Comparing Presidents – Explaining the Difference

Regular readers know that I’ve had a series of posts comparing the performance of Presidents on various issues. One thing that is clear is that Democratic Presidents have outperformed their Republican counterparts when it comes to Economic Growth over the past fifty something years. I’ve tried it explaining it a number of ways, and I’ve looked at various factors, but while I’ve been able to show that a number of things aren’t the cause of this discrepancy, I haven’t been show what is.

After reading this post by Kevin Drum, it occurs to me that while the difference in performance is something one can measure and put numbers on, the reason for the difference may be less quantifiable. See, Kevin’s post links to two stories which have excerpts from Alan Greenspan’s forthcoming book.

Now, before we go on, I should note… Uncle Alan served under six Presidents: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, GHW, Clinton, and GW.

According to Bloomberg,

Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were the most intelligent, he wrote, while he found Ford the most normal and likeable. Ronald Reagan was the most devoted to free markets, though his grasp of economics “wasn’t very deep or sophisticated.”

George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father, was very cordial, though Greenspan’s relationship with him was complicated by differing views on monetary policy, he wrote. Bush blamed high interest rates, in part, for his 1992 election loss to Clinton.

Greenspan saved his harshest analysis for the current president. Soon after Bush took office in 2001, the president set about implementing a campaign promise to cut taxes, a policy Greenspan said he believed at the time wasn’t well conceived.

“Little value was placed on rigorous economic policy debate or the weighing of long-term consequences,” he wrote.

The Wall Street Journal went on…

He describes Bill Clinton as “a fellow information hound” with “a consistent, disciplined focus on long-term economic growth” whose relationship with Monica Lewinsky “made me feel disappointed and sad.”

And lest we forget, this is Uncle Alan we’re talking about…

Mr. Greenspan, who calls himself a “lifelong libertarian Republican,” writes that he advised the White House to veto some bills to curb “out-of-control” spending while the Republicans controlled Congress. He says President Bush’s failure to do so “was a major mistake.” Republicans in Congress, he writes, “swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither. They deserved to lose.”

But we already knew Greenspan was no friend to Bill Clinton.

Now, among the six Presidents under whom Greenspan has served, one was a Democrat. That Democrat was the best performer in terms of real GDP per capita growth, and all the more so when you take into account the change in the national debt. (As discussed in other posts, one should account for changes in debt – since a component of GDP is government spending, the government could pull a Reagan, and boost GDP simply by borrowing a humongous amount and spending it, leaving a big bill for his successors.) And that Democrat, not surprisingly, is the only one (according to these excerpts) that Uncle Alan characterized as intelligent and focused on economic growth. And Nixon, the other President characterized as intelligent, was clearly more boneheaded on the economy – just think price controls.

What about the Presidents in our sample under whom Uncle Alan did not serve? Well, those were Ike, JFK/LBJ, and Carter. Ike’s reputation was that he was, well, out to golf. JFK/LBJ, on the other hand, was the administration of technocrats. Right or wrong, they brought number crunching to the White House, especially to the economy. And Carter may be, as Homer has noted, “history’s greatest monster”, and a hapless micromanager to boot, but it was generally agreed he was a smart man.

So maybe that’s the difference… Democratic Presidents have tended to be smarter and more focused on the economy.