You might have missed the segment in last night’s GOP debate where CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked carefully prepared questions about what America’s industrial policy ought to be. That’s because he didn’t — not that I’m criticizing Wolf, who did much better than the pathetic Brian Williams and hapless John King — but the candidates nevertheless indirectly gave us their own ugly visions.
First, Newt Gingrich thinks we need to be investing in public works projects, except when he’s called on that before a Republican audience and changes that to mostly privately financed projects. Since we’re in Florida this week, all that investment should be directed at the moon, Newt says, where there will be a colony of real Americans, English is the official language, and the Chinese can visit in envy but not have a colony of their own. If I were the Chinese, I’d be thinking of that Larson cartoon of the dog hoping the cat will climb into the dryer.
Ron Paul figured out the absurdity of Newt’s priorities and proposed that if we are to send people to the moon, it should be our politicians. Score one for Paul.
But instead of using Speaker Moonbeam’s idea as a opportunity to describe a national industrial policy, Mitt Romney tried to use it as a shot against Newt’s pandering. He charged that Newt went from one primary state to the next promising to spend hundreds of billions on public works projects in each state.
There was about a half-second flash of rationality when Newt claimed that, well yes, there are worthwhile things that warrant public investments in every state, and Washington should know that, so what’s wrong with that? But that’s a dangerous notion, like asking whether vulture capitalism is good for people, so the moment was quickly lost.
That was the moment when Wolf Blitzer might have asked, “well, don’t we need massive investments in infrastructure in every state, and isn’t this the perfect time to borrow at record low interest rates and invest in our future and put people to work? . . . and while we’re at it, why not build high speed rail systems between, oh, I dunno, Florida’s major cities? Wouldn’t that do more for the Florida economy than transporting igloos to the moon?”
But this was a GOP debate, so the predictably dead wrong response, both implied by Romney’s question and made explicit by Rick Santorum, was that we’re broke. We can’t afford to spend money, even to invest in our future, and even though there’s never been a better, less expensive time to do it nor the need more obvious. And of course, if you’re Ron Paul and your mission is to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget in your first year, the idea that government should be making public investments in public infrastructure is off the table. Liberty! Score minus 10 for Paul.
It would have been even more implausible to ask this group how they think we’re going to fuel the energy for this century without poisoning our water, our lungs, our oceans and the atmosphere. That conversation is not permitted on a GOP stage.
The fact is, the GOP does have an implicit industrial policy. First, you plunder the planet and cripple the regulatory system to ignore the externalities, because the 1% who fund you can mostly shield themselves from the horrendous costs this strategy imposes on everyone else.
You then structure the tax laws and trade agreements to permit corporations to outsource jobs and put American workers in competition with low-paid workers overseas. Then stash the rents in investments deliberately set up in the Bahamas and Cayman Islands to avoid taxes, and hide part of it in Swiss Bank accounts until — “OMG, I could be running for President, so get rid of that for now!” — and then you make sure that most of nation’s wealth gets funneled through the private financial sector, where you take your cut, all at the expense of public investment.
Finally, you tell the rubes that “we’re broke” so we have to cut their pensions and Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; fire teachers and let public schools crumble; demonize food stamp recipients; and make sure the rubes think the reason they’re getting their present and futures looted is because all those brown and black people are bleeding you in entitlement programs.
It’s an impressive, breathtaking industrial policy, and that’s what they talked about in last night’s debate, but it was all in code.