The ballroom was packed with a who's who of business when Sen. Hillary Clinton addressed the Chicago Economic Club last week. No doubt about it, this was the address of a presidential hopeful. But unfortunately for Mrs. Clinton, the eyelids grew heavy as she droned on and on.
Sleep, it seems, was the better option to suffering through this odd and curious presentation. On the one hand, Clinton acknowledged a growing economy, a stock market at historic highs, strong productivity and profits, and low unemployment — while on the other she called for big-government investment in infrastructure and heavy spending on health care and education. These two hands don't go together.
The senator argued that "Tax cuts are not the cure-all for everything that ails the American economy," and that instead we need the "right tax system [and] the right investment, including infrastructure. ... decisions and policies that only all of us acting together through our government can make to set the stage for future prosperity." The italics, unfortunately, are mine.
So what we have here is a strong plea for a government-directed economy. This is something that used to be called industrial planning and targeting, at least until the dismal economic performances of France, Germany, and Japan totally discredited those terms. But for Sen. Clinton, government planning is back. Citing a recent report by New York financier Felix Rohatyn and former senator Warren Rudman, Clinton is calling for a "national investment authority" to rebuild the nation. This in her view will solve all our problems related to airports, highways, bridges, hurricanes, and lord knows what else.
She speaks as though Congress didn't already spend a fortune on the recent highway bill, replete with corrupt budget earmarks that totaled a cool $30 billion in 2005.
Ironically, while Clinton wants to revive big-government spending, a number of respected policy analysts are writing about making public highways private. Topping their list are the Chicago Skyway, the Indiana Turnpike, and toll roads in Texas and Oregon, toll truck lanes in Virginia and Atlanta. These private ventures would pay for themselves and would substitute market decisions for government planning. The Reason Foundation is chock full of similar ideas, including private-sector road and highway plans in California, where voters just rejected a $68 billion infrastructure package because of a political history of pilfered taxpayer funds.
In Chicago, Mrs. Clinton also engaged in a bit of class warfare, telling the assembled businesspeople, "America did not build the greatest economy in the world because we have rich people. Nearly any society has some of those." Without exactly saying it, she clearly implied tax hikes on the rich and a large-scale redistribution program worthy of any centrally planned economy.
Hasn't Mrs. Clinton noticed the worldwide spread of free-market capitalism that has become such an enormous wealth creator across the globe — including Eastern Europe, India, China, and the rest of Asia? The economic growth principles of higher after-tax returns for work and investment, deregulation to limit government's reach, and the privatization of government-run companies have become almost commonplace following the Reagan-Thatcher revolution of 25 years ago. But Mrs. Clinton would have us turn the clock back in ways that even her husband didn't support. She defines her goals in terms of "a middle-class life, education, health care, transportation, and retirement." But all this is nothing more than a massive dose of government spending and regulating — a sure prescription for humongous taxes and a declining economy.
No wonder the Chicago ballroom started to snooze. Clinton's ideas electrified the audience about as much as a broken plug attached to an old land-line phone.
Why not employ the tax code to reward success rather than punish it? What about investor-owned savings accounts for health care, retirement, and education? Why not put pro-market consumer choice, rather than government, at the center of the 21st century economy? How about setting the fiscal stage so the non-rich can get rich?
Two weeks ago I was in the Oval Office with President Bush and a handful of financial journalists. The president spoke to us about his growth policies and priorities, such as making tax relief permanent, keeping the tax rate on dividends and capital gains low, maintaining lean budgets, and expanding free trade.
This vision is in deep contrast to the one being set forth by Hillary Clinton. The president places the risk-taker and the entrepreneur at the center of economic growth; the presidential candidate sees government as the driving force of the economy.
It may well be that the booming American economy is still the greatest story never told. But the reality is that low-tax free-market policies are triumphing here and around the world. It makes one wonder, What planet is Hillary Clinton living on?
Larry Kudlow NRO's Economics Editor, is host of CNBC's Kudlow & Company and author of the daily web blog Kudlow's Money Politic$.
By Larry Kudlow
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online