Maybe we have it all backwards.
Here's the basic story President Obama wants to tell. The last eight years were an economic disaster because President Bush and the Republicans ignored necessary government regulations and "investments." The economic crisis has discredited "market fundamentalism," as some liberals call it. Now, thanks to Bush's hands-off approach to the economy, Obama has no choice but to get government much more involved. "To kick these problems down the road for another four years or eight years," Obama sighs, "would be to continue the same irresponsibility that led us to this point."
Indeed, Obama doesn't feel compelled to merely remedy the mistakes of his predecessor; he believes it is vital that we renew the New Deal-style economic policies we strayed from when Ronald Reagan was elected. Not only must we pour vast sums of money into highways and mass transit, along with social insurance programs, we need to "reset" the relationship between government and big business. Just this week, the administration announced that it wants new powers to control not just banks, but other financial institutions and businesses that are "too big to fail."
What if they're looking at the economy through the wrong end of the telescope? For starters, Bush was hardly a laissez-faire president who ignored Obama's oft-stated domestic priorities. Sure, Bush was more laissez-faire than Obama. But that's not a very high bar.
Education spending under Bush rose 58 percent faster than inflation. Medicare spending, thanks largely to Bush's prescription drug benefit (the largest expansion in entitlements since the Great Society), went up 51 percent during the Bush years. Spending on health research and regulation rose 55 percent. Spending on highways and mass transit went up by 22 percent.
Maybe that's too little in Obama's eyes, but it hardly validates Obama's fictions about the last eight years. Let us also recall that Bush's Wall Street bailout efforts were largely indistinguishable from Obama's. Indeed, Obama's treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, was the co-pilot for Bush's treasury secretary, Hank Paulson. Now that Geithner's in the captain's chair, there haven't been many course corrections.
But perhaps the bigger picture is backwards as well.
First, one needs to remember that the New Deal was not the assault on big business that its fans claim. FDR may have talked a good game about going after "economic royalists," and he did love confiscatory personal income taxes. But he and his Brain Trust also loved cartels, big businesses and other "big units" of society. The notion that big business and big government are at war with one another is one of the great enduring myths of the 20th century. The truth is that ever since Teddy Roosevelt abandoned his love of trust-busting, progressives have liked big businesses big, really big. The bigger the business, the more reliable the partner for big government.
That's why any huge corporation that plays ball on health care, or "green jobs," or countless other initiatives, is hailed as a "forward-thinking" or "progressive" company. Companies such as GE, which stands to make billions from Obama's energy proposals, are vital sidekicks in the new era of public-private partnerships. Why is Obama working tirelessly to save Detroit automakers? Because GM is a wonderful poster boy for peddling nationalized health care, and UAW is an indispensable cog in the Democratic Party.
Hillary Clinton's health-care plan required working with large corporations and other firms. It was little guys for whom she had nothing but contempt. When warned her plan would crush smaller businesses, she shrugged, "I can't go out and save every undercapitalized entrepreneur in America."
Again, this is hardly a new story. Chiefly under the auspices of the National Recovery Administration, the New Dealers sought to create huge cartels and trade associations that could work side by side with economic planners. Small and independent firms, from movie theaters to dry cleaners to poultry distributors, were hounded and harassed by a government determined to "rationalize" the economy by sweeping away all those pesky-but-innovative competitors. Would Barney Frank rather work with one giant Fannie Mae that will always take his phone calls and do his bidding, or a thousand smaller firms that would need to be herded like cats? I think we already know the answer.
Everyone agrees that we are spending trillions of dollars on firms "too big too fail." Many of these firms got so big because politicians in both parties liked to have important businessmen take their phone calls, do their bidding and fund their campaigns. And maybe, just maybe, the lesson from the financial crisis isn't to get big business and big government even more involved with each other, but to finally bust the trust between them.