One of the many unfortunate consequences of America’s presidential election turning into a reality TV show is the near-total absence of serious debate about economic policy. The vitriol on both sides of the partisan divide has made it all but impossible to have a minimal agreement even on the facts. Mendacity and insults have left no room for any substantive discussion about what the next president’s economic priorities ought to be. Whatever you think of Donald Trump, his populist, protectionist prescriptions are woefully short on policy detail; the few areas where concrete plans exist are internally inconsistent (slash taxes, increase spending and eliminate government debt). Hillary Clinton has reams of wonkish proposals, but she has trouble articulating an overall economic agenda and, amid the rhetorical mud-wrestling, her fiddly ideas have received little scrutiny.
That is the background against which we publish an essay by Barack Obama, in which America’s president lays out what he sees as the biggest economic challenges his successor will have to tackle. In a thoughtful argument pitched toward the center ground of American politics, Obama staunchly defends free trade, globalization and American-style capitalism. He makes clear that America has gained “perhaps more than any other [nation] from immigration, trade and technological innovation” and criticizes the “crude populism” on the left of his own party as well as that of the right which has bubbled up in 2016.
The president grapples with the question of why this populism has become so popular. Some of the explanation is no doubt cultural. But to the extent that it is animated by economics, he offers a detailed to-do list designed to improve the conditions of those who feel most aggrieved, focusing on boosting productivity growth, countering rising inequality, and improving job opportunities and Americans’ financial resilience. Unusually for a sitting president, Obama is willing to admit that his administration’s record is not spotless and that he will leave the White House with some things left undone.
These are his thoughts. In several areas, our priorities would be different. Obama, for instance, barely mentions the stifling role of regulation in deterring investment, dampening productivity growth and dulling innovation. He does not do justice to subjects of fundamental importance to America’s long-term fiscal future, such as reform of the public pensions system. He makes no mention of the distortions that stem from well-meaning interventions, such as the complex mesh of means-tested welfare programs that hinders the progress of poor workers into better jobs. But it is a serious and thoughtful attempt to assess America’s economic strengths and weaknesses. In today’s raucous and sometimes hate-filled campaign environment, that makes it all too rare.