Memo To: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Your Nov. 4 TRB column
When I was a young man, I wanted to be a journalist so I could help the world. I thought I could do this by asking questions of the people who supposedly had the answers, and then conveying those thoughts to the people. Having been informed, they would then be better able to direct their leaders along paths that would make life easier for everyone, especially the poorest and neediest.
You clearly have had a different motivation in becoming a journalist. Perhaps because you were born at a different time, and matured when your elders were despairing, your approach to journalism is driven by a profound cynicism. You are driven to asking questions of those people who are trying to help the poorest and neediest, like Jack Kemp, and then alerting the people to abandon hope, all ye who enter there. Your column, which I just read, makes me wonder what I can possibly do to overcome your despair that anything is possible.
As I recall, I talked to you at some length as you prepared for this column. I even called you back once, to better help you understand my relationship with Jack. Your column only informs your readers that we are so close as to be indistinguishable, and that therefore Jack is my puppet, a man who believes that tax cuts can solve all the world's problems. Is this what we talked about in the interview, Jonathan? Or can it be that you had this idea before you called, but went through the motions of asking questions, because something reminds you, tugs at your sleeve, that journalists are supposed to be seekers of answers, not suppliers.
When I decided 25 years ago to try to understand why none of the economists I knew were able to explain why the economy was such a mess, I chose to look at government as the source of the problem. Others chose to look at the culture, blaming people. Conservatives blame the poor for using their voting power to raid the Treasury for tax-and-spend social programs. Liberals blame the rich for using their voting power to riddle the tax system with loopholes that exploit the poor. In my focus on government, it was obvious that the two main levers which could be the source of the problems were taxes and money. Tax rates could be too high, too low, or just right. Money could inflate, deflate or be just right. If we could get tax rates and money just right, Jonathan, then the social pathologies that we blame on the greed of the rich or of the poor would dissolve, as they have throughout history when government gets taxes and money just right. Is this too difficult to understand? In making fun of Jack for fussing about tax cuts and a gold standard, does it occur to you to wonder why?
Let me put it down here in concrete, about me and Jack. We have been partners for 20 years. Like a husband is a partner with his wife. Like a business partner is a partner with his business partner. Like the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Who can tell who is the puppet and who the puppeteer in a partnership? They are partners because they find that they two in combination are greater in effectiveness than the sum of their parts. Like your mom and dad, Jonathan, and my mom and dad. In our partnership, Jack's and mine, we discovered early on that I had a tremendous comparative advantage over him in cooking up political ideas, and he had an incredible advantage over me in political action, getting people to do things. People actually like him, where they have serious doubts about me. I had nine new ideas before breakfast and a dozen thereafter, day after day. But I had nobody willing to sort through this pile of ideas to figure out which were doable and which were silly. I did not know how to find such a person until Jack came along. Because he is a man of action (like Bob Dole, by the way), he quickly saw that he could use me and my fountain of ideas to achieve the goals that he had set for himself. At the time, 1976, this meant lowering the unemployment rate in Buffalo, which was 18%.
Can I remind you that when you asked what differences we had, and I said at first I could not think of any now? I did call you back to tell you about a whole range of ideas where we differed, like the privitization of public housing, but which are so inconsequential that it took me a while to recall them. It is like a wife being asked what she differs with her husband on, finally scratching her head and saying she prefers Puccini to his Wagner. The fact is, Jack and I are as close as we are on so many things because we talk so often about how we might help the poor and the needy, with a renaissance of entrepreneurial capitalism. We may be wrong in what we propose, but we are earnest. Please give us that, young man. And do not assume that Jack does what I tell him to do. Partnerships do not work that way. I have in the last 20 years given him 20,000 ideas, and he has discarded at least 19,000 as being unworkable, or outright nonsensical. Do you get it? Do you see how it works?
If you don't, but wish to understand, please call me again. I will never turn away an opportunity to make another conversion. Even deathbed conversions are welcome. Or if you have a good idea that you have discovered on how to eliminate poverty and misery and despair on earth — something your own inquiries have led you to — please share them with those of us who subscribe to The New Republic on the chance that we will find serious inquiries on the political economy.