Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Why Free Traders (and Policy Fans) of All Political Stripes Should Root for Paul Ryan

A few days ago, I examined Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan's congressional votes on subsidies and international trade, and concluded that he had a pretty good, but not great, record.  But that unfortunate fact doesn't mean that I'm not rooting for the guy - I definitely am, and if you support better US trade policies or simply wish for political campaigns to focus more on real policy issues rather than stupid trivia, then you should too.

Regardless of your political affiliation.

In today's Wall Street Journal, the Hoover Institute's Robert Barro begins to explain what I mean by the bold statement above.  He first notes that "The level of economic commentary during the presidential campaign has not been high" - a disturbing fact that I've repeatedly lamented here.  Then, after quickly explaining the basic - and almost universally-accepted - economic truths about the overwhelming benefits of free trade (including outsourcing) and the undeniable harms of "socialistic" business subsidies, Barro discusses why Mitt Romney's selection of Ryan - most definitely not a vocal free trade zealot - matters for these issues:
With the addition of conservative thinker and budget expert Rep. Paul Ryan to the Republican presidential ticket, we can hope that the economic dialogue will become more serious. And perhaps this added substance will extend beyond the important issue of long-term fiscal reform to encompass the enduring but still crucial debate about socialism versus capitalism.
The post-Ryan political conversation thus far appears to be fulfilling Barro's hopes.  For example, earlier this week, the WSJ reported that Ryan's selection has set off a debate about the proper scope of government:
Amid growing complaints about the pettiness of American politics, the 2012 presidential campaign is turning into a far-reaching, big-picture debate over the size and scope of government.

Mitt Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, an uncommonly assertive spokesman for free markets and small government, to be his running mate on the Republican ticket has highlighted the differences between them and President Barack Obama...

Until now, in a 2012 campaign bristling with negative attacks and accusations about the character of the two candidates, big policy choices have been eclipsed.

That changes with the selection of Mr. Ryan, author of detailed conservative budget plans that call for major changes to many social programs, offering voters a choice: Are welfare services a safety net, or can they breed dependency? Is Medicare a social contract with the elderly, or unsustainable and in need of repair? And will cuts in government spending hurt economic growth, or foster a more robust private sector?
Myriad stories along the same lines have emerged over the last few days, and it seems that almost everyone with a Twitter or Facebook account has seen or posted something about the Ryan plan, the budget, Medicare cuts or some other serious policy issue.  Contrast this with the last several months of soul-crushing, superficial "debates" about tax returns, Olympic uniforms, who ran Bain Capital and when, fast food chicken, dogs (on car roofs or dinner plates), and... well, you get the idea.  The level of election-related discourse has undeniably improved in the last week.

Now, I have no idea whether this improvement will last through November.  I actually think it will because both sides seem to think that the other's fiscal position is political kryptonite, but, frankly, it's not just the public budget and economics debate that has me rooting for Paul Ryan - it's what a Romney/Ryan victory would mean for the longstanding behind-the-scenes fight between policy advisers and political hacks, especially during campaign season.  As I've repeatedly mentioned here in the context of trade, that fight - one that I've unfortunately experienced firsthand - tends to go something like this:
Adviser: There is ample historical and empirical evidence showing that policy [X] is the superior  position from an economic and moral perspective.
Hack (briefly looking up from his blackberry): Umm, yeah, that's great, dude, but policy [X] polls poorly, and we're just not gonna take the risk in an important election year. On the other hand, the public just loves policy [Y], so we're gonna stick with that, even though we all know it's an inferior position.  Now if you'll excuse me, I gotta jet - need to meet [politician] at Morton's for a fundraiser.
Adviser (mumbling under his breath): I hope you get hit by a taxi.
I The adviser may or may not have said that last thing, but you couldn't really blame him if he did.  This debate plays out over and over in political offices and on related conference calls across the country: principled wonks want a political debate about important policy issues, but political consultants, armed with polls and focus group testing, are scared to death of "real" debates' repercussions and thus seek to avoid them like the plague.  So we're stuck with month-long political fights about whether Harry Reid's friend's cousin's dogsitter saw Mitt Romney's 1997 1040EZ - fights that, by displacing real policy discussions, prevent better public understanding of important issues and thus doom the political discourse to repeat its vicious cycle of vapidity over the next election cycle.

As a result, real policy solutions rarely, if ever, materialize.

This is precisely what's caused our dismal political discourse about international trade, and US trade policy has therefore suffered.  The debate over entitlement reform has faced a similar fate: the debts have mounted as the political can has been kicked down the road, and both parties' political cowardice is to blame.  With the Ryan pick, however, it appears that we'll finally have a substantive debate about the need for serious entitlement reform - an issue that, also like free trade, is politically risky but supported by ample economic evidence (see Barro's op-ed for a refresher course, if needed).  And while it's totally unclear whether a Romney/Ryan victory will actually ensure real entitlement reform, what seems clear is that it should have a serious impact on the future of America's political discourse.  If they win, the wonks finally have proof that forcing a real debate about real policy in the face of uncertain public opinion is not a political deathblow.  In short, it shows that the American people can, given the right message and the right facts, overcome their ignorance, sift through the demagoguery and vote for good policy instead of good hair.

If Romney/Ryan lose, however, the policy advisers - and the political discourse more broadly - are in pretty deep trouble for the foreseeable future.  In the aforementioned internal debate, the hacks will have not only those risky poll numbers, but also the following conversation-ending addendum:
"And you do remember what happened with Romney and that Ryan guy, right?  Yeah, that's what I thought."
And at that point, I will pack up my briefcase and move to the countryside, forever unable to turn on the TV for fear of watching yet another bipartisan assault on outsourcing or Medicare reform or whatever.  (Shudder to think.)

So I root for Paul Ryan.  He might not be the best free trader; he might not be my "perfect candidate"; and his victory might not even ensure a conservative solution to our real entitlement crisis.  But if he loses, lord help us, the hacks will have won, and our political discourse will get even worse.

And our TV-watching won't be the only thing to suffer.

1 comment:

Yichuan Wang said...

I don't know about trade. I'd buy that Paul Ryan supports trade, but if he can't pin down the monetary policy issue, congress is going to get nowhere fast on trade because it's going to look like trade destroys jobs.