Politics versus economics

Right-minded people are properly deploring the low opening level of the American presidential campaign and wishing that the candidates would abandon personalities for such serious questions as how to revive the economy and how to end illegal immigration.

There is no doubt about the facts. The campaign level is low. Both Messrs. Carter and Reagan are indulging in personalities. Each is doing his utmost to plant in the mind of the voters the belief that victory for the other would lead to national disaster. Neither is addressing the serious questions.

But before we ring our hands in futility over these facts let us remember that we who live in the modern industrial Western world are healed down a new road for which there are no road maps and over which no one has ever traveled before. The plain fact is that neither Mr. Carter nor Mr. Reagan has a clear sense of what ought to be done to get their country moving again. Neither one of them has, or can expect to acquire, advisers who can tell them with certainty how it can be done.

How does one go about checking inflation without causing unemployment in the process? Or how do you regain full employment without unleashing another round of damaging inflation? Some old-style "liberals" think, or say they think, that it could be done by wage and price controls and rationing. Conservatives love the idea of tax cuts to stimulate industrial activity.

But these roads have been tried so often, and found wanting. In the old days depressions, recessions, and "panics" (the older word for economic trouble) were cured at the expense of some element in the community. But that is no longer possible. Every element in the modern political community is now organized and politically powerful. It is politically impossible in the United States today to let either labor, investors, or farmers, or blacks, or minority "ethnics" bear the burden. Every single group expects government to protect its interests , and its standard of living. Even the illegal immigrants are beginning to organize and already have representation in the lobbies of Congress.

And how does one go about curbing illegal immigration? In theory, just close the borders and ports of entry. In practice the illegals have too many friends and employers to make this politically possible.

Mr. Reagan's favorite formula for solving everything is to cut taxes. But if he is the winner he will find himself dealing with a Congress which would rather spend the money on social security, welfare, modernizing of cities, and a thousand other forms of public service than give it back to the taxpayers. We will never know whether massive tax cutting might solve our economic woes, because massive tax cutting is politically impossible, no matter how theoretically desirable it might be.

The essential fact behind the problem is that we are living in a new and different world and that the economists, the political scientists, and the practical politicians are all equally groping in the dark about how to manage it. One piece of evidence is the fact that neither Mr. Carter nor Mr. Reagan dare be dogmatic about solutions. There are no dogmas to fit the condition. We are not living in a dogmatic age. All the old dogmas have been tried and found wanting.

Old-style capitalism went out with the 1929 depression. Communism is discredited and been proved false, most recently in Poland where the workers are demanding something better. Fascism ruined itself in World War II.

The issue in this US election is not between left and right, or between conservatism and liberalism. Mr. Reagan, if elected, will have to do almost exactly what Mr. Carter has been doing -- grope his way among the terrible pitfalls along a new road into the economic unknown. He would surround himself with some "hardheaded" businessmen who would try to pursue a more conventional fiscal plan and might do it more efficiently than Mr. Carter has.

But his "hardheaded" businessmen would come up against the same awesome conflicts that have made Mr. Carter look so indecisive and vacillating. It will not be easy for anyone to find a consistent road ahead.

There is now way the US voter of 1980 can be presented with a clear choce between different, alternative roads to national salvation, because there are no clearly different ways ahead. The choice is not going to be between different philosophies but between different men. Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan are different. One has been an actor and a governor of California. The other was a naval officer and a governor of Georgia. Those are differences. Which is likely to stumble least along the uncharted road ahead? It really does have to be a choice between persons and personalities, not between dogmas and doctrines. This is not a dogmatic age.

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