Memo To: George W. Bush
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A Democrat at Treasury
I saw in The New York Times that you and Dick Cheney are considering the possibility of naming a Democrat to serve as Treasury Secretary in a Bush administration. The report from Austin said you raised the idea with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Denny Hastert, and they said they did not like the idea at all. I didn’t either, but then it dawned on me that Felix Rohatyn, our current ambassador to France, is a Democrat, and would make a wonderful Treasury Secretary. I floated the idea past some of my Republican political friends, who are generally Reaganesque in their economics, and there was universal enthusiasm. Felix is a “growth Democrat,” just the kind of man who could represent your agenda on Capitol Hill in a way that would produce optimum bipartisan results. Here are excerpts from an op-ed piece he wrote for The Wall Street Journal on April 11, 1996, “Recipe for Growth,” when he was a managing director of Lazard Freres & Co. I found it exciting when I read it at the time, a genuine breakthrough in thinking about the world political economy. It really is a recipe for bipartisan economic growth, a rising tide that lifts both political parties.
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In order to deal constructively with the realities of technology and the global economy, Democrats and Republicans may have to abandon cherished traditional positions and turn their thinking upside down: Democrats may have to redefine their concept of fairness, while Republicans may have to rethink the role of Government.
The American economy is growing very slowly despite occasional upward blips. Growth and inflation are both around 2%.... The social and economic problems we face today are varied. They include job insecurity, enormous income differentials, significant pressures on average incomes, urban quality-of-life and many others. Even though all of these require different approaches, the single most important requirement to deal with all of them is the wealth and revenues generated by a higher rate of economic growth. John Kennedy was right: A rising tide lifts all boats. Although it may not lift all of them at the same time and at the same rate, without more growth we are simply redistributing the same pie. That is a zero sum game and it is simply not good enough.
The fact that our 2%-2.5% present growth rate is inadequate is proven by the very problems we face. The question of when, and especially how, to balance the federal budget deserves a great deal more intelligent discussion than the political sloganeering we have heard so far. The budget is a document that reflects neither economic reality nor valid accounting practices. If the budget is to be balanced in order to satisfy the financial markets, only real justification of this goal, then it must be done with growth rather than with retrenchment. That higher growth, together with controlling costs of entitlement like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, will generate the capital needed to provide both private and public investment adequate to the country's needs.
Bringing the rate of growth from its present 2%-2.5% to a level of 3%-3.5% would generate as much as an additional $1 trillion over the next decade. It could provide both for significant tax cuts for the private sector as well as for the higher level of public investment in infrastructure and education required as we move into the 21st Century. It would obviously generate millions of new jobs. The present bipartisan commitment to balance the budget in seven years, based on the present anemic growth, is economically unrealistic and probably socially unsustainable. In all likelihood, higher growth is in fact the only way to achieve budget balance. The question is how to achieve it.
The conventional wisdom among most academic economists as well as the Treasury, the Federal Reserve Board and Wall Street is that our economy cannot generate higher growth without running the risk of triggering inflation. Not everyone shares that view. In particular, the leaders of many of this country's leading industrial corporations believe that we could sustain significantly higher growth rates based on the very significant productivity improvements they are generating in their own businesses, year-after-year.
Economics is not an exact science as we have painfully learned over and over again. It is the product of the psychology of millions of consumers, of business leaders making long-term investment decisions, of capital flows instantaneously triggered by events and ideas. We must do away with the false notion that we must choose between growth or inflation. Our experience, even in the more recent past, shows that technology and competition can produce growth without serious inflationary pressures. In the face of today's totally new environment of almost daily revolutions in technology combined with globalization, we should be willing to be bolder, both in fiscal and monetary policy.
As a traditional Democrat, I have always believed that freedom, fairness and wealth, basic to a modern democracy, required an essentially redistributionist philosophy of wealth, that a fairly steeply graduated income tax was required as a matter of fairness and that lower deficits would guarantee adequate growth and a fair distribution of wealth. The experience of the last two decades, with the advent of the global economy, has very much shaken that view.
Fairness does not require the redistribution of wealth; it requires the creation of wealth, geared to an economy that can provide employment for everyone willing and able to work, and the opportunity for a consistently higher standard-of-living for those employed. Only strong private sector growth, driven by higher levels of investment and superior public services, can hope to providing the job opportunities required to deal with technological change and globalization. Only higher growth will allow that process to take place within the framework of a market economy and a functioning democracy.
