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Ideas -- and Jack Kemp

What moves history? Is it the power of ideas? Or is it the power of objective forces like money, for example, deployed behind ideas no more complex or sophisticated than simple self-interest? Jack Kemp, the former Republican congressman and vice presidential nominee who died of cancer over the weekend, is rightly praised -- by Michael Gerson in the Post, among others -- for believing in ideas. Gerson shrewdly observes that this helps to explain Kemp’s remarkable geniality. He was a leading illustration of the maxim that while the left is looking for heretics, the right is looking for converts. But he also was amiable by nature, which is why he made such a lousy vice presidential candidate.

As a rule, there are two ways to get a reputation in Washington for being “thoughtful,” neither of which requires having a lot of ideas rattling around in your head. In fact one method is to avoid, as much as possible, any ideas beyond a general desire for everyone to sit down in good faith and a cooperative spirit and reason things out.

Alternatively, you can simply be “unpredictable.” The more you can surprise people with your position on an issue, more thoughtful you are considered to be. This technique has served Arlen Specter, to choose a currently newsworthy example, well over the years.

Jack Kemp was not unpredictable, and he did not strike poses of moderation and statesmanship. He might be accused of a third device: Like Gary Hart on the Democratic side, he was deeply committed to the idea of ideas, as opposed to ideas themselves. And if he mentioned, say, Say’s Law (a famous principle of economics), he was likely to offer up the author’s full name -- Jean-Baptiste Say -- as a way to establish his bona fides.

But Kemp did have one idea that he was introduced to in the mid-1970s, stuck with, and saw triumph.

That, of course, is supply-side economics, and in particular its policy prescription: cut taxes and you will increase government revenues. Among Republicans, this became more like a religion than a policy, with all the fixin’s: miracles, saints (Ronald Reagan, Arthur Laffer, Kemp) and total immunity from factual refutation. Kemp probably went to his grave believing that this victory was an intellectual one -- a triumph of persuasion. In fact, it was an example on the other side of the argument: that material forces, not ideas, are what move history.

After all, the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves is not a hard sell. It comes with a built-in bribe. The inherent implausibility -- not to mention 30 years now of experience to the contrary -- is no match for money in your pocket. Tax cuts focused on the affluent might have had a tough time when incomes were becoming more unequal. But material forces carried the day in this second sense as well. An idea is one thing. An idea backed by millions of dollars invested in “think” tanks like the Heritage Foundation, along with ad campaigns, political contributions and so on, is another.

Kemp called himself a “bleeding heart conservative,” and no doubt he sincerely believed that his menu of policy favorites -- not just tax cuts, but school vouchers, urban enterprise zones, etc. -- would be good for the poor. And he might even have been right about some of them. But on their way to being good for the poor, most of them would first be good for the rich. [REVISED AND EXTENDED, 7:57 p.m.: Anyway, it’s easy to be a bleeding-heart if you believe that you can finance government programs for the poor by cutting taxes on the rich.]

Under current law, the estate tax (“death tax” to fanatical opponents) has been going down every year and is supposed to hit zero next year. It won’t actually go to zero, but the Senate is debating right now whether it should be very low or very very low. No prize for guessing where Jack Kemp would come out on that, though even Kemp did not claim that the death tax discouraged people from dying.

By Michael Kinsley  | May 4, 2009; 2:56 PM ET
Categories:  Kinsley  | Tags:  Michael Kinsley  
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I had a drink and a brief one-on-one chat with Mr. Kemp a few years ago...although it was mainly a one-sided conversation. Few shared his larger-than-life persona, quick wit and ability to dominate a conversation at one point, then genuinely listen as you speak. RIP Mr. Kemp.

Posted by: RambleOn | May 4, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Michael Kinsley shows once again why he is not to be taken seriously. As E.J. Dionne noted, Jack Kemp's beliefs could have led to an improved America. Basically, Kemp promoted at the same time worthy goals and practical means to attain them, namely, to put mechanisms in place that would nourish economic activity where they would benefit the previously disadvantaged. Kemp would motivate skilled entrepreneurs to focus on serving the downtrodden.

Kinsley shows no more judgment that he did in believing that he could make Slate magazine a paying proposition.

Posted by: dicka1 | May 4, 2009 9:04 PM | Report abuse

If there's a wiser columnist than Kinsley I haven't read them. I remember a time when he was the House Liberal on William F. Buckley's "Firing Line". I can't think of a better credential for a liberal intellectual - and "liberal intellectual" is not a term of opprobrium in my house.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | May 4, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Kemp did more for me as a football player than as a politician. In my view, as a politician, the main thing is that he was on the wrong side.

Posted by: rjoff | May 4, 2009 10:44 PM | Report abuse

The desire to avoid speaking ill of the dead is being carried to a ridiculous extreme in the case of Jack Kemp. His eulogies are omitting one relevant fact: HIS "BRILLIANT" IDEAS DIDN'T WORK. Have all the commentariat forgotten that the flaming liberal Poppy Bush called supply-side economics "voodoo economics"?

Posted by: angelas1 | May 4, 2009 11:32 PM | Report abuse

At what point in an addict's long history of convincing himself that he isn't really an addict, does he finally have that epiphany where he faces himself in the mirror and confronts the unmistakable evidence that yes, he really is an addict.

