Sympathy for Phil Gramm: Another Silly Gaffetroversy

I’ve been complaining a lot lately about over-emotionalized, irrational politics, and there’s no better recent example than the fuss over comments by Phil Gramm, former Senator and economic advisor to John McCain. McCain has recently been trying to shore up his credibility with blue collar workers: demonstrating that he “feels their pain” when it comes to economy. It’s a delicate dance: he’s pretty much supported the economic policy status quo for the past 8 years, and the many people hurting from rising unemployment, mortgage failures, and so on are not patient listeners.

But let’s acknowledge right off the bat that the effort itself, or rather the need for it, is sort of ridiculous.
McCain represents a specific set of economic policies and ideological beliefs. Either you like that set of policies or you don’t, but compared to those signposts, the question of whether McCain is truly “sensitive” to the concerns of the economically troubled is almost utterly irrelevant in comparison. As a guide to what McCain is likely to do in office, and how that will affect you, the success or failure of McCain’s attempt to convince you that he cares is nigh irrelevant. In fact, whether or not he cares is itself almost entirely irrelevant in any case.

It’s highly unlikely that McCain would spend his time in the White House cackling madly at the fates of foreclosed homeowners, or even be more indifferent to them than Obama. What matters is simply what McCain or Obama are likely to do to try and address the problem.

Unfortunately for McCain, any hope of having that debate head-on has now been overshadowed by Phil Gramm’s now infamous interview, in which the McCain campaign ally claimed that the economy is only in a “mental recession” and that we’ve become a “nation of whiners.”

What are these snippets supposed to tell us, according to media mavens and now the happily piling on Obama campaign? That McCain and his people don’t “get it” and “don’t care,” of course.

McCain has chosen (probably wisely) to rather unconvincingly pretending that his chief economic advisor isn’t relevant to his economic policy ideas. Gramm, for his part, is standing by his words, even if McCain won’t stand by him.

“I’m not going to retract any of it. Every word I said was true,” Gramm said in an interview.

And the sad thing is that Gramm’s opinions aren’t particularly nutty in the first place. His ideas (best represented in this much more in-depth interview) certainly belie the conservative way of looking at economic problems, and predictably take a more positive spin on things (how can they not when his party was the one in charge up till now?), but they’re perfectly sensible as these sorts of things go.

That’s because the material health of the current economy is not a mere matter of subjective emotion. You can measure it, and you can compare it to times previous, and fairly conclude that things aren’t that bad.

Some sectors are always hurting, some are always booming in comparison, sometimes there’s downturns, sometimes upswings. Gramm’s point, whether it really was directed just at complaining elites as he claims, or even average joes, is that we’ve been doing a heck of a lot of psyching ourselves out about the economy, which can only deepen any potential recession (and recessions are themselves largely natural cycles).

But inevitable recession or no, things really isn’t anywhere near bad enough overall to warrant claims that this or that long-term approach isn’t working, or that the country is on a decline. The reality is that the particular sectors that are hurting just so happen to be precisely the very demographic full of blue-collar swing votes.

And there are definitely specific immediate problems in those sectors: manufacturing workers are facing hard times, and mortgage industry is a mess. But the slow death of manufacturing is unlikely something anyone can stop, and the mortgage crisis is unlikely to be cured by tax hikes. And our long term problems: our ballooning debtor status and entitlement crunch, are a matter of serious ideological dispute about the direction and priorities of an extremely wealthy nation, not signs of unavoidable doom.

In fact, if you want to compare us to the European economies that reformers presumably want to emulate, their rates of growth are still lower, and their unemployment higher.

In short, Gramm’s comments don’t really deserve the sort of attention they’re getting. As gaffes go, I’d be far more interested in hearing more about McCain’s belief that there’s something wrong or disgraceful about generational pension systems, or his strange embrace of voodoo economics (i.e. that we’re anywhere near the point where lowering taxes could raise overall tax revenue instead of decreasing it) than whether or not he or Phil Gramm are good at patting people on the back.

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