons from this fight to keep in mind. One is to focus on spending and budget issues, not extraneous policy fights. Republicans have the advantage when they are talking about the overall level of spending and ways to control it. They lose that edge when the debate veers off into a battle over social issues.

We certainly agree that, amid a $1.5 trillion deficit, taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood is preposterous. Let George Soros or Peter Lewis spend their private fortunes to support the group’s abortion counseling. But Mr. Boehner was wise to drop the provision on Friday rather than let Mr. Obama portray a shutdown as a fight over abortion rights. If Republicans want to win this fight in the coming months, they need to convince voters that Planned Parenthood funding is a low fiscal priority, not make it seem as if they want to use the budget to stage a cultural brawl.

This point is especially crucial in the looming showdown over increasing the debt limit. Mr. Obama will marshal a parade of Wall Street and Federal Reserve worthies predicting Armageddon if the debt limit isn’t raised as early as mid-May. Republicans will play into his hands of they seek to load up any debt limit increase with policies unrelated to spending and debt reduction.

The best advice we’ve heard is from former Senator Phil Gramm, who says Republicans should agree that families and nations should always honor their debts. But in doing so they should also make sure they won’t pile up new debt. For a family, that means cutting up the credit cards. For Congress, it means passing budget reforms that impose hard and enforceable limits on new spending and debt.

We are not talking here about that hardy perennial, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, that would easily become a lever for Democrats to push for higher taxes. Far better would be statutory limits on spending increases and debt as a share of GDP, sequesters that automatically cut spending if Congress exceeds those limits, supermajority rules for replacing those limits, and revisions of the budget baseline so that each year’s budget begins at last year’s spending levels, not with automatic increases.

This is the kind of reform the public will understand is directly related to the debt limit, and one that Senate Democrats and Mr. Obama will find hard to oppose. Republicans should waste no time starting to explain their debt-limit terms, so voters also understand the GOP isn’t toying with default as a political ploy.

***
One of the ironies of Friday’s budget deal is that it is being criticized both by Ms. Pelosi and some conservative Republicans. We can understand Ms. Pelosi’s angst. But conservatives are misguided if they think they could have done much better than Mr. Boehner, or that a shutdown would have helped their cause. Republicans need to stay united for the bigger fights to come this year, and for now they and the tea party can take credit for spending cuts that even Mr. Obama feels politically obliged to sell as historic.

It Is Time for a Budget Game-Changer

WSJ    APRIL 4, 2011       By GARY S. BECKER, GEORGE P. SHULTZ AND JOHN B. TAYLOR
Assurance that current tax levels will remain in place would provide an immediate stimulus. House Republican budget planners are on the right track.  Wanted: A strategy for economic growth, full employment, and deficit reduction—all without inflation. Experience shows how to get there. Credible actions that reduce the rapid growth of federal spending and debt will raise economic growth and lower the unemployment rate. Higher private investment, not more government purchases, is the surest way to increase prosperity.

When private investment is high, unemployment is low. In 2006, investment—business fixed investment plus residential investment—as a share of GDP was high, at 17%, and unemployment was low, at 5%. By 2010 private investment as a share of GDP was down to 12%, and unemployment was up to more than 9%. In the year 2000, investment as a share of GDP was 17% while unemployment averaged around 4%. This is a regular pattern.

In contrast, higher government spending is not associated with lower unemployment. For example, when government purchases of goods and services came down as a share of GDP in the 1990s, unemployment didn’t rise. In fact it fell, and the higher level of government purchases as a share of GDP since 2000 has clearly not been associated with lower unemployment.

To the extent that government spending crowds out job-creating private investment, it can actually worsen unemployment. Indeed, extensive government efforts to stimulate the economy and reduce joblessness by spending more have failed to reduce joblessness.

Above all, the federal government needs a credible and transparent budget strategy. It’s time for a game-changer—a budget action that will stop the recent discretionary spending binge before it gets entrenched in government agencies.

Second, we need to lay out a path for total federal government spending growth for next year and later years that will gradually bring spending into balance with the amount of tax revenues generated in later years by the current tax system. Assurance that the current tax system will remain in place—pending genuine reform in corporate and personal income taxes—will be an immediate stimulus.

All this must be accompanied by an accurate and simple explanation of how the strategy will increase economic growth, an explanation that will counteract scare stories and also allow people outside of government to start making plans, including business plans, to invest and hire. In this respect the budget strategy should be seen in the context of a larger pro-growth, pro-employment government reform strategy.

We can see such a sensible budget strategy starting to emerge. The first step of the strategy is largely being addressed by the House budget plan for 2011, or HR1. Though voted down in its entirety by the Senate, it is now being split up into “continuing” resolutions that add up to the same spending levels.

To see how HR1 works, note that discretionary appropriations other than for defense and homeland security were $460.1 billion in 2010, a sharp 22% increase over the $378.4 billion a mere three years ago. HR1 reverses this bulge by bringing these appropriations to $394.5 billion, which is 4% higher than in 2008. Spending growth is greatly reduced under HR1, but it is still enough to cover inflation over those three years.