That is what the supply side theologues should be asking themselves as they face themselves in the mirror. If the theology lived up to its billing, we should have long ago been out of debt. Yet, the only period in which this country did rise out of its debt in the past 50 years was during the administration of Horrors! Bill Clinton!

Clinton's economic package passed in 1993 without a single republican vote and predictions of economic catastrophe. While it is true that republicans took control of the House in 1994 and deserve some credit for adopting a pay-go system, the fact remains that Bill Clinton raised taxes in 1993 and his administration ended with a surplus in 2001.

Again, I am forced to ask: At what point in this process does someone acknowledge the reality that years and years and years of supply side tax cuts have done nothing but put us into debt? Grover Norquist, look into that mirror and acknowledge the transparent reality that you are an addict. Admit the truth to yourself.

Posted by: jaxas | May 5, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

“What moves history? Is it the power of ideas? Or is it the power of objective forces…?” There is a third alternative: individuals, though academic historians and their students dislike admitting it. What got Obama elected was not idea or objective forces, but his striking personality and especially oratory. Much the same can be said about Reagan and Lincoln. If someone like Dodd or Biden had faced McCain, probably McCain would have won. What the Republicans need is a leader of striking personality and oratory. The Democrats know this. This is why they persist in their campaign to destroy Palin.

Posted by: gmdim | May 5, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Supply side economics has brought 11 trillion in debt. Eleven trillion.

Mr. Kemp was apparently a genuinely nice man with kindness and concern for the disadvantaged. But his economics proved to be the work of an amateur economist with at best a short range view.

Hating taxes is easy. Paying for needed programs takes maturity and responsibility and - in the age of supply side nonsense - a thick skin to take the abuse of the radical right.

Posted by: kcbob | May 5, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

I think it is inarguable that cutting tax rates can increase gov't revenue in some circumstances. If there is a real tax rate of 99%, for example, there is not going to be much economic activity. Cutting from 10% to 5% would not have a revenue increasing effect, quite the opposite. Of course, there are probably quite a few people that might dispute one or the other. Where that tipping line is, who knows? But it surely exists, as I suspect we are going to find out in the very near future.

Posted by: cletus1 | May 5, 2009 11:16 PM | Report abuse

What can you say about an apparantly decent person who has spent his life espousing a bad idea which has done so much damage to our society?
Especially when he persisted in the face of all evidence over the last 30 odd years.

As Kinsey points out, we are not in the world of ideas here but in the Land of Faith and Miracles, otherwise we would have to hold Kemp responsible for what he has done.

Posted by: glynnjp1 | May 6, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Once again, I am shocked and dismayed by the left's use of "facts". Everytime, yes EVERYTIME, tax rates ar reduced the collections by our benevolent government increase! The problem always stems from the spending increases which are included to appease the other side. Stating that "the tax cuts put us into debt" is like saying "The reason our credit card bill is so high is because of that rediculous pay raise we got."

Posted by: the_node | May 6, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

So the maxim is that the left looks for heretics and the right for converts? That may be the traditional formulation, but today's partisan environment has stood it on its head, with the GOP winnowing itself down to a hard, hard core of clueless zealots and the Democrats welcoming disillusioned moderates to its big tent.

What a pity that Jack Kemp's compassionate side didn't prevail over his supply-side delusions. Bob Herbert wrote eloquently on just that point yesterday, and the compassionless conservatives among the NYT's readership berated him for dancing on the man's grave. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: DMC2 | May 6, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

**the maxim that while the left is looking for heretics, the right is looking for converts**

Limbaugh, Coulter and Robertson reversed this maxim more than a decade ago, and Obama's election sealed the deal

get with it, michael! which party has no moderates--

Posted by: lichtme | May 9, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

There is a certain logic behind the idea that cutting tax rates across the board can generate higher tax revenue in the long run.

This is the same logic behind volume pricing; though applied in reverse. Volume pricing works if you can secure enough sales to offset the lower per-unit profit. Likewise, lowering tax rates can result in higher tax revenue, IF the tax base is expanded to offset the lower rate, and the cost remains the same. This approach was successful in the early sixties when JFK used it because, as a Democrat, he also maintained other pro-labor policies that maintained the tax base.

The Republicans, on the other hand completely ignored the second half of the equation. Their policies were designed to help business lower labor costs by destroying unions, and flooding the labor market with illegal immigrants and outsourcing of high-paying manufacturing jobs. This decimated the tax base and then they turned around and increased spending on the single costliest part of the federal government; defense! Kemp's ideas about tax cuts weren't necessarily incorrect; the problem was the tax cuts went to the wrong people and the rest of the equation was ignored.

Our current president is trying the correct approach; lowering tax rates on the broad middle and lower incomes. Even if the cut is tiny per person, the volume of additional cash circulating in the economy is much larger than tax cuts to the narrow top. Matched with policies designed to increase incomes, again, across the broad middle and lower income spectrum; there may be a net increase in tax revenue.

Perhaps this time, the proceeds will be used to pay off our debt instead of reckless pandering to those who don't need it.

Posted by: risejugger | May 9, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Here's an idea. Not "hot", just "right".

Posted by: steveandjanereed1 | May 9, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

"He was distinguished for ignorance; for he had only one idea and that was wrong." - Benjamin Disraeli

Kemp and his "idea" have done major damage to this country. Ted Williams said: "If you don't think too good, don't think to much." QED

Posted by: blogenfreude | May 11, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

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