A King, Not a President?

Gene Healy praises former president Gerald Ford for proclaiming himself “a Ford, not a Lincoln” and demonstrating “a modest approach to the most powerful office in the world.” The Washington Post notes:

Ford never forgot his humble roots, famously presenting himself as “a Ford, not a Lincoln.” He was not even born a Ford. His original name was Leslie Lynch King Jr. 

So if not for his mother’s remarriage, he could have begun his presidency by declaring “I’m a King, not a President.” But that’s a claim better suited to the current president than to President Ford.

Start the Engines on the Inequality Debate

With the Democrats taking over Congress, most pundits are expecting much debate about income inequality in 2007. Indeed, the debate has already begun in the blogosphere over Alan Reynold’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

For other takes, check out econ bloggers Greg Mankiw, Brad DeLong, and Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok’s Marginal Revolution.  

A few observations: 

  • Alan’s full paper on trends in income inequality will be released by Cato in the second week in January. 
  • Please join Alan, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, and Gary Burtless for a discussion of income inequality at Cato on January 11.
  • I believe Alan has uncovered some very interesting information on the use of tax return data to illustrate income trends over time. Trends have been influenced by the rising amount of business income that is now reported on individual tax returns instead of business returns, the 401(k) explosion, and the effects of two types of stock options on reported income.
  • I’m no expert on income trends, but I know enough to see that there are huge data issues here. You simply can’t look at a raw IRS or Census table and make a hard conclusion about income trends. You need to think about what is included and excluded from “income” at each point in time. 
  • The much-cited Piketty-Saez data on the share of income going to those at the top do not reveal a steady rise over recent decades. Instead, most of the rise comes sharply in a single two-year period, 1987-1988. That should make economists and pundits skeptical about whether the supposed inequality trend is actually related to long-term changes such as international trade or wage premiums for college grads.
  • I think it’s still an open question whether income inequality has increased or decreased in recent decades, but we’ll see what the experts say on January 11.

The iPod Nano: Assembled in China, designed and enjoyed in America

Among the Christmas presents in our house this year were two iPod Nanos. On the back of each of these nifty devices is the inscription, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.”

That tells a more accurate story than the more common but misleading “Made in China.” As with many other high-tech devices, iPods are indeed assembled in China, but the real guts of the device—the design, the brand name, the more sophisticated components—come from countries outside of China.

To those obsessed with the trade balance as a zero-sum scorecard, another iPod imported from China merely adds to our growing bilateral trade deficit with China. Granted, assembling iPods does create jobs for Chinese workers that probably pay higher than average wages, so China does benefit. But who is getting rich from all the iPods Americans bought this Christmas, and who is getting the most enjoyment from them?

The answer: Americans.

Jailed for a Blog


Please Help This Young Man

Yesterday’s International Herald Tribune ran this article by my admired friends Dalia Ziada and Jesse Sage:

CAIRO: In a cramped jail cell in Alexandria, Egypt, sits a soft-spoken 22- year-old student. Kareem Amer was sent to prison for over a month for allegedly “defaming the president of Egypt” and “highlighting inappropriate aspects that harm the reputation of Egypt.” Where did Amer commit these supposed felonies? On his weblog.

If the Alexandria prosecutors’ standards of censorship were applied in the United States or Europe, thousands upon thousands of bloggers would be behind bars. The basic right of individual free expression is sadly not respected in today’s Egypt. Yet the authorities’ decision to jail an obscure student for his writing reveals a larger struggle for free speech playing out between dissident bloggers and state prosecutors across the Middle East.

That gives the basics of the case. The entire article is available here.

Thousands have already signed the online petition (but more are needed for it to be effective). Others are writing respectful letters (the only kind that work) to the Egyptian authorities. Resources, including banner ads for blogs and websites, information, press coverage, and more, are available at www.FreeKareem.org.

A Ford, Not a Lincoln

 …that’s how Gerald Ford described himself once, and there’s a lot to like in that phrase.  It reflects a disarming personal modesty and a modest approach to the most powerful office in the world: two things we could use more of in our presidents. 

Far too often, Americans look for heroism in their chief executives, a tendency that’s undemocratic and dangerous.  It would be wiser to judge presidents through the prism of the med-school precept: “First do no harm.”  And by that standard, Gerald Ford did pretty well. 

