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Time to Raise Cain (Literally and Figuratively)

I’m not always a fan of Peggy Noonan’s Saturday Wall Street Journal column, but sometimes she hits her groove and nails it better than anyone.  This week’s column, “This Is No Time for Moderation,” dilates a theme I’ve been mumbling to myself for months now, namely that what ails our economy requires big fixes, not more stimulus spending, 59-point jobs plans, or even (ahem, Herman Cain) just a tax cut or tax reform.  We need to “go big.”  Here’s how Peggy puts it:

And people have a sense that nothing’s going to get better unless something big is done, some fundamental change is made in our financial structures.  It won’t be a small-time rejiggering—a 5% cut in this tax, a 3% reduction in that program—that will get us out of this.

So the most disappointing thing about the GOP field is not that none of them are the perfect candidate—it’s that none of them, with the partial exception of Cain, are “going big” on the economy, or on the broader issue that Obama represents a fundamental change in the character of American self-government.  They’re all playing small ball; i.e., Rick Santorum—a good and worthy man—playing chiefly to social conservatives, for example, is just the old conventional politics of trying to line up key interest groups to get traction.  It won’t work.  Newt is the best equipped to go big, and shows frequent flashes of the brilliance that brought him to prominence, but he seems well past his sell-by date.  Perry has blown a golden opportunity.  Romney is . . . well, supply your own adjectives.

I depart from Peggy in one respect.  While our financial structures are certainly still shaky, a much larger problem is the regulatory structure that has clotted the arteries of the economy by making it cumbersome and difficult to get anything started. Consider the Keystone XL pipeline, which would generate over 20,000 constructions jobs, and lot of other permanent jobs after it is finished.  It is going to be approved.  Eventually.  Is the long hearing and litigation process really contributing to reducing the environmental impact the project is going to have?  Surely not.  And to the extent the long review process does lead to mitigations of harms, are there any changes that couldn’t have been figured out in the first 90 days of the whole story?  A country serious about job creation wouldn’t tolerate this kind of process.  I’m convinced the purpose of the whole regulatory process today is to extort things from the private sector, and/or to simply wear out the opposition to new things before the government finally says “yes.”   We can’t afford this frivolousness any more.

As a thought experiment, think back to all the New Deal era construction projects, like the Columbia and Colorado River dams, the Empire State Building, and the Oakland Bay and Golden Gate bridges.  None of them could be built as quickly today, if at all.  The hearing/litigation process would have delayed them for years, and run the cost way up.  The replacement Oakland Bay Bridge, called for after its collapse in the 1989 earthquake, is just now approaching completion, 22 years (and three recessions) later.  Notice how long it took to let everyone have their say on replacing the World Trade Center at Ground Zero.  See the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Project No Project website for much more on this point.

So just as Reagan embraced supply-side economics as a radical move to change the economy in 1980, the big opening for someone today is to find the regulatory equivalent of the Laffer Curve.  Someone needs to figure out a way to rip out the regulatory structure by the roots, and replace it with something that delivers genuine protection for health, safety, and the environment while allows things to get built and businesses to get started quickly.  Raise hell about it, if not a little Cain.

Which bring me to Herman Cain.  Why is he doing so well?  One reason is that he’s a breath of fresh air from an otherwise boring field.  Bachmann played this role for a while, but faded.  Cain understands something Herbert Hoover figured out too late.  Hoover wrote in his memoirs:

I was convinced that efficient, honest administration of the vast machine of the Federal government would appeal to all citizens.  I have since learned that efficient government does not interest the people so much as dramatics.

Cain understands, as Reagan did, that there is an element of show business to modern mass media democracy.  But Reagan understood that there has to be something real behind the flash.  Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is fine for starters, but his appeal needs to be broader than just that.  I agree with John that the reaction to it by the media and his opponents is missing the larger point.  Cain understands what lots of Americans understand—that the tax code is a proxy for the general rottenness of Washington.  But the challenge for Cain is to prove that he’s more than a one-trick pony.  Up in our “Links” section we’ve flagged Jonathan Tobin’s article on Cain’s foreign policy weakness.  Dan Drezner has also noted this.  I’m rooting for the guy right now.  But Cain doesn’t have much time to start showing there’s more to him if he is to make this a serious run instead of just being the latest GOP star-of-the-week.

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