The GOP Peddles Economic Snake Oil

Suddenly Republicans are against market values?

OK, let me get this straight: The central axiom of conservative Republicanism is that government is inherently corrupt and can’t do anything right.

Over many years of ascendancy, conservative Republicans have filled government agencies with conservative Republicans and proceeded to enact the conservative Republican policy wish list — tax cuts, deregulation, privatization, outsourcing federal work, and so on.

[The Tilting Yard] AP

And as a consequence of these policies our conservative Republican government has bungled most of the big tasks that have fallen to it. The rescue and recovery of the Gulf Coast was a disaster. The reconstruction of Iraq was a disaster. The regulatory agencies became so dumb they didn’t even see the disasters they were set up to prevent. And each disaster was attributable to the conservative philosophy of government.

Yet now we are supposed to vote for more conservative Republicans because we learned from the last bunch of conservative Republicans that government just doesn’t work.

That is the advice of Sarah Palin, Republican vice-presidential nominee, in last week’s debate with her Democratic counterpart, discussing the dread prospect of universal health care: “Unless you’re pleased with the way the federal government has been running anything lately, I don’t think that it’s going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider health care being taken over by the feds.”

Conservative misrule, prompted by conservative disdain for government, proves that government cannot be trusted — and that the only answer is to elect another round of government-denouncing conservatives.

“Cynicism” seems too small a word for this circular kind of political fraud. One reaches instead for images of grosser malevolence. It’s like suggesting that the best way to recover from pneumonia is to stand in the rain for three hours. It’s like arguing that the way to solve nuclear proliferation is by handing out weapons-grade plutonium to everyone who asks for it.

Consider also the perverse incentives that such a logic would establish. If we validate Mrs. Palin’s thoughts on federal bungling by electing her to the high office she seeks, we are encouraging her to bungle everything that comes her way. After all, by her thinking, such bungling will not discredit her doctrines but rather confirm them, demonstrate the need for more Sarah Palins down the road. We will be asking for it, and it’s not much of a stretch to predict that we will get it.

In the three-ring circus of conservative blame-evasion, however, that’s only one act. Over in the House of Representatives, a new breed of Republican idealists spent last week dazzling the faithful by taking a bold stand against the Wall Street bailout. The administration’s plan was a “slippery slope to socialism,” declared their leader, Jeb Hensarling of Texas.

One might have admired their pluck but for the breathtaking opportunism of their own counterproposal, the “Free Market Protection Act,” which is described on the Web site of the Republican Study Committee. True, it is not a “slippery slope.” It is a headlong stampede over a precipice, a running leap out a skyscraper window.

It starts by calling for “voluntary private capital” to solve the problem of bad mortgage-backed securities (MBS). Several sentences later it asks for a “mandatory” fee to be levied on all MBS, good or bad, and apparently without regard for whether it’s held here or overseas, where American law doesn’t apply. I asked William Black, the University of Missouri-Kansas City professor of economics and law whom I quoted last week, what he thought of this scheme. He replied, “This is significantly insane as a matter of finance — and unconstitutional as a matter of law. This clause would cause a world-wide financial panic were it implemented.”

Back at the study committee’s Web site, I see conservatives call to “Suspend ‘Mark to Market’ Accounting.” Suddenly our “free-market protection” gang has decided it’s unfair to make companies value their MBSs at . . . the market price. Somehow the all-seeing market has gone irrational, and so companies must be allowed “to mark these assets to their true economic value,” meaning, one might say, to mark them however they please, a practice that, to put it shortly, is what got us into this mess in the first place.

Space prevents me from discussing the plan’s provisions to temporarily suspend capital gains taxes and repeal the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. But I will note that, in discussing the derring-do of Mr. Hensarling and his hard-core colleagues, the New York Times chose to refer to them as “populists” — friends of the common people. As an indicator of the confused state of our political discourse, the signals don’t flash any brighter than this.

Years ago, conservatives realized that to destroy the legitimacy of your adversary’s concepts is to destroy your adversary. Today we are surrounded by the wreckage. Much depends on our success in rebuilding.

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