The Repub­li­cans’ self-de­feat­ing war on eye­shades

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Amity Shlaes

WHAT’S with the green eye­shades? “I can’t tell you how tired I am of Repub­li­cans who are green-eye­shade ac­coun­tants,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told News­max TV last week­end. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Paul Ryan’s “new bud­get road map is more vi­sion than green-eye­shade ex­er­cise,” Larry Kud­low wrote March 15 at Na­tional Re­view On­line, us­ing Kud­low code to sug­gest that the House Bud­get Com­mit­tee chair­man has a po­lit­i­cal fu­ture.

“If Paul Ryan wanted to dis­pel his im­age as a green- eye­shade guy ob­sessed with deficits, he came to CPAC with the wrong speech,” Howard Kurtz wrote in the Daily Beast, his way of say­ing that keep­ing Ryan will hurt the Repub­li­can Party.

The “green eye­shade” refers to the tinted cel­lu­loid vi­sor worn by ac­coun­tants and other desk men in the days of rub­ber ce­ment and cigarettes, the kind of peo­ple de­picted in vin­tage Ron­ald Rea­gan movies. It’s an odd choice of im­age. Few young vot­ers, even ac­coun­tants, know what eye­shades are. Gingrich might as well have said: “Bring me my pica pole.”

But the im­age’s wide­spread use can’t be a to­tal mis­take. Politi­cians think hard about the words they choose. The pop­u­lar­ity of an ex­pired metaphor among Repub­li­can lead­ers be­trays a flaw in the party of Rea­gan that could prove costly to its fu­ture.

To un­der­stand, it helps to go back to the last time the Repub­li­cans were drop­ping the phrase a lot: the early years of Rea­gan’s pres­i­dency. Vot­ers elected him for his op­ti­mism and the way he moved past nig­gling tech­ni­cians to bring about nec­es­sary changes. The Rea­gan idea was that the U.S. could out­grow its eco­nomic trou­bles if its lead­ers could ig­nore bu­reau­cratic bud­get ad­vis­ers. The early years of the first Rea­gan term proved dif­fi­cult, with less growth and more bud­getary short­falls than the party had pre­dicted in 1980. David Stock­man, the di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get un­der Rea­gan, was claim­ing that bud­gets had to be balanced be­fore tax rates could be cut. Repub­li­can lead­ers turned on Stock­man as a green eye­shade who was get­ting in the way of the Rea­gan Rev­o­lu­tion, and who was keep­ing the coun­try in the dark of worry when it ought to be, as in the 1984 cam­paign slo­gan, “Morn­ing in Amer­ica.”

Rea­gan’s re-elec­tion in 1984 per­mit­ted a tax cut in 1986, and the Repub­li­cans de­clared vic­tory; over­all, growth un­der Rea­gan was stronger than un­der Jimmy Carter. Re­nounc­ing the green eye­shade be­came a Repub­li­can rite of pas­sage, code for al­le­giance to Reaganomics.

In the 1980s and even the ’90s, the dis­par­age­ments of bud­get­ing seemed war­ranted. The fed­eral com­mit­ments on en­ti­tle­ments were smaller. Fed­eral debt as a share of the econ­omy was in the 40 per­cent to 50 per­cent range, and the U.S. had sus­tained 60 per­cent seem­ingly com­fort­ably in the 1950s. Government debt could get in the way of growth, econ­o­mists be­lieved, but only at higher lev­els. As Car­men Rein­hart and Ken­neth Ro­goff would later show, debt of more than 90 per­cent of the econ­omy im­pedes long-term growth. The case for de-em­pha­siz­ing bud­get­ing is harder to make to­day. If Rea­gan, or suc­ceed­ing pres­i­dents, can be faulted, it is for al­low­ing deficits to widen and debt to in­crease, and fail­ing to rewrite en­ti­tle­ments.

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