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Ask Auntie Pinko

October 28, 2004
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I am voting for Kerry because I think he will do a lot for America's foreign policy, and offers a better hope for some way out of the mess in Iraq. Even though he hasn't been too specific about how he wants to solve it, he obviously understands the problem better than Bush does, because Bush doesn't even see it as a problem, and he's the guy who got us into the mess.

So I feel good about voting for Kerry on that score, even though I'm a more "conservative" independent usually. Where I have doubts is on Kerry's approach to the economy. Will he just sink us into another protectionist, big-government, regulation-happy mess that will prolong the depression and keep us in debt to foreigners who will own most of America soon? Nothing that he's said so far gives me any confidence that he'll be any good for businesses, and businesses are the backbone of the economy.

What makes you think he'll do a good job on the economy (if you do?)

New York, NY

Dear Sheldon,

Auntie Pinko certainly doesn't want to say anything that will discourage you from voting for Mr. Kerry! But I would be less than honest if I didn't make it clear that my view of "the economy" is different from yours, before I state categorically that I believe Mr. Kerry is the strongest candidate on the economy.

What is "the economy," and what is its purpose, and who does it exist to serve? In my view, "the economy" is a dynamic system with four elements:

  • The first element is human - ideas, drive, sweat, etc.

  • The second element is resources - money, credit, raw materials, technology, etc.

  • The third element is government - strategic decision-making with an eye on the big picture.

  • And the fourth element is context - weather, geography, politics, culture, and so on.

Each element is subject to control and manipulation to a greater or lesser degree. And everyone who has the power to do so wishes to manipulate these elements in order to serve the interests in which they believe. However, because the system is so dynamic and the interplay between all of those elements is so unpredictable, these attempts don't always have the intended effects - particularly when there are other interests promoting other outcomes.

One way we can help minimize negative unintended outcomes and make the most strategic decisions in relation to the economy is if we can form a consensus on the purpose of the whole messy, ever-changing, unbelievably complicated system. I think many of the negative economic trends we have seen lately are a result of the loss of that consensus, and even forgetting that the consensus itself is necessary.

So what is the purpose of the system? It is what we define it to be. Lately we seem to have a number of definitions floating about, and unfortunately most of them seem to be rather narrowly focused on the interests of a relatively small part of the population. I would hope that whomever is President can make it part of his leadership goals to promote a unifying consensus about the purpose of the economy. And, of course, I'd like it to agree with my belief, which is this:

The purpose of the nation's economy is to enable any individual willing to work hard for forty hours a week to support a family of four in modest comfort.

An economy that doesn't fulfill that purpose is dysfunctional, and the harder it is for the hypothetical individual working those forty hours to meet a family's basic needs for safe and adequate shelter, food, clothing, and health care, the greater the degree of dysfunctionality. All of our infrastructure-housing stock, transportation, public safety, education, and so on-should be managed with that consideration in mind.

The regulations that government applies to people and resources should be made with that goal in mind. And because our nation has a fundamental value of individual freedom, that goal cannot be achieved by authoritarian means, or by establishing some dreary minimum mass-production system reminiscent of the Soviet "planned economy."

If we can all agree on that goal and that constraint, then perhaps we can embrace a more common and objective view of government's role in strategic decision-making, and a clearer set of standards for government performance. That would be the first step toward "fixing" our highly dysfunctional economy.

One reason I am voting for Mr. Kerry is because I think his long experience in the Senate, his demonstrated abilities as a long-term, strategic, centrist thinker, and his understanding of just what Presidential leadership should be, will make him better suited to lead America in the direction of a consensus on the economy, based on the well-being of all our citizens (even if he doesn't precisely agree with my vision.)

That's probably not a very encouraging answer if your only criteria for a President's performance on the economy is "how is business doing?" But I think that's looking at it from the wrong way around. Clearly, business doing well does not reliably translate into American families doing well. I think it's time to change the criteria to "how are families doing?" And if that is the question, then John Kerry seems the best answer. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko, Sheldon!

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