Doomsday on hold

By Joe Schembrie
web posted July 10, 2000

Conservatives were justifiably upset when it was learned that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader has a personal fortune estimated at $3.8 million. Nader made a career preaching against the evils of capitalism, then poured his lecture fees into tech stocks. If corporations can't be trusted, Ralph, why are you giving them your wealth -- and why have they made you rich?

But enough about Nader's hypocrisy. What about the hypocrisy (or do you have a better word?) of conservatives who didn't invest in the booming stock market -- conservatives who preach the virtues of the free market, but in their personal lives literally crawl into bunkers and await the end of civilization?

Sadly, doom-and-gloomism has been a mainstay of the American Right -- and by no means merely the exclusive domain of fundamentalist Christians prophesying that the Rapture will occur at precisely four o'clock tomorrow afternoon.

It was secular humanist Harry Browne, for example -- the Libertarian Party's perennial presidential candidate -- who established his fame during the 1970s as an investment counselor predicting that the US economy would be devastated by cycles of depression and hyperinflation. In the 1980s, countless conservatives kept their distance from Ronald Reagan because he seemed nonchalant about the size of the federal deficit -- which, we were assured by one best-selling book, would bankrupt America by 1995.

During the 1990s, conservative Deficitphobia was complemented with hysteria that NAFTA would 'steal' all our jobs to Mexico, while Japanese industrial policy was 'hijacking' them to the Orient. And to top off a decade of unmaterialized economic woes, we had Y2K, in which a computer glitch was to usher the end of civilization.

Politicians have been quick to exploit conservative economic fears -- but paradoxically, they attack from the Left. It was George Bush the elder, a moderate, who in the Republican presidential primary of 1980 labeled Ronald Reagan's supply-side policies 'voodoo economics.' During the 1990s, Ross Perot was a giant sucking sound for Republican presidential candidates, as he stole/hijacked populist votes by calling for more government control of free trade. And today, of course, we have Al Gore warning that George W. Bush's tax cut proposal is a 'risky scheme' that will skyrocket the national debt.

While politicians raved, prophecies of doom and gloom have not served the investor well these past twenty years. Most of us would be on our way to millionaire status if we had simply invested a few thousand dollars a year in a medley of tech stocks or even a standard money market fund. The market is prone to correction, but so far it's been a better investment than water and crackers hoarded for Y2K.

And personal investment decisions aside, shouldn't we all be showing more faith in the robustness of the free market? The dot-coms may be overvalued, but the principles of freedom, applied to the marketplace, are not. If the rapid growth of the last two decades is a testimony of what a shackled economy can do, what could be done if those shackles were removed?

Not surprisingly, today a lot of conservatives are becoming down on pessimism -- as can be seen this year in the presidential candidates and the level of support they're receiving. Harry Browne speaks now of economic growth. Ross Perot has dropped off the political radar. Pat Buchanan, still railing against a Japanese financial empire which has long since crumbled, is picking up two percent in the polls. And it's former President Bush's own son who is calling for Reagan-style tax cuts.

With the help of government meddling, even the most vibrant free market economy can always head for a tumble. Clinton's oil policy may well trigger an economic downturn. Keynesian economic destabilizers like unemployment compensation could lead to rising deficits, which could raise interest rates, which could raise deficits still more, creating a feedback loop. The economy could collapse in a spiral of deficit spending, high unemployment, bankruptcy, and hyperinflation.

But golly, some of us conservatives have been waiting decades for the sky to fall. And while the price of gold continues its long slump, Ralph Nader has gotten rich privately believing in the very free market he publicly professes to despise. Even -- especially -- those conservatives who built Y2K bunkers must now be asking : "What's the price tag on Pessimism?"

Conservative politicians might ask that question also. Elections are won on optimism, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated. Hypothetical economic crises do not win elections; identifying how we can continue today's prosperity will.

Someday the world will end -- but maybe conservatives would be better off if, at least for a decade or two, they planned for the possibility that Doomsday might be on hold.

Joe Schembrie is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right.

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