Kemp’s Legacy

May 6th, 2009 at 6:44 am | 4 Comments |

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Nearly four years ago, I had the honor of meeting Jack Kemp after he gave a stem-winder of a speech at my alma mater, George Washington University.  At the event, Kemp was, to steal a term from last January’s lexicon, fired up and ready to go as he expounded upon the anti-poverty potential of a truly democratic capitalism.  Despite the late Congressman’s occasional flub (he stated the German word for capital was das kaput rather than kapital), I was mesmerized at how deftly Kemp managed to eloquently shatter the prevailing view most college kids held of the miserly old, white Republican.  Unlike the caricature we were all familiar with, Kemp was passionate about fighting poverty, confident that government could make a difference by breaking down barriers to competition through programs such as tenant-owned public housing. 

To this day, I believe that Kemp’s general approach is not simply attractive on the stump at a university, but potentially politically devastating for President Obama and the Democrats, who have put much rhetorical emphasis on assisting the poor.

Kemp’s anti-poverty message was anchored in worldwide free trade, slashing tax rates, “enterprise zones” in the poorest parts of America, and converting a welfare state to a “voucher state.”  Despite his focus on the impoverished, Kemp never proposed the sorts of left-wing Edwards-Gephardt policies that one typically encounters in the minds of those fighting for economic dignity for the poor.

The best moniker for Kemp’s political philosophy was proposed by the man himself, who took the title of a “bleeding-heart conservative.”  Using traditional conservative policies based in faith in the individual, Kemp believed that poverty could be eradicated.  To the late, great Jack Kemp, equality of opportunity did not mean building up some at the expense of others.  Why catapult the poor one-by-one over the wall of poverty with expensive welfare policies when unleashing human innovation could simply tear the wall down?

In our fight to become the new majority, the Kempian impulse to use markets to defend the poor from predatory government can be very useful in crafting electable policies and opposing President Obama.  In crafting an environmental policy, we should remember the crushing burden that green policies can bring to the poor (John Reilly of MIT has suggested that out-of-pocket losses for a regulatory cap-and-trade system for every American household could be $800 if not more; hardly chump change to working families). 

Promoting a less market-intrusive carbon tax to replace the insensibly regressive payroll tax could have the jujitsu effect of promoting sensible environmental policies while remembering the plight of “the least of these.”  In one swoop, conservatives would move from being simply skeptical about the costs and causes of global warming to being the more “progressive” party on the issue.  We would be addressing the dangers of climate change without ignoring the financial adversities such programs cause and the dangers of bureaucratizing our response to climate change.  The new majority would be both pro-green and pro-poor.

That is the attitude of a conservatism that can win again in places like the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, and the West Coast.  And we’d have the added benefit of simply doing the right thing.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    This is an interesting piece even if it continues to promote some suspect notions notably the Reilly claim which Reilly himself claims is being misrepresented by Republicans. However that’s not the point of this comment it’s to reflect on Kemp’s legacy. Jack was a good guy, god rest his soul, but he had two basic core political drives. One of them good and one of them not so good. The first was racial inclusiveness and the second was supply side economics. Guess which the GOP rejected and which it embraced. Enoch Powell the British politician famously said all political careers end in failure. While not entirely buying this it’s certainly true in a lot of cases and basically that was the situation with Jack it seems to me. His two over riding principle were in many ways at war with each other. He saw the trickle down effects of supply side economics as the way out of poverty for many Americans when in fact it’s principal effect has been to impoverish or at least make less secure the lives of large tracts of American society. It’s not all to be laid at the door of supply side, of course, there are other factors like globalization and the growth of the service/high tech economy but much of the blame undoubtedly lies at the door of what George Herbert Walker Bush called voodoo economics-a phrase that’s stuck. Supply side and its concomittent theories of deregulation and trickle down simply don’t work. Sure no one disputes that at the extremes, say 90% marginal rates on some, are a disincentive to wealth creation but in a middle band of top marginal rates of 35-45% the theory simply doesn’t hold water. Even most serious Republican economists now admit it, but movement conservatives and most of their elected representatives remain in thrall to the idea. A good example of our committment to dead ideas that have long outlived their utility. When the idea was being sold what Republicans didn’t tell Americans was:1. The bulk of the tax savings would go to the wealthiest in the country and the wealthier you were the more you would get.2. The wealthiest and best educated segment of the community would harvest most of the results of any economic and productivity growth.3. The new tax revenue created would never be sufficient to cover that lost and consequently deficits would skyrocket.You could say supply side had two real time tests in the 80′s and in the 2000′s. In both cases the outcomes were exactly the same. A steady decline in the real incomes of 80% of the country (and Sinz, bigger fridges are not growth in real income), income disparities not seen since the twenties, and massive deficits. It’s all culminated in the financial and economic mess that is now being disentangled. I’m one of the beneficiaries of this process but it doesn’t blind me to it’s flaws. It’s long been apparent to me that you can’t sustain an economic system where 70% of GDP(which is too high btw) is consumer spending while 80% of the country is experiencing relative or absolute declines in income. It doesn’t compute. I’m afraid supply side was a light that failed for Jack Kemp.

  • ZacMorgan

    Thanks for the comment Otto, but I just wanted to point out that the link to the Reilly claim goes to a Weekly Standard article where Reilly notes that his corrected “$215 per household” estimate was actually incorrect and was more like $800 per household; which is the figure I used in my article. John McCormack, a good guy over WS, still thinks it could be well over $3K per household, but I chose to go with the more “conservative” estimate.

  • johnb

    I think the importance of the Kemp legacy was that he wanted government to employ rather large carrots (rather than sticks or even cash) to solve social problems. For example, he wanted to establish free trade and tax free zones in the most poverty stricken areas. This would be in effect a targeted tax cut to help the poorest of American society, not just the trickle down of supply side economics. I have heard nothing along those lines from any other Republican in recent years.

  • sinz54

    Ottovbs: Supply-side economics began in the 1970s, a time of energy shortages and stagflation, when the top marginal rate on income was 70%, and the depreciation laws combined with inflation made it virtually unprofitable to invest in new plant and equipment. And a time when liberals like you offered NO SOLUTIONS to this mess, other than a nationally suicidal proposal for permanent wage and price controls (cf. J.K. Galbraith).There’s no doubt that a marginal rate of 70% is too high, discouraging incentive, and encouraging encourage investment in unproductive tax shelters. I know this, because I ran the calculations myself back then and knew that I would do better with tax shelters than with investments that would be taxed at earned income rates. But once this problem got fixed, and the marginal rate was slashed to say 40%, the GOP should have declared “Mission Accomplished” and then gone on to other things. Instead, it morphed into a dogma: Taxes are always too high, and tax cuts are always the answer, in boom times and in bust times.This was because true ideologues took over: The goal now was not to encourage private incentive, but to use tax cuts to force the government to shrink under the threat of massive deficits if it didn’t shrink. As Grover Norquist put it, the goal was to force government to shrink down to the size that you could “drown it in a bathtub.”The problem, of course, is that entitlements have proven impossible to shrink, even if massive deficits result. And so that’s what happened. The irresistible force of tax cuts met the unmovable object of entitlements–and the Government deficit exploded.