Gov. LePage and Milton Friedman

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During the 2010 gubernatorial primary campaigns I had opportunities to ask both Republican and Democratic candidates which economists had influenced them the most. Bill Beardsley and Paul LePage were the only ones able to provide substantive answers. When I use “substantive” I refer to the ability to name actual economists with national reputations.

One of the feature’s of Bill Clinton’s campaign against George H.W. Bush was Jim Carville’s famous slogan “It’s the economy stupid.” He meant no reference to economic theory or theorists. He simply aimed to keep the Clinton campaign constantly “on message.”

Politicians and political hacks of all parties understand the importance of staying on message. Many voters are disoriented and confused by complexity. Simplicity and repetition shelters them from the danger of thinking. Thinking can induce headaches. Headaches can lead to resentment. Resentment leads to loss of votes. So all well-run campaigns adhere to the KISSVo (Keep It Simple for the Stupid Voters) principle.

I don’t believe that they assume all voters are stupid (well, probably not) but they realize that the fraction of the American electorate that is barely aware of the issues and personalities involved is large enough to swing almost any election.

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Reporters, columnists and editorialists recognize the universality of the KISSVo principle and generally accept it as a fact of political life. The journalists’ political sophistication usually falls well short of understanding of the ideas that may motivate and direct candidates. I believe this is primarily because they have had little exposure to those ideas.

This explains all the attention given in recent elections to the candidates’ SATs, GREs, GPAs, and IQs. The media members and the public understand these measures. On the other hand most of them have apparently never heard of Milton Friedman of John Maynard Keynes. Fewer have read either of them and fewer still understand them.

Media professionals and the public who pay attention to their products typically find electoral politics more interesting and easier to underhand than policy debates. Candidates must adapt to that fact whether they want to or not. Nevertheless, it helps to interpret and anticipate the policy choices of elected officials if we know what and who have influenced them. When I asked who had most influenced his economic thinking back in 2010, Paul LePage emphatically cited Nobel Prize winner and monetary theory pioneer, Milton Friedman.

I’ve selected Friedman quotes which seem most clearly consistent with our governor’s thinking. from the twenty collected by a columnist named John Hawkins. This one seems particularly pertinent just now: “It is one thing to have free immigration to jobs. It is another thing to have free immigration to welfare. And you cannot have both. If you have a welfare state, if you have a state in which every resident is promised a certain minimal level of income, or a minimum level of subsistence, regardless of whether he works or not, produces or not. Then it really is an impossible thing.”

Few people will have a problem connecting this Friedman principle with Paul LePage’s central economic concern: “I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it’s possible.”

The governor’s acceptances of the Friedman analysis is implied: “Two major arguments are offered for introducing socialized medicine in the United States: first, that medical costs are beyond the means of most Americans; second that socialization will somehow reduce costs. The second can be dismissed out of hand — at least until someone can find some example of an activity that is conducted more economically by the government than private enterprise. As to the first, the people of the country must pay the costs one way or the other; the only question is whether they pay them directly on their own behalf, or indirectly through the mediation of government bureaucrats who will subtract a substantial slice for their own salaries and expenses.”

The Governor’s understanding of how economic development works is expressed in part by Professor Friedman’s historical overview: “When the United States was formed in 1776, it took 19 people on the farm to produce enough food for 20 people. So most of the people had to spend their time and efforts on growing food. Today, it’s down to 1 percent or 2 percent to produce that food.

“Now just consider the vast amount of supposed unemployment that was produced by that. But there wasn’t really any unemployment produced. What happened was that people who had formerly been tied up working in agriculture were freed by technological developments and improvements to do something else. That enabled us to have a better standard of living and a more extensive range of products.”

I suggest that critics of Paul LePage’s economic policies read Milton Friedman’s 1990 book “Free to Choose: A Personal Statement.” It’s short, still in print, quite cheap, and free through Kindle. It isn’t likely to convert them, but it’s often a good thing to know what you are talking about.

Professor John Frary of Farmington, Maine is a former US Congress candidate and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of www.fraryhomecompanion.com and can be reached at: jfrary8070@aol.com

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