The Genealogy of Free Stuff: The Trump Card

On Friday the Wall Street Journal ran an extra-long and remarkable editorial about the agenda of Elizabeth Warren (“Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan, Oh My“), which is so far beyond extravagant that “socialism” seems an inadequate adjective. She makes Bernie Sanders look cautious by comparison. As the Journal put it in the lede:

“[A]s we discovered after a tour of her 60-some policy papers, Ms. Warren is proposing a transformation of American government, business and life that exceeds what the socialist dreamers of a century ago imagined.”

Warren is not simply offering lots and lots of free stuff (Medicare for All, free college, higher Social Security benefits, the Green New Deal, $450 billion in new spending for K-12 education, $500 billion for housing, etc.), but also promises a huge expansion of federal government regulation of just about everything you can name.

I’ve previously offered my theory that Democrats have decided they should make an open lurch to the left because the supposed weakness of Trump presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enact the sweeping socialist agenda that has long been their private dream, even though there is a lot of evidence that many Democratic voters are not super excited about this radical economic agenda, not to mention the identitarian agenda that is equally central to the left at the moment.

An acquaintance with significant experience at the highest ranks of corporate America sent me a note with an additional explanation worth taking up:

Your discussion of the Democrats moving left makes sense. I think there is another factor.  Trump refused to take the traditional Republican (Ryan) route of reforming entitlements.  Democrats had feasted on this position for decades conjuring all kinds of horrors if reforms were enacted.  Trump took this potent issue away from them.  What to do?  Expand the current entitlements!  Once started, a bidding war developed and we have the Democratic candidate consensus on an impossible agenda.  Also, the press had difficulty aggressively criticizing Trump’s position because they had endorsed Democratic criticisms of reform. So Trump is in an enviable position of criticizing unrealistic/irresponsible proposals instead of defending reductions.

There is a lot to this explanation, though it ought to be a source of worry for the long term. I believe Trump would not have won his thin majorities in the key states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan (and perhaps his larger margin in Florida) without his prominent campaign pledge not to touch Social Security and Medicare (a promise Ronald Reagan made in the 1984 campaign, after having been hammered very effectively on the issue during his first term; recall too how Bill Clinton made protecting Medicare and Social Security a key slogan of his 1996 re-election campaign).

Consider two additional facts of the Trump fiscal profile. This year the federal government will run a $1 trillion deficit, deep into a cycle of economic growth that ought to be delivering shrinking deficits. If a Democrat were in the White House right now, I imagine Republicans would be objecting loudly to this fiscal profligacy, even if congressional Republicans haven’t shown much real spine for budget restraint. (Don’t blame the Trump pax cuts for this: tax revenues are growing smartly, but congressional appropriations are simply growing faster than tax revenue.)

Second, Trump has proposed some new entitlement spending of his own, such as paid family leave. Time was when conservatives opposed new social spending programs from Republican presidents; think of conservative opposition to Nixon’s proposed guaranteed annual income, the Family Assistance Plan, in 1969-70, not to mention criticism of President Eisenhower’s accommodations of the New Deal in the 1950s.

The Washington Post noted all this a couple days ago, and for once the Post makes a good point:

President Trump shattered Republican orthodoxy on an extraordinary range of economic policies in 2019, setting up a more populist record for him to tout during a 2020 campaign in which Democrats already are accusing him of abandoning working people.

From trade to spending, from the Federal Reserve to paid parental leave, Trump has embraced policy changes that historically are more in line with the approach of Democrats — establishing a forceful role for government in setting the terms of the economy — than of Republicans.

So if Trump has taken over some Democratic ground, what’s left for the left to do but go further left? The only problem for a liberal today is to figure out why anything shouldn’t be free to everyone. It’s a nice trick Trump has pulled off. But it is not without long term political as well as fiscal cost.

Forget populism, and Trump’s “style”: the abandonment of even the half-hearted fiscal conservatism of the Republican Party is the biggest post-Trump question facing the country.

Chaser—This chart, showing the Federal Reserve balance sheet ballooning again in service of keeping interest rates down (a de facto QE IV?)—is something to wonder about, too:

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