Thursday, April 9, 2009

We Need More Eighteenth Century Men

Thomas Frank in his column this week in The Wall Street Journal Eighteenth-Century Man made a good point about the ridiculousness of fat-cat politicians who pretend to be down-home folks while they spew faux-populist rhetoric. However, he failed to prove that the main subject of this column, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, fit this category. In fact, he conceded that "Mr. Sanford's democratic idealism may be for real, but ... with ideals this bad, you don't need hypocrisy to go wrong." And what are those horrible, horrible ideals? Opposing deficit spending, seeking better ways for people to invest their Social Security money, and above all, refusing federal government handouts.

Now, I know that in times like these deficits "don't matter." We are all Keynesians, socialists, or whatever term will fly to justify the "temporary" increase in government spending to get us out of the latest emergency. Fine. Let's get all we need from "the rich," and who cares if those labeled rich for the purpose of soaking them at tax time may be anything but. Is there really no way to cut a $3.55 trillion budget? Is raising concerns about deficit spending really such a bad thing? I thought that one of the causes of the current economic crisis was people spending beyond their means - whether they were private individuals, corporate executives, or even those most virtuous of virtuous people - government officials.

How about Mr. Frank's take on Social Security? Well he does score some cheap points by saying:

Business, on the other hand, is an institution with almost magical powers of beneficence: were we to entrust our retirement savings to "conventional investments" instead of government, Mr. Sanford wrote in 2000, we could expect returns of 8% a year. (And that's why the Dow stands well above 20,000 today.)

Very good, except that an investment purely in the stock market has historically yielded close to 10% per year since 1926. So the 8% return implies a balance between stocks, bonds, and money market instruments as financial advisers have always recommended. With such a combination there will be fewer years with a loss and those years that do have a loss will be less severe. Even taking into account the really bad years like 1931 and 2008, long term investments in the markets almost always beat the below 3% returns offered by Social Security. Plus, markets do tend to go up shortly after their worst crashes (one of the best years in the market was 1933). After Social Security collapses we can look forward to the government printing more worthless bills. Of course, I can't blame anyone who can't trust the markets. But I can say that the money you send to the government for Social Security would be much better invested in gold coins, canned goods, bottled water (or water purification tablets), farmland, livestock, guns, ammo, etc. than to finance government waste.

Finally, there is Mr. Frank's smug dismissal of Mr. Sanford's refusal to be a welfare queen:

Worst of all, his stand against the stimulus, while self-denying in the Sanford tradition, was taken against the loud protests of less Spartan citizens. Mr. Sanford's desire to strike his bold moral pose took priority over his state's need for relief.
Loud protests of less Spartan citizens? How many citizens protested against the stimulus package in the first place? Quite a few I know protested against the first round of Federal Bailouts (with letters to congresspeople - those protests were not very loud, I guess that's the problem). The point is, there will almost always be loud protesters on all sides of a controversial issue and if government officials never did anything because there were protesters opposed to it governments would never get anything done (which would be a good thing, but only officials of all ideological stripes paid heed to their protesters equally). In any case, in this era when it seems that every public figure, whether in government or private industry, has an outstretched hand saying "gimme, gimme, gimme!' does it not seem right to condemn the one who says "I don't need your charity." After all his "less Spartan citizens" can move to any of at least a dozen other states whose governors are begging Uncle Sam for bailouts like dogs begging their masters for treats, and whose legislators have already spent twice the bailout they hope to get.

It is true, Mark Sanford may not be the responsible citizen legislator he pretends to be. But it almost seems that Thomas Frank wishes he wasn't. Mr. Frank and his ilk can accept sleazy, lying politicians. What they can't accept is principled opposition to big and ever-expanding government.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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