Economy & Business

Presidents’ Day Musings

William Gladstone by Rupert William Potter, July 28, 1884 (National Portrait Gallery)
Where Millard Fillmore meets William Gladstone.

Let me begin with Presidents’ Day. It’s a nice long weekend. But it says nothing about the greatness of certain American presidents. Whatever happened to Washington’s Birthday? Or Lincoln’s Birthday? Of course, I could go for Reagan’s Birthday. And I’ll bet my pal Amity Shlaes would pull for Coolidge’s Birthday.

Whatever your favorite president’s birthday might be, you must admit that not all presidents were made the same. I still believe Founding Father George Washington was our greatest president, with Lincoln a close second. But Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, James Garfield, and Jimmy Carter aren’t in the running.

I knew Millard Fillmore, and Millard Fillmore was no Abe Lincoln.

But seriously, why can’t we celebrate true American greatness? This stuff about all Little Leaguers getting trophies is nonsense. Not every president gets a trophy either.

* * *

Last week I had a wonderful talk with Glenn Beck on TheBlaze. He asked me if I was a “classical liberal.” I said, “Absolutely.” I named Friedrich Hayek, and could have mentioned Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, or Arthur Laffer.

But I got to thinking about four-time 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone. I told Beck that if I had lived back then, I would have been a Gladstonian. His classical liberalism included smaller government, lower taxes, free trade, and individual liberty. I told him that’s the direction I want today’s GOP to go.

But something was scratching my aging brain when I got home from the Beck interview. So I Googled “Gladstonian Republicans.” Sure enough, I found a Wall Street Journal op-ed by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. They described how Gladstone cut the size of government by a quarter over three decades, while Britain was the world’s superpower and the British population jumped by 50 percent.

Gladstone believed in tax cuts “so that money could ‘fructify in the pockets of the people.’” He was a true liberal.  

From Micklethwait and Wooldridge: “The Victorians believed in a ‘night-watchman state’ — one that left citizens as free as possible to pursue their own ends, provided that they did no harm to anyone else.”

Bush, Walker, Perry, Rubio, Christie, and the rest: Are you listening?

* * *

My friends in the reformicon movement could use a dose of Gladstonian liberalism. While we agree on some matters, I do not agree with their activist vision of government, which somehow will more efficiently help the middle and lower classes.

Nor do I believe targeted tax credits for kids are a middle-class panacea. Ronald Reagan wanted to lift America the way a rising tide lifts all boats. He did not distinguish among income groups.

And speaking of tax breaks, what about people without kids? Or women without kids? Or kids born out of wedlock? Are we providing incentives here?

What about Millennials and Gen Xers? Shouldn’t they get tax relief?

One reformicon writes that traditional GOP economics is about lowering the top tax rate (for the rich). Wrong. Supply-siders have argued for marginal rate reduction across-the-board for everyone. Flatten rates, broaden the base by dumping cronyist deductions and loopholes, and simplify the code.  

Fortunately, reformicon Ramesh Ponnuru and I will sit down at CPAC to try to work through these differences. Ramesh is a dear friend. None of this debate should ever be personal. But the policy differences are important.

* * *

An excellent WSJ article from economist Ruchir Sharma argues that a middle-class comeback is underway thanks to a strong dollar, low oil prices, and the end of the Fed’s easy-money QE. Sound familiar? I’ve said it a million times.

Lower energy and food prices are helping middle- and lower-income groups. Real incomes are starting to rise. A consumer boom is in the offing. Sharma notes that in 2013 the fastest-growing consumer category was private jets. By 2014, it was used cars and trucks.

Very bullish.

* * *

I favor pro-growth immigration reform. But the Republicans must stop Obama’s extra-legal immigration edicts.

We are now learning that Obama’s plan will give away millions of driver’s licenses, car registrations, and Social Security numbers. Governors worry that some illegals will use these to vote. The sheer numbers say state authorities can’t prevent it.

And IRS commissioner John Koskinen told Congress that the newly legalized workers can apply for back-tax refunds, even for years they didn’t file. Meanwhile, the Tax Foundation reports that undocumented workers have been illegally receiving earned-income and child tax credits. Presumably, phony Social Security cards are involved.

I don’t want to shut down the government over the Homeland Security budget. But these Obama mandates must not be permitted without congressional approval.

A final Presidents’ Day thought: No good American chief executive would ever allow stuff like this to go on. Let’s hope the new GOP Congress has some backbone.

Larry Kudlow — Larry Kudlow is CNBC’s senior contributor. His new book is JFK and the Reagan Revolution: A Secret History of American Prosperity, written with Brian Domitrovic.

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