”It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another – it’s one damn thing over and over.”
— Edna St. Vincent Millay
WASHINGTON – Fifty-one years ago, a book by two centrist Democrats caused a commotion among their party’s progressives, who resented counsels of restraint. In “The Real Majority,” Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg highlighted a Gallup poll question from February 1968: “Is there any area around here – that is, within a mile – where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?” The “yes” response: men 19%, women 50%.
Half of the United States’ husbands had wives who were afraid to go out at night. Beginning in 1968, Republicans won five of the next six presidential elections.
Last week, the National Firearms Survey revealed that since the beginning of 2019 almost half of those buying their first gun were women – 3.5 million of them. No wonder progressives came close to reelecting Donald Trump with three words: “Defund the police.”
Today, a pandemic, violent protests, an inundation of migrants at the southern border and a spike in crime are producing widespread fear of social fraying. In the 1960s, a similar fear caused Scammon and Wattenberg to urge Democrats to resist dismissing “law and order” as racist “code words.” Today, those three words are dismissed as tropes of “systemic racism.” One damn thing, over and over.
Campaigning in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, standing on top – yes, on top – of the presidential limousine, bellowed through a bullhorn, “We’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few.” Wielding a 155-seat Democratic House majority, Johnson revived the New Deal project of swaddling Americans in a blanket of federal programs.
Today, Democrats are ignoring Thomas Jefferson’s warning against large undertakings based on “slender majorities.” They seem entirely committed to progressivism’s equality aspiration. This is not equality of opportunity, which produces disparate outcomes that are intolerable because they are presumptively results of systemic racism. Rather, the up-to-date equality aspiration is equal dependence of an ever-larger majority on federal guarantees of material well-being.
President Joe Biden insists that Americans want the social programs in which he is proposing to “invest” (“spend” has been purged from progressivism’s lexicon) with trillion-dollar tranches. He does not, however, think that 98.2% of Americans want these programs enough to ask them to pay even a penny for them. He insists that Americans with annual incomes less than $400,000 will not pay any of the new taxes that he favors to (partially) fund the spending.
This is preposterous (e.g., corporations do not pay taxes, they collect them from employees, shareholders and customers) but indicative of progressivism’s failure of nerve: Government blessings for almost everyone shall be paid for by an unpopular minority (the top 1.8% and corporations).
In the 1966 elections, two years of Democratic exuberance cost them 47 House seats. If the 2022 elections subtract either four Democratic House seats or one Democratic Senate seat, this presidential term will be an extinct volcano.
Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon imposed wage-and-price controls, a foredoomed attempt to suppress the inflation that had been stoked by progressives’ 1960s belief that there could be Vietnam guns and Great Society butter simultaneously, without harm. The 1970s inflation presaged the nation’s turn toward Ronald Reagan.
Today, with the federal debt held by the public four times larger as a percentage of GDP than it was at the end of the 1970s (25%), a Democratic president and Democratic-controlled Congress have $3.5 trillion more “investing” on their minds. They evidently assume that inflation is forever dormant.
But the Hoover Institution’s John Cochrane notes that if inflation surges, the Federal Reserve must raise interest rates sharply. The standard rule specifies one and a half times the inflation rate increase. So, if inflation rises from 2% to 5%, interest should rise by 4.5 percentage points.
Add a baseline of 2% for the Fed’s inflation target, and 1% for the long-run real rate of interest, Cochrane says, and the interest rate reaches 7.5%. Increasing interest rates one percentage point increases the cost of servicing the national debt one percentage point. With debt at 100% of GDP, 1% of GDP is about $227 billion, and a 7.5% interest rate creates interest costs of 7.5% of GDP, or $1.7 trillion.
When inflation moved the nation to the right, it truncated the Democrats’ return to their New Deal project. They might soon be muttering, “One damn thing over and over.”
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post.