Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hudnut and Laffer

Last week I went to two separate events where economist Arthur Laffer and former mayor Bill Hudnut were the speakers – two great and divergent stars of 1970s and ‘80s Republicanism. The contrast could not have been greater.

I had never heard Laffer speak, and I wasn’t prepared for him to be so entertaining. Or to be so youthful-looking. With his exuberant personality and head full of dark hair, he appeared to be younger than me. How old was he in 1979 when he was giving Ronald Reagan the ideological underpinnings of his fiscal policy (aka voodoo economics, according to George HW Bush) – 19? (Possibly … when I was that age I was really good at telling professors and bosses exactly what they wanted to hear, whether I could support it or not.)

Actually, Laffer is 71! And he’s completely unrepentant. He doesn’t QUITE say that “the lower the tax rate, the greater the revenue” is an absolute. If that was the case, cutting the tax rate to 1% would generate so much economic activity that overall tax receipts would actually increase … and so cutting tax rates by another point to ZERO would produce even MORE revenue! No, he’s not that silly … but he seems happy to provide the rhetorical ammunition for tax-cutting warriors who would fail to grasp the absurdity of my hyperbolic example.

And he cloaks his dogma with non-partisanship, from his opening lines about how Barack Obama is a great and wonderful American success story (“he’s just wrong”), to his claim that Bill Clinton was a great President (“a despicable human being, but a great President”) to listing Nixon and Ford as two of the four worst Presidents ever.

Some of Laffer’s points are backed by indisputable facts; others are supported by anecdotes and fables. There’s no doubt that his main point – that taxes can get so high that they smother economic growth – is true. We get it. But I would have liked to have thought that Arthur Laffer – particularly at age 71 – might have developed some perspective on how his advice to Ronald Reagan 33 years ago was used by the Republican Party to disconnect spending from revenue and replace revenue with credit, and thus create most of our $14 trillion national debt.

On Friday, former Indianapolis mayor Bill Hudnut spoke at IUPUI’s Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. I had almost forgotten that before Hudnut was a Republican Congressman and mayor, he was a Presbyterian minister. One of his first observations was about how the ministry prepared him to govern: whereas a politician only needs 51% of the electorate to win or keep office, a minister had better have 90% of the congregation behind him. With that perspective, Hudnut said, once he was mayor, he felt he represented all of Indianapolis, not just the 55% or so who voted for him.

Hudnut may have said something like that 35 years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have understood it then. But clearly, today, he was referencing the tendency of elected officials of both parties to use their offices to railroad through the desires and fetishes of the 51+% that elected them, even if that means ignoring or crushing the 49-% of the residents of their district who want or even need something else.

Hudnut was a popular and successful mayor from 1976 to 1992, and early in his career was seen as a rising star in Republican politics. Without him, Indianapolis may never have built a domed stadium, attracted an NFL franchise, created the vibrant downtown anchored by first Union Station and then Circle Center Mall, hosted a Super Bowl, or maybe even kept Eli Lilly, Simon, and OneAmerica in town. By the end of his 4th term, he had developed a reputation as a facile cheerleader, and he lost a statewide election for Secretary of State. By then, he was also out of step with a Republican party that had no place for consensus-building moderates.

At age 80, Bill Hudnut looks (and deserves to be) healthy and content … but his prepared remarks and his responses to questions reveal an undeniable wistfulness. He repeatedly made statements that it was “foolish” for the Republican party to talk only about cutting taxes, and to not even consider “enhancing revenues” as an option. He suggested several times that he believed the antagonism toward the President is racially motivated. His response to a question about public education sounded despairingly like “that problem may be intractable,” but I have to believe that was mostly a function of the fact that education policy was outside his purview when he was in office.

At one point, his contemporary, former North United Methodist pastor Dick Hamilton, rose to ask him a question about the role that clergy could have and should yet play in support of a mayor. Hudnut flatly admitted to having felt “isolated” when he pushed through an affirmative action program to actively recruit and promote women and minorities in the city police and fire departments (hardly a “right wing” initiative), and “no one” in the clergy defended him against the criticism he received. He urged clergy today to play a role in depoliticizing the “intensely personal and complicated” issue of “pro-life and pro-choice,” believing that there should be room in both parties for people who have convictions on both sides of that contentious issue. He urged clergy to address the issue of hatred – hatred – in public dialogue.

Hudnut also made the point that in his faith tradition, "giving back" encompassed
not only making charitable contributions and volunteering one's time, but also "public service," in the sense of taking one's turn in an elected office, even if that meant taking four or eight years away from one's career. The idea seems quaint. When I was in high school, I believed it -- and I assumed that such "public service" was in my future. Sometime over the past 30 years, that kind of public life became something that I refused to contemplate ... and it was because the public arena became dominated by ideologues who wanted to beat the other side, instead of collaborators who wanted to move the whole community.

Before the event began, I found myself shaking hands with a woman that I realized, as she introduced herself, I had met before. It was Beverly Guidara Hudnut, who had interviewed me in 1985 for a position on Hudnut’s staff for which I had been recommended. I was serving as acting assistant director of the Indiana State Museum then, and frankly, withdrew my application primarily because as a young professional just getting ready to start a family, I couldn't afford the pay cut. I never again considered a position in what might be called “public service,” or “politics,” and I have grown more apolitical ever since. And it’s probably just as well. If today’s Republican Party has no place for a man like Bill Hudnut, I can’t imagine it would have kept a place for me.