There is no reason why government agencies—from Treasury and Commerce to the Executive Office of the President—cannot get by with the same amount of funding they had in 2008 plus increases for inflation. Anything less than HR1 would not represent a credible first step. Changes in budget authority convert to government outlays slowly. According to the Congressional Budget Office, outlays will only be $19 billion less in 2011 with HR1, meaning it would take spending to 24% of GDP in 2011 from 24.1% today.

If HR1 is the first step of the strategy, then the second step could come in the form of the budget resolution for 2012 also coming out of the House. We do not know what this will look like, but it is likely to entail a gradual reduction in spending as a share of GDP that would, in a reasonable number of years, lead to a balanced budget without tax rate increases.

To make the path credible, the budget resolution should include instructions to the appropriations subcommittees elaborating changes in government programs that will make the spending goals a reality. These instructions must include a requirement for reforms of the Social Security and health-care systems.

Health-care reform is particularly difficult politically, although absolutely necessary to get long-term government spending under control. This is not the place to go into various ways to make the health-care delivery system cheaper and at the same time much more effective in promoting health. However, it is absolutely essential to make wholesale changes in ObamaCare, and many of its approaches to health reform.

The nearby chart shows an example of a path that brings total federal outlays relative to GDP back to the level of 2007—19.5%. One line shows outlays as a share of GDP under the CBO baseline released on March 18. The other shows the spending path starting with HR1 in 2011. With HR1 federal outlays grow at 2.7% per year from 2010 to 2021 in nominal terms, while nominal GDP is expected to grow by 4.6% per year.

Faster GDP growth will bring a balanced budget more quickly by increasing the growth of tax revenues. Critics will argue that such a budget plan will decrease economic growth and job creation. Some, such as economists at Goldman Sachs and Moody’s, have already said that HR1 will lower economic growth by as much as 2% this quarter and the next and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. But this is highly implausible given the small size of the change in outlays in 2011 under HR1, as shown in the chart. The change in spending is not abrupt, as they claim, but quite gradual.

Those who predict that a gradual and credible plan to lower spending growth will reduce job creation disregard the private investment benefits that come from reducing the threats of higher taxes, higher interest rates and a fiscal crisis. This is the same thinking used to claim that the stimulus package worked. These economic models failed in the 1970s, failed in 2008, and they are still failing.

Control of federal spending and a strategy for ending the deficit will provide assurance that tax rates will not rise—pending tax reform—and that uncontrolled deficits will not recur. This assurance must be the foundation of strategy for a healthy economy.

Mr. Becker, the 1992 Nobel economics laureate, is professor of economics at the University of Chicago and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Mr. Shultz, secretary of Labor (1969-70), secretary of Treasury (1972-74) and secretary of State (1982-89), is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Mr. Taylor is a professor of economics at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Echoes of the Great Depression

As in the 1930s, policy uncertainty and hostility to business have retarded recovery. At least this time around the political price for economic failure promises to be swift.

The Wall Street Journal
OCTOBER 1, 2010

By PHIL GRAMM
This may not be your grandfather’s Great Depression, but many aspects of today’s situation would remind him of the 1930s. If the recession that officially ended a year ago feels uncomfortably surreal to you yet familiar to him, it’s probably because the recovery went missing.
During the average recovery since World War II, gross domestic product (GDP) surpassed the pre-recession high five quarters after the recession began. It has never taken longer than seven quarters. Yet today, after 11 quarters, GDP is still below what it was in the fourth quarter of 2007. The economy is growing at only about a third of the rate of previous postwar recoveries from major recessions.
Obama administration officials such as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have argued that without their policies the economy would be worse, and we might have fallen “off a cliff.” While this assertion cannot be tested, we can compare the recent experience of other countries to our own.
The chart nearby compares total 2007 employment levels in the United States, the United Kingdom, the 16 euro zone countries, the G-7 countries and all OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries with those of the second quarter of 2010. There are 4.6% fewer people employed in the U.S. today than at the start of the recession. Euro zone countries have lost 1.7% of their jobs. Total employment in the U.K. is down 0.6%, G-7 average employment is down 2.4%, and OECD employment has fallen 1.9%.


This simple comparison suggests two things. First, that American economic policy has been less effective in increasing employment than the policies of other developed nations. Second, that if there was a cliff out there, no country fell off. Those that suffered the most were the most profligate, such as Greece, and their problems can’t be blamed on the financial crisis. While the most recent quarterly growth figures are just a snapshot in time, it is hardly encouraging that economic growth in the U.S. (1.7%) is lower than in the euro zone (4%), U.K. (4.8%), G-7 (2.8%) and OECD (2%).

