MARCUS: Economic slump inspires platitudes galore

August 3, 2009

In a private room of a restaurant at lunchtime, a dozen self-anointed economic experts gather. They drink and talk.

“Well,” says the stout woman in a Hillary-inspired suit. “I may not be an economist, but I can tell you that this stimulus package will not work. Spending money is never the answer.”

“Right,” replies the lean woman in a Michelle-inspired dress. “I’m surely no economist, but I know America is not globally competitive. We need to lower taxes and create a more business-friendly environment.”

“Above all,” says a distinguished-looking man wearing Sarah-styled spectacles, “we must cut outrageous wages and benefits. This new, higher minimum wage will only result in more outsourcing and more unemployment.”

“Hmm,” I say to myself, “these people know a litany of complaints but not the reality of our economy. If the problem is that consumers and businesses are not spending because banks aren’t lending, then government making it easier for banks to lend and consumers to spend is a good thing. The stimulus plan is right on target.

“And,” I continue in conversation with my gin and tonic, “the U.S. does not have high taxes relative to what we get for those taxes nor are we burdened with excessive regulation. In fact, an argument could be made that our taxes are too low, our services inadequate, and our businesses insufficiently regulated.”

“I tell you,” says a young professorial type, “our current standard of living can no longer be justified given our collective productivity. We must return to the free market with fewer controls so that more jobs can be created here.”

“Well-said, young fellow,” bellows a pillar of the community. “Drop around to my foundation and let’s see if we can get you a grant to flesh out your ideas.”

“Flush out would be more like it,” I say to myself. “Collective productivity is a great phrase. What’s the productivity of casinos, whether they are in Las Vegas or on Wall Street? How many executives, sports figures, or professors have proven productivity that validates their wages? Just how free is the free market when most industries have substantial barriers to entry?”

“Inflation,” says the stout woman.

“Debt,” says the lean woman.

“Deflation,” says the distinguished-looking gentleman.

“All that and stagnation,” says the professorial guy.

“Socialism,” says the community pillar.

“Yet we must do something sensible about health care,” admits the stout woman.

“Our infrastructure needs to be modernized,” the lean woman says.

“The environment demands our attention,” says the distinguished man.

“Much improvement is needed in education and retraining,” the professorial guy announces.

“My concern is the future of my children,” the lean woman says. “How will they do in the global economy unless they learn more in the classroom?”

“I’m worried about protecting my savings for my retirement,” the stout woman confides, “because health care costs could eat up everything I have.”

“If we have another stock market crash, there won’t be any value to your retirement savings,” the lean woman says.

“Only the free market can give us the solutions we need,” the pillar says. “That’s why I say, ‘Let’s look back to our best times—the late 19th century—when we had tariffs to protect our industry and little government regulation. The unions were insignificant and America was a magnet for capital investment.”

“Careful now,” says the professorial chap. “We can’t have the flood of immigrants that we had then. In the late 1800s, America had booming industries and plenty of resources to absorb foreign labor, but today is another story.”

“Energy independence,” declares the distinguished gentleman.

I drift toward the bar for a refill. A nation that settles for platitudes rather than pursuing policies is in deep trouble.•


Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.             



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