We should have no illusions about the likelihood of reducing the level of present income and wealth differentials; they are likely to increase in the near future as the requirements for skills and education increase. The world is not fair; we must, however, make it better for those in the middle as well as at the lower end of the economic scale. The key is enough growth that, even if initially the lower end does not gain as rapidly as the upper, it can improve its absolute standard of living, and being a process of closing the gap.
Higher growth requires a tax system that promotes growth as its main objective. It must encourage higher investment and savings. That is not the case today. Today's tax system aims at a concept of fairness dictated by distribution tables. That may not be the best test. A tax system with growth as its main objective may be a variation of the flat tax; or it may be a national sales tax; or it may be another system aimed at taxing consumption instead of investment such as proposed by Sens. Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici.
The power and dominance of global capital markets in today's world would seem to aim in the latter direction. Lowering taxes on capital would at first blush seem to help the already wealthy, current holders of capital. But whatever its effect on the distribution tables, it could unleash powerful capital flows, both domestic and foreign, that would lower interest rates significantly and make investment in the U.S. even more competitive than it is today. At the same time, they would maintain the strength of the dollar and maintain low rates of inflation.
Achieving the objective of higher growth could also include the gradual privatization of Social Security in order to create a massive investment pool with higher returns for the beneficiaries and greater investment capabilities for the private and the public sector. The key to economic success in the 21st Century will be cheap and ample capital, high levels of private investment to increase productivity, high levels of education and advanced technology. It also includes higher levels of public investment in building a national infrastructure supportive of the 21st century economy.
If the Democrats can redefine their concept of fairness, Republicans, on the other hand, may have to abandon their view of passive government. If growth and opportunity are to be the prime objectives of our society, the government must play an active role in some areas. The first is education; the second is higher levels of infrastructure investment; the third is in the maintenance of a corporate safety net.
Public school reform, driven by higher standards, is an absolute priority. Even though that is a state responsibility, it is a national problem. These standards, regardless of today's political conventional wisdom, will ultimately be national in scope. Access to higher education should be made available to any graduating high school senior meeting stringent national test levels and demonstrably in need of financial assistance. The equivalent of the GI Bill, providing national college scholarships to needy students, should be created and federally funded. It should be the primary affirmative action program funded by the federal government.
As part of a higher economic growth rate, state and local governments should provide higher levels of infrastructure investment. In addition to the creation of private employment, this could also provide public sector jobs to help meet the work requirements of welfare reform, as well as to provide the support to a high capacity modern economy. Financial assistance from the federal government would encourage the states in that endeavor. Higher growth would enable federal as well as state and local budgets to take on this responsibility.
A corporate safety net should be provided in order to deal with the inevitable dislocations which corporate downsizings and restructurings will continue to create. Business, labor and government should cooperate to create a system of portable pensions and portable health care to cushion the transition from one job to another. Incentives should be provided for business to make use of stock grants for employees laid off as a result of mergers and restructuring. If losing one's job creates wealth for the shareholders, the person losing his or her job should share in some of that wealth creation. Corporate pension funds, to the extent they are overfunded as a result of the stock market boom, could be part of a process to provide larger severance and retraining payments for laid-off employees....
Business and labor, together, should hammer out such an agenda. If we are serious about balancing the budget in a responsible manner, the president and the congressional leadership could set a national objective that the economy's rate of growth reach a minimum sustainable level of 3% annually by the year 2000. They could ask the best minds in the country, from government, from business, from labor and from academia to provide a set of options which could lead to such a result. Many of these options would be politically difficult, both for Democrats and for Republicans, and some would probably be impossible. But the only way to abandon long-held notions that may no longer apply to today's world is to discuss them within the framework of a very simple and definite objective: higher growth...
The president's setting an objective of higher growth would have an important psychological impact; the economy is, after all, heavily influenced by psychological factors. If the president were to set an ambitious growth objective, then all elements affecting the economy would be subject to review from a different perspective. They would include fiscal and monetary policy; investments and savings; education and training; and international trade. Most importantly, these activities should take place within a framework in which the Democratic Party redefines its concept of fairness and the Republican Party redefines its concept of the role of government. At present, neither is appropriate for the revolution that technology, globalization and the inclusion of an additional one billion people to the global work force will bring about tomorrow.
Ultimately, a rising tide will float all ships, and both political parties can help bring this about. If they fail to do so, at a minimum the present malaise will turn uglier, and it is even conceivable that another tide will sweep away existing parties. If that were to happen, arguments about growth or fairness will be totally irrelevant.