Thursday, August 2, 2012

How to Kill a Zombie—the Zombie Ideology of Reaganism

The presidential campaigns seem united in their belief that they should avoid any analysis of policy. Appeal to the heart, and the stomach, but not the head. Nary a chart to be seen in the deluge of campaign ads we in swing states are experiencing. Emotional appeal with heartrending or inspiring visuals, swelling music, and a few slogans are everything.

The history I have personally experienced tells me this is a mistake. People who may not follow the details of a policy debate are still influenced by whether experts regard an ideology as completely discredited. I witnessed this phenomenon with the discrediting of Marxism-Leninism in the ’60s and ’70s. My late teacher Sir Karl Popper argued that the claim of Marxists to be ‘scientific’ was bogus. Most people in Communist countries may have not heard his name, but intellectuals in those countries read The Open Society and Its Enemies, and they didn’t have a convincing reply to its arguments. As a result, Marxist intellectual leaders were disabled in their efforts to sell “we just have to do Marxism better.” The movement was hit from both heart—the moral and economic failure of policies—and the head.

Reaganism is now in the position that Marxism was in the ’70s. Both events and arguments have shown that it doesn’t work and won’t work. But it lives on with increasingly hysterical advocates, who buy its myths and passionately advocate them in spite of huge contrary evidence. Reaganism was and is typified by three things:

1. Reagan’s slogan from his first Inaugural, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” 2. Cutting marginal tax rates on the rich is a key to economic growth. 3. Cutting federal government programs and regulations are always a good thing, unless the military is involved.

The truth is that Reagan’s slogan is not only wrong but ignorant. No American politician ever advocated government as “the solution.” And many solutions to social and economic problems require both the government and the private sector. Adam Smith, the pioneer advocate of free, competitive markets explicitly made the case that if government doesn’t prevent merchants from colluding to fix prices, markets won’t be competitive and benefit the consumer. Government regulation is in fact essential to creating and sustaining competitive markets. And Smith emphasized that banks in particular have to be regulated because otherwise financial booms and busts will result.

Further, our recent history flatly contradicts the ideas that low marginal tax rates are the key to economic growth. The chart comparing tax rates and economic growth since WWII shows the highest economic growth in the higher tax years, including Clinton vs G.W. Bush. I could go on and cite the flat income of the middle class since Reaganism has held sway, and so on, but my point here is not to again make the case against Reaganism. The Times’s Paul Krugman is doing that several times a day on his blog, and several times a week in his column. Rather the point is that Reaganism, like Marxism, has become a zombie ideology, which is dead but refuses to die, and has passionate partisans fighting for it, the zombie-in-chief now being Mitt Romney.

So how do you kill a zombie, a zombie ideology? It takes a triple hit: you have to publically discredit it through the heart, the stomach, and the head. It’s the head that is being neglected. It can be appealed to successfully by two institutions acting together, honorably. One of these is the President and his campaign. They need to pile on the evidence, with charts, of the death of Reaganism. The Democrats shouldn’t be afraid of charts, because they work for substantial minority of people, and that’s enough. Ross Perot used charts in 1992 and hugely influenced the campaign.

The Obama’s campaign also needs to pile on expert testimony, like manifestos from credible authorities like Nobel Prize winners and Republican apostates certifying that the Ryan budget would take a wrecking ball to the American economy. Appeals to the head shouldn’t be all of the deluge of ads, but it should be some of them. Is it really a good idea to have two billion dollars for the heart and stomach, and zero for the head? Appeal to the heart and the stomach, but the head too. You need a triple hit if you’re up against a zombie.

The second institution, which will come follow if the President takes the lead, is mainstream television journalism. Television journalists seem to have forgotten the word ‘why’. No TV journalist asks Romney why he thinks that cutting tax rates on the rich will work when the economy grew more under the higher rates of Clinton than the lower rates of Bush. When Romney responds to this question and to follow-ups, both his facial expression and his answer will speak volumes about the zombie status of Reaganism. Hitting the heart, the stomach and the head, that’s how you kill a zombie ideology.