- The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
- Year: 2007
- Pages: 304
Economics books are notoriously difficult reading. It seems like even economists often don’t understand the economy. I thoroughly enjoyed Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist. This book, ostensibly a firm rebuttal to supply-side economists, deals with the issue in two parts. The first is about supply-side economics themselves, but the second seems to be about The Big Republican Machine™.
It may surprise many of you (as it surprised me) that the origins of supply-side (“voodoo”) economics are relatively recent and humble. Essentially, a half-wit journalist saw a Laffer Curve and concluded that tax cuts increase revenue. Initially a wingnut idea that no one bothered with, it managed to impress, among others, Dick Cheney. By the time Reagan was in office, it became fiscal policy.
It’s important here to understand, and Chait drives this home, that today’s Republican Party, supply-siders all, have very little in common with the fiscal conservatives of yesteryear, who were actually fiscally conservative. A legacy of increased spending, culminating in George W. Bush, has no problem with large deficits, so long as they fund tax cuts for businesses. Chait pretty definitively shows that this kind (supply-side) thinking is nonsense. I know you National Review or Wall Street Journal fans will argue, flog Reagan’s “legacy,” and probably say something about “spendocrats.” Read Chait. He shows how little the GOP wanted to do with supply-side economics, even recently; yet, the phenomenon has managed to somehow infiltrate the highest levels of the party to the point where the GOP and “supply-side” are virtually indistinguishable.
Some of this has to do with the GOP’s fantastic cohesion as a party. Whereas Democrats seem fragmented, disorganized, and internecine, Republicans are lead by strong conservatives like Grover Norquist who clearly draw a party line and bludgeon other conservatives until they faithfully toe it. Thus, Republicans don’t question supply-side economics because it’s now part of the platform, even though it doesn’t work.
I could go on and on, but you’d be better off just reading the book. I was a little concerned at first, because Chait spares no effort to establish, in the introduction, that he is not necessarily a liberal. This, I assume, is to ward off accusations of bias (you know that won’t work), but methinks he doth protest too much. I must admit, having read the book, that despite his straightforwardness and occasional vehemence, Chait does a pretty good job bowling down the center. His rhetoric tends to idealize centrism, painting previous incarnations of “liberal” and “conservative” as cleaving much closer to the center. Most of his ire is reserved for supply-side conservatives, yes, but he doesn’t shy away from telling horror stories about democrats, either. Chait isn’t trying to sweep Democratic malfeasance under the rug.
I view this as something of a companion book to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas; a persistent question is why many conservatives vote against their economic interest. This has to do with the lockstep nature of social conservatives with the rest of the pro-business platform, even if it harms them financially. The GOP paints it as a matter of authenticity; it’s really anti-intellectualism, which comes as blatant hypocrisy from smug conservatives educated at Ivy League schools. Republicans are just better at telling people what to believe; better, and more shameless as well. This is some indication of their success in delivering messages contrary to common sense.
If you’re a conservative of the “I like Bush” stripe, then you’ll probably be offended by The Big Con, even though I think you’d have a hard time refuting much of what it says. If you’re a classic fiscal conservative (i.e. deficit hawk, &c.), or you’re a new or old-school liberal, you’ll probably agree with most of what’s here. Regardless, it’s a solid read.