It was another dreary year for the U.S. economy and political scene. But the combo did generate some heroes and, unfortunately, some zeroes. First, the good guys:
5. Erskine Bowles and Senator Alan Simpson. The co-chairmen of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform put the lie to the idea that government must inexorably and massively grow in coming decades. Their long-term budget plan capped spending at 21 percent of GDP, far below the minimum level many on the left think necessary to adequately fund the old-fashioned entitlement system and needed government “investments.” They also advocated smart tax reform ideas like lowering tax rates and getting rid of economically inefficient tax breaks. While I a) would like an even lower level of spending and b) don’t like the commission’s tax hikes, the panel overall performed a valuable service. And while the report actually came out in December 2010, the duo’s year-long advocacy of its ideas—despite Obama’s rejection of them—merit their placement on this list.
4. Herman Cain. The pizza mogul’s White House campaign may be defunct, but his 9-9-9 tax plan has a lasting legacy. America’s current tax code is a drag on economic growth, but the Republican presidential field was failing to offer bold reform. Then came Cain. His proposal was full of good ideas: dramatically lower tax rates, ending the bias against investment, simplification. Cain’s 9-9-9 was then followed by flat tax proposals from Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. Even Mitt Romney is finally talking more about sweeping, pro-growth tax reform. No matter what the outcome of the 2012 race, the ideas embodied in 9-9-9 have pushed taxes back to the forefront of the GOP and national agenda.
3. Steve Jobs. The passing of Apple’s founder created the classic “teachable moment” on entrepreneurship and innovation and how an economy works. Jobs focused on producing and supplying innovative new consumer technology to the marketplace, creating demand for them. If you build it, they will come—and spend. And, of course, that is exactly what America needs: more producers, more employers, more makers. And in the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, the entrepreneur is quoted telling Obama that “regulations and unnecessary costs” are killing U.S. manufacturing. He also told the president that America’s education system was being “crippled by union work rules” and until “the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Right and right.
2. Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor is acting as America’s Margaret Thatcher by fighting the corrosive power of government unions in the Badger State. Not only are union pensions and healthcare obligations threatening the fiscal solvency of many states, government unions are also—as Steve Jobs said—a big reason why our schools are not creating the citizens and workers America needs to compete and thrive in the 21st century. The recall effort against him will certainly be one of the big political and economic stories of 2012.
1. Paul Ryan. He decided not to run for president—this time around—but there’s no more important policymaker in Washington than the chairman of the House Budget Committee. Just as Ronald Reagan did in the ’80s, Ryan is shaping the debate today about what kind of government America will have for the next generation and beyond. So in that sense, it’s not just his policy proposals that matter but also his arguments. No U.S. public figure is as effective at reminding us how America became America, at reminding us of all that once was good, and what could be again. Free men pursuing happiness in free markets. As Ryan said in a recent speech:
You know, in the midst of all the joys and sorrows of our everyday lives, I think we sometimes forget why America was considered such an exceptional nation at its Founding and why it remains so. To me, the results of the Founders’ exceptional vision can be summed up in a single sentence: Throughout human history, the American Idea has done more to help the poor than any other economic system ever designed.
Americans, guided by our ideals, have sacrificed everything to combat tyranny and brutal dictators. We’ve expanded opportunity, opened markets, and inspired others to resist oppression; we’ve exported innovation and imagination; and we’ve welcomed immigrants seeking a fresh start.
Here in America—unlike most places on Earth—all citizens have the right to rise.
And now for the zeroes. And since it is the holiday season and I am trying to be upbeat, we’ll keep this short and sweet:
5. Lafe Solomon. Back in April, the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Boeing seeking to force the airplane maker to bring a production line back to unionized Washington from non-unionized South Carolina. It was a chilling overreach of government power reminiscent of the worst of FDR’s New Deal excesses.
4. The Occupy movement. The self-proclaimed advocate of the 99 percent is, unfortunately, 99 percent wrong in its diagnosis of what ails America and its economy. Our problems are not ones of greed, inequality, and banks, but of too much government, slow growth, crony capitalism, and distorted markets.
3. Elizabeth Warren. The Harvard law professor and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Massachusetts claimed she created “much of the intellectual foundation” of the Occupy movement. More than enough to merit being on this list.
2. The White House. The bad news: Team Obama stiff-armed its own deficit commission, offered no long-term budget plan, pushed another Keynesian stimulus plan, and launched a populist, class-warfare campaign in pursuit of a second term. The good news: This was probably an improvement over 2010.
1. Kim Jong-il. He’s not an American, but there was no bigger economic zero in 2011. And, of course, the now-deceased dictator of North Korea wasn’t a zero as much as a monster who kept his hostage nation in economic and spiritual poverty. North and South Korea: Same people. Same culture. Same geography. But one a communist, totalitarian state, the other a democratic capitalist one. And that makes all the difference.