Aside from Chevy Chase’s pratfalls, one of the first things that comes to most Americans’ minds when they think of Gerald Ford is the Whip Inflation Now campaign, with its chirpy little “WIN” buttons.  Granted, the campaign was ridiculous: an exercise in futility roughly equivalent to Yippies trying to levitate the Pentagon.  But better a silly campaign than a destructive one: compare WIN to Nixon’s wage and price controls.  In the Whip Inflation Now speech Ford refused to seek comprehensive price controls, and he later made some progress towards getting rid of some price controls on oil.

Coming to power after three imperial and lawless presidents, Ford was sensitive to the temptations of power and the dangers of the White House “bubble.”  He ordered his staff to read Twilight of the Presidency, written by LBJ’s former press secretary and special assistant, George Reedy.  The book is a scathing critique of the modern presidency, particularly the president’s utter isolation from normal life, perpetually surrounded by supplicants and sycophants jockeying for his attention, which, as Reedy saw it, was “the cause of the many aspects of presidential behavior that are so strikingly similar to the conduct of kings and czars during the great days of monarchy.”  (Unfortunately, the book seems not to have made much of an impression on Ford staffers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.)  Despite two attempts on his life in the space of three weeks, Ford refused to retreat behind a palace guard, bravely resisting Secret Service attempts to isolate him from the public.
 
Ford wielded the veto pen vigorously, as it should be wielded: 

Ford vetoed more bills relative to time in office, an average of 26.4 a year, than all but three Presidents: Grover Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Most of the vetoes by Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Truman, however, had been of private bills, passed at requests by members of Congress to deal with particular problems of individual constituents. All but five of Ford’s sixty-six vetoes were of bills dealing with substantive policy issues.  Many of Ford’s vetoes were delivered against major appropriations bills, passed by the Democratic Congress to counter the deep recession of 1974-1976. Such budget-breaking expenditures, the President argued, would set off a new round of inflation.

(Alas, he had limited success, as can be seen from this study [.pdf] by Cato’s Steve Slivinski).  Not all of his vetoes were wise, but many were, including the veto threat that went down in history as “Ford to City: Drop Dead!”

As president, Gerald Ford did less harm than most of those who came before him, and most of those who followed.  As the New York Times puts it in today’s obituary, “he placed no intolerable burdens on a weary land, and he lived out a modest philosophy.”  In a healthier political culture, that wouldn’t sound like faint praise. 

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Gerald Ford Helped Lead GOP Away from Isolationism

During a speaking trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a couple of years ago, I whiled away a few spare hours touring the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

The news stories today about Ford’s death rightly focus on his “accidental presidency,” his pardon of Richard Nixon, and the important if transitional role he played in helping our nation recover from the trauma of Watergate and the fall of South Vietnam.

One underappreciated aspect of Ford’s record that I learned from my visit to the museum in Grand Rapids is that he was a committed internationalist. When Ford won his first race for Congress, in 1948, he ran as an internationalist Republican, defeating an isolationist incumbent.

It is easy to forget today, but before World War II, the Republican Party was the protectionist, isolationist party. Republicans sponsored the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff bill that deepened and prolonged the Great Depression, contributing to a downward spiral in global trade and feeding the resentments that set the stage for World War II.

After the war, Republicans such as Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan broke from the party’s past to work with Democrats to forge a bipartisan trade and foreign policy. In the late 1940s, the United States not only joined NATO but also the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Under this bipartisan consensus, U.S. government barriers to international trade and foreign investment continued to fall from their peaks in the 1930s to their relatively low levels of today.

Gerald Ford’s presidency and career are open for critique, but on the basic question of whether the United States should engage in the global economy or wall itself off in fear, Gerald Ford was on the right side of history.

Seventh (Grade) Sense

My young colleague Jessie Creel has an even younger sister, Mary, who sounds like a future libertarian debater. Jessie tells me that a speaker from Fannie Mae recently visited Mary’s 7th-grade class at a Maryland Catholic school to discuss poverty. The speaker said, “I love my job because I make money helping people.” And Mary raised her hand and said, “What job doesn’t help people?”

Sounds like a natural economist.