WASHINGTON – There is great appeal in fundamental beliefs that can be summarized in short sentences. The problem is that some beliefs are better than others, while some are wrong and possibly dangerous. Choosing among them requires judgement.
For instance, here is how the British magazine The Economist describes itself and its mission. “We are proud of our heritage of editorial and commercial independence, serving no master save the liberal credo of open markets and individual freedom”.
So, there you have it: The Economist’s purpose is all about promoting “open markets and individual freedom”. In a simple proposition you have the essence of the mission: support democratic capitalistic societies in which the protection of individual freedom is the foundation for the pursuit of prosperity.
While many argue against these beliefs, more than two centuries of success in America and other capitalistic countries validate these tenets. Yes, as a rule, free people who are allowed to keep the fruits of their ingenuity tend to engage in new ventures made possible by free markets. Their combined efforts usually bring prosperity to them and to their societies. On balance, the promotion of “open markets and individual freedom” is a worthy cause.
But then there are other beliefs, also expressed in succinct form, that do not support anything useful.
“I can negotiate a better deal”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump argues that America is losing ground internationally because our leaders are “stupid” and are therefore outwitted by clever foreign negotiators. The remedy to this? Simple, elect Trump and he will renegotiate everything, with far better outcomes. Well, that’s an easy solution for our chronic balance of payments shortfalls.
Except that Trump’s way to frame the issue and the solution is wrong. Sure we could use better negotiators. And may be he could be better than most. But in the end the problem is not just about getting a better deal at the negotiating table. The problem is about American global competitiveness, or lack thereof. This is the issue. And there are no quick fixes that President Trump could mandate.
Improve the business environment
America must address an outdated corporate tax system, patent laws that inhibit innovation, excessive environmental protection regulations, the declining quality of our work force, the mediocrity of the public education system that produces it, the excessive cost of child care and how it impacts women’s participation in the work force. All this is very important, and quite complicated. Improving all this is essential in order to make America strong. And addressing all these issues will require a lot more than a clever negotiator determined to get a better deal from China.
“Black Lives Matter”
Then you have the “Black Lives Matter” grass-roots movement. This has been prompted by what many describe as a surge of racially motivated killings of innocent Blacks by biased White police officers.
All of a sudden, the key issue confronting millions of African-Americans is reforming police departments across America in order to stop the carnage. There are some elements of truths in all this. Yes, there have been several cases of police brutality and killings, some of them apparently stemming from racial animus. This is a fact. And this problem needs to be fixed. Police officers should be charged and prosecuted. All racist officers should be expelled.
The real problem
That said, this focus on police brutality has become a form of escapism. A few unjustified police killings are bad. But the thousands of “Black on Black” killings that take place every year in so many American cities are a lot worse. And yet they are dismissed as a non issue by most African-American leaders. It would appear that only the lives of Blacks killed by White police officers, (a very small fraction of the total number of Blacks killed), matter.
In all this, not even a word about the crisis of the African-American family. Indeed, what about the future of Black children? More than 70% of all Black babies are born out-of-wedlock. In most cases their mothers are very young, uneducated and poor.
Many studies show that young, indigent single mothers cannot provide for their children. Therefore, these kids will be raised in poverty, with some public assistance. They will not have a decent (let alone good or superior) education. In fact, a huge percentage will never graduate from high school. Most of them will be poor. Many will choose crime as a way to escape poverty.
These are the real problems. But it is a lot easier to believe that the number one issue affecting African-Americans is police brutality.
And then you have Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and his income equality crusade. According to him (and tens of thousands of enthusiastic followers) most Americans get a raw deal because a few clever people gamed the system. They managed to take almost everything off the table before tens of millions of honest workers could even begin to figure out what actually happened. Remedy? Redistribute these ill-gotten gains in a fair way. Spread the wealth. Sounds simple, and morally right.
It all sounds reasonable. And it allows the poor and the not so well off to dream of a benign President Sanders who will give them free money. But it is not so. Sadly, this is another pipe dream concocted by an old left-wing politician who calls himself a socialist.
Well, aside from the fact that Bernie Sanders has slim chances of becoming the next US President, this whole income inequality crusade is a gigantic distraction. Sure enough, we could and probably should debate the problem of inequality.
But the real issue confronting the US is that the great engine that powered the American economy is sputtering. We do not grow that much anymore (around 2%), and therefore there is far less wealth produced.
Redistributing what we have according to fairness principles sounds appealing; but, even assuming that it could be done without damaging the entire system, this economic justice policy will not even begin to address the loss of momentum due to lost competitiveness.
The point is that even if we decided to tax to death each and every American millionaire, that would not solve the problem of a slow economy that has lost momentum. Major income redistribution is a one time deal. What will President Sanders do to grow the economy, later on? This is the issue. (As Sanders is a socialist, he may recall that Karl Marx himself pointed out that Socialism should not be about the socialization of poverty).
Most easy fixes are wrong
So, there you have it. People love easy answers to complicated problems. In a political campaign those who claim to know the right answers –and who act as if they really did know– get a lot of attention.
Unfortunately, they are mostly wrong. It is up to rational, reasonably well-informed voters to know the difference between plausible policy programs and feel good slogans.