Michael Hicks: Sanders, Trump and the mysteries of economic populism
Thursday, March 17, 2016 9:46 AM
MUNCIE – No matter the outcome of this presidential election, in most US counties a majority of primary voters will have cast ballots for some sort of economic populism (a term we interpret as platform appealing to the hopes and fears of people). That suggests one of two outcomes. Either we will elect an overt populist now or face highly polarized anger among primary voters again in 2020.
Discerning actual policy recommendations from Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is not a trivial task. To be fair to both men, few presidential candidates in recent decades (other than current Speaker of the House) have offered a clear suite of policies.
Sanders has laid out policy proposals, some of which with funding details and employment projections. This doesn’t help much for the simple fact that Sanders has also spent a lengthy career as the least relevant elected official in Washington. This alone is a remarkable achievement, but even under the unlikely scenario of a Democratic super majority in Congress, it is difficult to imagine any of these proposals becoming law. While quixotic election runs may frequently be worthwhile as a way to change opinion, they rarely result in predictable legislation. So, honestly divining the likely policy changes of a President Sanders is elusive.
Evaluating the policy proposals offered by Trump is far more daunting, maybe impossible. Save for the large wall spanning the 1,954 mile border with Mexico, to be voluntarily erected by the Mexican taxpayers, I cannot find many details that lasted more than one news cycle. I beg off analyzing the job creation possibilities of that project, as I am currently sober. That then leaves us with nothing from which to logically judge the policy platform of Trump.
The sum of all this, the impossibility of Bernie Sanders combined with the impermeability of Donald Trump, offers little insight into the policy aspirations of today’s economic populists. The immaturity of this movement (and I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense) is perhaps its most salient characteristic.
I’m troubled by the increasingly large segment of American voters who wish to see change but don’t really yet know what change they want. Still, there are many concerns for which I believe thoughtful policymakers could find broad support. These include reform of a very complex tax code that fails to treat citizens with even a veneer of equality. I also suspect we could think through a better social welfare system that merited work, while preserving a safety net for those who cannot. We can improve the Affordable Care Act significantly. We could resurrect immigration reform and construct an understandable foreign policy.
The problem with all of these doable things is that they require compromise. We have a slow growing economy, an enormous federal debt and broken institutions from the family to the executive branch. These issues seriously lessen our options and those of future generations. More troublingly, compromise right now is an anathema to all the economic populists. That is immature, and I mean that in the pejorative sense.
Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.