A lot of tired men are about to creep back into power in America.
"President" Bush is a local Texas boy; for the big picture he relies
on his father's people, in economics as much as in foreign policy.
I met quite a few of these yesterday's men (almost all males) when
they were out of office in the 1990s, passing the years of idleness
at policy conferences on the virtues of private enterprise. They are
an unimpressive lot.
They didn't get the new e-economy, neither how it worked nor what
its dangers were. When the rich in America were raking money in
and the markets booming, Dad's people continued to harp on the need
for tax cuts to stimulate investment. When the treasury secretary,
Robert Rubin, began to pay down the national debt (with the help
of Dad's one distinguished appointee to office, Alan Greenspan),
they cried foul; Democrats are supposed to be reckless spenders.
That businessmen, or business-minded people, are efficient and
hard-headed in government is an outdated illusion. Compare Gordon
Brown to the Conservative chancellors who came before him. He is
infinitely more prudent and cunning - and tight-fisted, doling out
goodies on social services only after the money had piled up in
the Treasury kitty. You might not like the delay (I don't), but
you understand it; a finance minister is meant to keep order rather
than, like Norman Lamont, cry "I am in pain!" and reel from every
Brown's American counterpart, Robert Rubin, was every bit as prudent
and tight-fisted - and as clever. Unlike his Republican predecessors,
who frequently lost control of the business cycle while steadily
piling up a huge national debt, Rubin had no single economic policy;
he had lots of policies, for whatever the moment required. There
were several moments in the last administration when the economy
faced a downturn; Rubin helped prevent them by adroit fiscal manoeuvring.
Why do conservative businessmen make bad politicians? Why, when
they gain power, do they suddenly seem to lose their grasp of reality,
clinging to simple nostrums like "Cut taxes!", bewildered by how
to spend public money?
I kept going to policy seminars with Republican-era businessmen
because they were something of an enigma. Get them talking about
how to sell soap or insurance and suddenly the years fell away,
they were full of energy and interesting ideas; I've the same sense
of energy listening to aged doyens of the CBI in Britain. But speak
the words "public" or "social" and the metal shutters of the mind
come clattering down, shutters on which the graffiti "free market"
and "lower taxes" have been sprayed.
The shuttered mind simply refuses to accept the positive side of
the public economy. It cannot, in particular, accept the welfare
state as a more efficient way to do the public's business, in medicine,
transport, and housing, than ways based on selling soap. In the
Reagan-Bush years, whenever these businessmen-politicians were confronted
by unpalatable facts, they engaged in denial - or, in one egregious
instance, tried to pretty-up unemployment figures by changing how
the Department of Labour did its sums.
Blinded by their own belief in the superiority of business, guided
by simplistic cliches, public servants drawn from the private realm
tend to be bad servants of the public. Yet with a wave of the fairy's
electoral wand in Florida, Dad's tired men will become the global
economy's new masters. Their reappearance is particularly chilling
because global capitalism looks set for another hard landing.
The big boom of the 1990s was largely fuelled by the technological
revolution and a worldwide demand for consumer goods. Technology
is now in a post-revolutionary phase and consumer demand is no longer
pent up. In the States, both inflation and labour costs are rising.
The bond markets have become credit averse and the stock markets
are down, particularly the new-economy Nasdaq market. It is not
a pretty picture, but it needn't spell disaster. The landing needs
to be managed. For that, however, you need good managers. And good
managers, in office, need to believe in government.
British friends assure me that Thatcherism is dead - though at
10 Downing Street there seem surviving signs of it, if not at No
11. But the fact that the British and American economies have become
so interlocked is the real issue. During the big boom, British investment
poured into America, as it did from the Netherlands and Germany;
conversely, American management flowed into Europe.
The return of these blind, tired men to Washington is therefore
no foreign spectacle. As diplomats, they aim to "coddle" Europe
less; but in their own country, as businessmen in government, their
incompetence will soon enough become our problem.
Richard Sennett is professor of sociology at the London School
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000