Lex and I had an exchange of emails about Bush. Lex argued that Bush is doing a great job all around. I agreed he is doing well on the war, but argued that he has been irresponsible on the economy and that I am concerned he might sign a reauthorization of the gun- and high-capacity-magazine ban in Clinton’s 1994 crime bill (which sunsets in 2004). Lex has blogged his response to me, and what follows is an edited version of my rejoinder to his response.
As to the gun thing, if it gets to his desk I’m sure he’ll sign it. Any attempt to stop it will be in Congress. Some libertarian/gun people will be mad if it happens, but the Donks will be worse so most of them will snarl and vote for him. Maybe the gun folks will commit the ultimate political suicide and organize a “2nd Amendment Party” or something. What they really need to do is learn to explain to normal people who think guns are yucky and wrong why guns are actually a good thing. Someone needs to produce and promote a 50 syllable sound bite to explain to Jane Minivan why, say, ordinary people should be able to buy large magazines for their handguns. But since gun people also insist they have rights and don’t have to explain themselves to anybody, they are going to keep being a political faction that loses most of the time it is confronted directly. Oh well.
There is no significant chance of pro-gun-rights people doing as you speculate. They are going to vote Republican, because they were scared shitless by the 2000 election, just like everyone else was.
If we are lucky, no bill to reinstate the 1994 law will reach Bush’s desk. However, there is a chance that Bush/Rove will miscalculate as they did with steel tariffs. There’s also a risk that Bush will do something foolish, like casually promise to sign a renewal, in the same manner as he casually remarked that Saddam Hussein deserves a fair trial.
One of the reasons that I fear Bush will end up signing a reauthorization of the law is that the best data predict it. I am referring to the prices of high-capacity magazines (i.e., those produced before the 1994 ban, which are still legal to own) on the open market. One would predict that these prices would decline if the ban were really going to be repealed, because then it would be in the interest of owners of large quantities of the old magazines to sell them ASAP, before new supply lowered prices. Yet as far as I can tell, hi-cap magazine prices are not going down. (e.g., new 10-round Glock magazines sell for about $17-20 each, but pre-ban hi-cap Glock magazines sell for $50-100 each [e.g., 1, 2], and I don’t think prices have changed much since Bush was elected.)
You have the rest of the gun issue backwards. Gun control is now politically dangerous. There have been numerous pro-gun-rights political victories since 1994. (And there continue to be: several states recently passed, or may be about to pass, liberalized CCW laws. These states include Missouri, Ohio (!) and NM.) The political momentum is against further gun control. It’s not the pro-rights people who have to do the explaining, it’s the leftist control-freaks. Their impossible task is to justify additional restrictions on gun ownership when none of the measures they got enacted in the past did any good.
You can’t easily explain the pro-rights case in 50 syllables. It’s subtle and complex, the press usually won’t report pro-gun-rights stories, and the issue is easily demagogued by Democrats who lie about the risks of gun ownership and ignore the benefits. What changed people’s minds on the issue was 1) research by Lott and others, demonstrating that widespread gun ownership is, at worst, not socially harmful, and at best reduces violent crime significantly, 2) the fact that restrictions on carrying weapons have been eased in many states, without the increases in violent crime that opponents forecast, 3) the fact that violent crime has been trending downward for years (possibly, to some degree, in response to liberalized CCW laws, though this relationship is controversial), and 4) September 11.
I think it’s wrong to restrict what kind of ammo magazines people can buy, if only because the pro-gun-control people have such a profound record of bad faith that it’s reasonable to assume that any restriction, no matter how minor, will become the first step in a slippery-slope progression. But it doesn’t matter any more, because September 11 changed the whole equation. Now the anti-gunners have to explain why we should worry about American sportsmen and hobbyists when we face a significant external threat. They can’t explain it. They can’t explain why law-abiding American citizens who want to buy weapons should be forced to jump through hoops at a time when our armed forces are in combat overseas and there is concern about domestic terrorism. The whole anti-gun program of magazine capacity restrictions and bans on this or that type of weapon comes across now as bike-path stuff. The politically mushy suburban woman now is more concerned about the protection of her children from nuclear armed terrorists.