Most striking about these comparisons is their similarity to the U.S. experience in the Great Depression. Using data from the League of Nations’ World Economic Survey, we can look at unemployment in developed nations between 1929 and the end of 1938. Ten years after the stock market crash, total employment in the U.S. was still almost 20% below the pre-Depression level. The decline in France was similar. But in the U.K. and Italy, total employment was up 10% and 12%, respectively. Industrial production on average in the six most developed countries was almost 16% above their 1929 levels by the end of 1938, but industrial production had declined by 20% in the U.S.
Today’s lagging growth and persistent high unemployment are reminiscent of the 1930s, perhaps because in no other period of American history has our government followed policies as similar to those of the Great Depression era
. Federal debt by the end of 1938 was almost 150% above the 1929 level. Federal spending grew by 77% from 1932 to 1934 as the New Deal was implemented—unprecedented for peacetime.
Still the economy did not take off. Winston Churchill gave a contemporary evaluation of the Roosevelt policy by observing, in the April 24, 1935, Daily Mail, “Nearly two thousand millions Sterling have been poured out to prime the pump of prosperity; but prosperity has not begun to flow.”
The top individual income tax rate rose from 24% to 63% to 79% during the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. Corporate rates were increased to 15% from 11%, and when private businesses did not invest, Congress imposed a 27% undistributed profits tax.
In 1929, the U.S. government collected $1.1 billion in total income taxes; by 1935 collections had fallen to $527 million. In 1929, individual income taxes accounted for 38% of government revenues, corporate taxes accounted for 43%, and excise taxes for 19%. By 1939, individual income taxes made up only 26% of federal revenues, corporate income taxes made up 29%, and excise taxes made up 45%.
When Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau suggested to President Roosevelt that the administration cut income tax rates in 1939, Roosevelt, apparently concerned about the possible effect of deficit-financed tax cuts on interest rates, asked, “You are willing to pay usury in order to get recovery?” Morgenthau said that he responded, “Yes sir.” The president disagreed.
The Roosevelt administration also conducted a seven-year populist tirade against private business, which FDR denounced as the province of “economic royalists” and “malefactors of great wealth.” The war on business and wealth was so traumatic that the League of Nations’ 1939 World Economic Survey attributed part of the poor U.S. economic performance to it: “The relations between the leaders of business and the Administration were uneasy, and this uneasiness accentuated the unwillingness of private enterprise to embark on further projects of capital expenditure which might have helped to sustain the economy.”
Churchill, who was generally guarded when criticizing New Deal policies, could not hold back. “The disposition to hunt down rich men as if they were noxious beasts,” he noted in “Great Contemporaries” (1939), is “a very attractive sport.” But “confidence is shaken and enterprise chilled, and the unemployed queue up at the soup kitchens or march out to the public works with ever growing expense to the taxpayer and nothing more appetizing to take home to their families than the leg or wing of what was once a millionaire. . . It is indispensable to the wealth of nations and to the wage and life standards of labour, that capital and credit should be honoured and cherished partners in the economic system. . . .”
The regulatory burden exploded during the Roosevelt administration, not just through the creation of new government agencies but through an extraordinary barrage of executive orders—more than all subsequent presidents through Bill Clinton combined. Then, as now, uncertainty reigned. As the textile innovator Lammot du Pont complained in 1937, “Uncertainty rules the tax situation, the labor situation, the monetary situation, and practically every legal condition under which industry must operate.”
Henry Morgenthau
summarized the policy failure to the House Ways and Means Committee in April 1939: “Now, gentleman, we have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work . . . I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started . . . and an enormous debt, to boot.”
Despite the striking similarities between then and now, there is one major difference: Roosevelt’s policies remained popular even as the economy faltered. The magnitude of the Depression, with its lack of stabilizers and safety nets, traumatized Americans and undermined their confidence in the economic system. This induced voters, as historians would later do, to judge Roosevelt not on his results but on his intentions.
Today, however, the Obama program appears to be failing politically as well as in the marketplace. The trauma of the financial crisis did not approach that of the Great Depression, and Americans do not appear to have lost faith in our economic system or come to see government as the savior. While progressivism gave the New Deal its intellectual foundations, history today is driven by the freedom tide that produced our economic revival in the 1980s and ’90s and still drives economic liberalization in China and India.
Finally, we should not underestimate that this administration faces stronger and more united congressional opposition than FDR ever faced. The House and Senate Republican leadership has far surpassed all expectations of a minority party.
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Boehner of Ohio have led a loyal opposition that, through its unity, has exposed the radical underbelly of the Obama program. Young guns like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Jeb Hensarling of Texas have provided vision and energy.
FDR rode the tide of history while President Obama strives mightily against it.
The progressive vision that resonated in the 1930s foundered on the hard experience of the 20th century, and it has no broad appeal in the 21st. The recovery from the Great Depression did not occur until World War II was underway, but it appears, as of today, that voters will bring the latest experiment in American collectivism to an end on Nov. 2. A real economic recovery won’t be far behind.
Mr. Gramm is a former U.S. senator from Texas and former professor of economics at Texas A&M University.

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