Why "Knowing How the Economy Works" Is Not Enough

This week will see the release of The 4% Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs, a collection of essays from the George W. Bush Institute with a forward by the former president himself. It's true that annual GDP growth never actually reached 4 percent during Bush's two terms in office and averaged only 2.4 percent even if we generously exclude the disastrous year of 2008. But look at it this way: Who knows more about what the president ought to do about the economy than Dubya does? After all, there's only one living American (Bill Clinton) with as much experience being president, so Bush must have the answers we need.

A ridiculous argument? Of course. That's because experience only gets you so far. It's obviously a good thing, all else being equal, for the president to know a lot about the economy, just as it's a good thing for him to know a lot about foreign affairs or domestic policy. But the truth is that although the government has to solve many practical problems, and it's important to have smart, knowledgeable people in government to work on them, the presidency is not a technocratic position.

For a long time, Republicans grasped this much better than their opponents. It was the Democrats who seemed to prize experience and knowledge, looking admiringly at candidates who understood how government works and could be counted on to manage the problem-solving efforts that would be required, while Republicans favored candidates like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who argued that vision was more important than skills. Yet this year, Republicans have nominated a candidate with no discernible vision whose candidacy is based almost entirely on the knowledge and management experience he supposedly gained in business.

It's odd that for someone whose argument is so much about his preparation and experience, Mitt Romney barely ever mentions the one job he held that actually resembles being president—the governorship of Massachusetts. But we've had former governors who made excellent presidents and former governors who made terrible ones. And the brevity of Barack Obama's tenure in the Senate didn't stop him from amassing what was arguably the most impressive string of legislative victories in half a century during his first two years in office.

Mitt Romney barely bothers to persuade the voters that he will be able to get things done in Congress or that he understands foreign policy. Instead, the phrase he repeats over and over on the campaign trail is "I know how the economy works." The current arguments over Bain Capital notwithstanding, this has been the basic rationale for Romney's candidacy, that during his time in business he gained a body of knowledge and a unique insight that will allow him, as president, to make dramatic improvements in the economy. During the primaries he argued that this experience would make him a better president than his Republican opponents, and today he argues that it would make him a better president than Barack Obama.

But if there were a magic key to unlock spectacular growth and widely shared prosperity, you'd think we would have found it by now. There hasn't been a president in decades, the current one included, who didn't have lots of businesspeople working in his administration. And Barack Obama talks to corporate leaders all the time. If Romney knows something they don't, he hasn't told us what it is. If you read through his economic plan, you'll find that it contains the same things Republicans always advocate: lower taxes, reduced regulations, free trade, and so on. You've certainly heard Romney say that his business experience helps him understand the economy. But have you ever heard him say what exactly he learned that no one else knows?

Perhaps he plans to unveil this remarkable insight once the election is over; if so, one can hope that as a patriotic American he'll share it with the country even if he loses. Because even if it involved some policies that conservatives like, you can bet that President Obama would be happy to take the bargain if it would deliver something like the sustained 4 percent growth George W. Bush promises. If you really could create a humming economy just by cutting taxes for the wealthy and creating some "Reagan Economic Zones" (yes, that's something Romney proposes, though he doesn't say much about what it means), Obama would do it. The reason he doesn't isn't that he's a socialist; it's that the argument isn't all that persuasive.

So no, Mitt Romney is not in possession of a secret that can deliver us to economic nirvana. We can try to determine whether anything less than admirable happened at Bain Capital during Romney's time there, and if so how much responsibility he bears. But even if all those questions are answered in Romney's favor, it wouldn't change the fact that the policies he advocates are derived not from his experience but from his politics and his moral perspective, just as Barack Obama's are.

I'm not sure if Romney actually believes that keeping taxes for the wealthy as low as possible and scaling back regulations really does bring prosperity for all. But if he does, it isn't because he concluded that after a careful examination of the evidence (if that were the case, the last decade would have been the most prosperous in American history). He favors those policies because that's what his party believes and because they reflect his values. Romney may "know how the economy works" in certain ways. But that knowledge isn't enough.

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