Lex continued, about the economy:
I’m not at all worried about the budget or the dollar or the trade deficit or any of that stuff. Iron rule of politics in this country: The party that wants to balance the budget always loses. The GOP was the “fiscal responsibility party” from Hoover through Ford, a pair of losers bookending a trail of tears. Reagan came in, smile and a shoe-shine, fuck the budget, buy lots of guns, cut taxes too, woo hoo. It all worked out. Bush is doing the same thing, except he doesn’t have to take on inflation at the same time. I’m all for it. Open the spigots. Light a cigar.
This has nothing to do with budget or trade deficits. The issue is total government spending as a percentage of GDP. This percentage has been increasing under Bush. (I initially asserted to Lex that the percentage is at its highest level ever. Note that while this chart suggests that I was mistaken, at least as recently as the end of FY 2002, more-recent data make clear that FY 2003 Federal spending per household was at its highest level since World War II, and inflation-adjusted combined federal, state and local spending per capita is at its highest level since 1960.) Reagan, unlike W, was willing to veto spending bills. Bush is signing bill after bill, including train wrecks like the Medicare drug benefit. It worked out OK under Reagan because the Fed killed inflation and because Reagan was able to cut tax rates enough to stimulate an investment and productivity boom that generated enough new tax revenues to pay for the additional military spending. Bush is spending so much that it will be difficult to pull off again what Reagan did.
Also, you are mistaken about inflation, and it’s a big deal. The Fed, concerned about deflation, pumped a lot of money into circulation in the past couple of years. Lately the rate of growth of monetary aggregates has slowed considerably, and may even be negative, but damage has been done. (There is typically a lag of a year or so between changes in money supply and changes in the price level.) The dollar price of gold, one of the cleanest indicators of inflation, is now around $410/oz, higher than it’s been in many years. The Fed is attempting to finesse monetary growth to boost the economy, but things may get out of control. The Fed probably won’t raise short rates (i.e., won’t support the dollar) before the election, and commodity prices have been creeping up together with gold. This situation threatens the economic recovery in a fundamental way.
Inflation also devalues the dollar. And Bush’s tacit weak-dollar policy, a plain attempt to buy votes from exporters, makes the situation worse. Devaluation harms importers and consumers and is negative overall. It makes dollar-denominated investments (stocks, real estate, businesses) riskier and hence worth less, thus further threatening the economic recovery.
Plus, Larry Kudlow and Niall Ferguson, coming at it from different angles, both think the current budget and debt situation is tolerable and that growth prospects are good. For one thing, debt service is cheap at these interest rates. Let the election cycle turn, as it inevitably will, in ’08 or ’12 or whenever, and the Donks can come in as the Mean Dads to shut down the party. They can clean the mess up. Then they can lose because it hurt so much to do it. And we will party on.
Maybe, maybe not. Kudlow is being optimistic and hoping for the best. Maybe it will all work out. (Other commentators are worried (see here and here.) A lot of this situation is the Fed’s fault, but Bush’s spending and weak-dollar policy have made it worse. I think he has been terrifically irresponsible to have let it get to this point. It is all to buy votes in a context where he might have had the same political effect, without the downside, by merely taking the trouble to argue for tax cuts and spending reductions. By signing appropriations bills by the bushel, trashing the dollar and engaging in protectionism, he risks repeating the stagflation that resulted from the guns-and-butter policies of the late-1960s and early 1970s.
Government spending is the central issue. Not even Republicans can keep increasing spending without serious negative consequences. Reagan understood this. I don’t know if Bush does or cares, and that’s a major weakness on his part. I mean, what kind of country do we want? The level of government spending determines the answer. The main difference between the U.S. and, say, Sweden is not the ostensible ideologies of the political parties, it’s the percentages of GDP that are spent by the respective governments.
When it comes to government spending, you can’t have guns and butter without increasing the share of national income that is spent by the State. The higher that share, the less the country will fit the traditional conception of the United States as a free and open society. I don’t think the tradeoff is worth it, even if it helps Bush to get reelected.
(And note that I don’t ultimately blame Bush for this state of affairs. He is merely responding rationally to incentives. I wish he were more principled and articulate about these issues, as I think Reagan was. However, Bush is the best we have at the moment. The people I really blame for this situation are the voters. They should know better than to exchange their precious votes for promises of government benefits when such benefits must in the final analysis come out of their own pockets.)