Dispatch September 2008

Betting on John McCain

An economist explains why he thinks McCain's economic policies make more sense
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My whole life I've been mystified by the concept of the "undecided voter."  I've never had any problem choosing my candidates and didn't see how anyone else could either. But this year, I've been genuinely on the fence, partly because I haven't been paying close attention, and partly because there seemed ample reason to dislike all of the options.

But over the past few days, as McCain and Obama have ratcheted up their rhetoric over each others' "disastrous" economic policies, I decided to do a little research.  Along the way, I had a few surprises about John McCain's voting record, some but not all of them pleasant.  Now I don't think I'm undecided anymore.

Here are some of the things that made my decision easy, and some that made it hard:

1. Free trade and immigration are my top issues, and McCain wins on both.

These are my top issues for several reasons. First, trade is the engine of prosperity not just for the United States but also for the poorest of the world's poor. Nothing matters more than that. Second, the instinct to care about the national origin of your trading partner (or employer, or employee, or landlord, or tenant) is an ugly one, and the instinct to care about the national origin of other people's trading partners—and on that basis to interfere forcibly with other people's voluntary transactions—is even uglier.

Finally, protectionism, like creationism, requires an extraordinary level of willful ignorance. The consensus for free trade among economists is approximately as solid as the consensus for evolution among biologists, and it is a consensus supported by a solid body of both theory and observation. To ignore that consensus betrays a degree of anti-intellectualism that frightens me.

McCain is quite good on this issue, not just in terms of rhetoric (which I've known for a while) but in terms of voting record (which I've just recently researched). Obama, by contrast, promises to be our first explicitly protectionist president since Herbert Hoover. Some intervening presidents (Reagan, Bush I, and to a lesser extent Bush II) have been weak in their commitments to free trade, but none between Hoover and Obama has so explicitly rejected it.

2. McCain is not Bush. This came as a surprise to me. I'd been assuming, in my ill-read, uneducated way, that McCain had been complicit in most of the great travesties of the Bush administration and the execrable Republican Senate. I've learned that's largely untrue. He voted (to my great surprise!) against the prescription drug entitlement, against the Farm Security Bill, against milk subsidies, against Amtrak subsidies, and against highway subsidies.

Obama, by contrast, is in many ways a continuation of Bush. Like Bush (only far more so), Obama is fine with tariffs and subsidies. Like Bush, he wants to send jackbooted thugs into every meatpacking plant in America to rid the American workplace of anyone who happens to have been born on the wrong side of an imaginary line. Like Bush, he wants a more progressive tax code. (It is one of the great myths of 21st century that the Bush tax cuts made the tax code less progressive; the opposite is true. If you are in the bottom 38% of taxpayers, you now pay zero income tax—and therefore have an incentive to support any spending bill that comes down the pike.) Like Bush, he wants more regulation, not less.

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Presented by

Steven Landsburg

Steven Landsburg is a professor of economics at Rochester University and author of The Armchair Economist.
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