Gramm's Post Office Speech: A Critique
By Bryan Caplan
And last year, in the darkest hour of the health care debate, when it looked like Bill Clinton was about to convince America that it made sense to tear down the greatest health care system the world had ever known to rebuild it in the image of the post office…
Gramm’s opponents angrily denied that Clinton planned to rebuild the health care system “in the image of the post office.” For my purposes, however, it barely matters. Because the question I want to ask Gramm’s supporters and his critics is: “If we all agree that the post office is a terrible business model, why don’t we postpone the health care debate and join forces to privatize the post office?!”
Only recently, though, did I actually read Gramm’s full 1995 speech. This is what a famous conservative politician used to sound like. Overall, his rhetoric is far more libertarian than conservatives provide today, but Gramm’s still has a lot of explaining to do. Which I now provide, line-by-line. Gramm’s in blockquotes, I’m not.
Twenty-seven years ago, I drove to College Station, Texas, in a used Mercury with a back seat full of books to start what would be a 13-year teaching career and a lifelong love affair with Texas A&M University. It was here that I met and courted and married my wife, Wendy Lee Gramm. It was here that my two sons were born. It was here that I came and asked you to send me to Congress. It was here that I came back and asked you to let me trade in that little shovel that I was working with in the House for a bigger shovel in the United States Senate.
And I have come back today to ask you for a final promotion, and I’ve come to ask you for that promotion based on the work that I have done in the House, the work I have done in the Senate and my commitment to see the job through until it’s done.
Very good, we know who you are.
On Nov. 8, in the most decisive election since 1932, the American people said to their government, “Stop the taxing. Stop the spending. Stop the regulating.” And they will be stopped. But our job is not finished. We are one victory away from changing the course of American history. We’re one victory away from getting our money back and our freedom back and our country back, and that victory is a victory over Bill Clinton in 1996.
Absurd hyperbole. You’re obviously not going to abolish taxation, government spending, or regulation. So what does “stop” mean? Stop increasing them? That contradicts your language of “getting our money and our freedom back.” Ever heard the old adage, “under-promise, over-deliver”?
With a love for America and a resolve to make her right again, I today declare myself a candidate for president of the United States.
I’m running for president because I believe that if we don’t change the policy of our government, if we don’t change it soon, if we don’t change it dramatically, in 20 years we’re not going to be living in the same country that we grew up in. In 1950, the average American family with two little children sent one out of every 50 dollars it earned to Washington, D.C. Today that family is sending one out of every four dollars it earns to Washington, D.C. And if nothing changes soon, it’s going to be one in three.
In 1950, the lowest tax federal income tax bracket was 17.4%. Adding in Social Security taxes, I don’t see how this math can be right. The truth is that we’ve been living in a statist country for a long time. The New Deal began before Gramm was born, and has been going strong ever since.
The odds that a boy born in America in 1974 will be murdered are higher than the odds were that a serviceman serving in World War II would be killed in combat.
It’s hard to verify this precise comparison, but 2.5% of U.S. soldiers deployed in WWII died, and the 1994 murder rate was 9 per 100,000.
Last year over half of the children born in our big cities were born out of wedlock, and if this trend continues as it is, illegitimacy will be the norm and not the exception in America.
Fairly prophetic: The non-marital birth rate is now about 40% for the whole U.S.
I think the frightening but inescapable conclusion of any honest look at where we are as a nation has got to lead us to believe that we’re either going to change the way we do our business or else we’re going to lose the American dream.
There comes a time in the lives of families and businesses and even in the lives of great nations where you have to either face up to your problems or you’re overwhelmed by them. I believe now is such a time for America. As a nation, we face tough choices. But those choices are no tougher than the choices that are faced up to and dealt with by working families and by businesses every day in America.
We have watched politicians for 30 years wring their hands about the budget deficit, but all we have to do to balance the federal budget is to freeze government spending at its current level and keep it there for three years.
Things look a lot worse now!
Now, I ask you, how many businesses represented here today have had to go through a tougher restructuring than that just to keep your doors open? How many families here today or families in your hometown have had to make tougher decisions than that when a job was lost or when a parent died? The difference is that families and businesses in America live in the real world. Our government has not lived in the real world for 40 years.
Makes sense to me. Austerity now!
And if I become president, that’s going to change.
We need a leader that has the courage to tell our people the truth. We need a leader who has the vision to define solutions to our problems, solutions that people can understand and can believe in. And we need a leader who is tough enough to get the job done. In the next 20 months, I hope to convince the American people that I am that leader.
I want your vote, and I mean to earn it. But I know you’re tired of promises, and I’m not asking you to accept me on faith. I want you to hear me out. But before you decide, read my record.
As a Democrat member of the House, I authored the Reagan program. That program cut government spending, cut taxes and ignited the longest peacetime expansion in American history, an expansion that created 20 million new jobs. That budget rebuilt defense and set in place the cornerstone of a policy of peace through strength that won the Cold War and tore down the Berlin Wall and liberated Eastern Europe and changed the world.
Odd that Gramm doesn’t mention the Reagan deficits, widely seen as irresponsible at the time.
Now, America and the people of my district were happy about that leadership, but Tip O’Neill and the Democrat bosses in the House hated it. So they took me off the Budget Committee. I felt the people of my district were being disenfranchised. But I’d been elected as a Democrat, and I felt if I simply changed parties and stayed in the Congress, something I had every right to do, that there might be some people who would feel betrayed.
So against the best political advice, including the urging of my dear friend Lee Atwater, I resigned from the Congress, came back home and ran again as a Republican. No Republican had ever gotten more than a third of the vote in my district. But on Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, 1983, I defeated 10 Democrats and I went back to Washington to finish the job.
As a freshman senator, when nobody else wanted to face up to the deficit, Warren Rudman and I wrote the Gramm-Rudman law, which was the only effort in a generation to do something about the deficit. And until Congress repealed it in 1990, it did bring the deficit down and it did slow down the rate of growth in government spending.
You’re plainly good at winning elections. Yet even on your own account, you seem pretty bad at actually controlling spending or deficits.
And last year, in the darkest hour of the health care debate, when it looked like Bill Clinton was about to convince America that it made sense to tear down the greatest health care system the world had ever known to rebuild it in the image of the post office; when pollsters were saying it was political suicide to take on the Clinton health care bill head-on, when 20 Republican senators had signed on to a big-government compromise that raised taxes, I stood up and said, “The Clinton health care bill is going to pass over my cold, dead political body.”
I am happy today to say that my political body is alive, the president’s health care bill is deader than Elvis – and Elvis may be back but the president’s health care bill will not be back.
Actually, something like Clintoncare passed 16 years later. But I’ll still give you some credit for delaying the profligacy.
To paraphrase an old country and western song, I was conservative before conservative was cool. As president, I will balance the federal budget the way you balance your family budget and the way you balance your business’ budget, and I will do it by setting priorities. And where no is the right answer, I will say no.
Promising. I like the language of “priorities.”
I will look at every program of the federal government and I will submit it to one simple test. It is a test that by the end of this campaign every person in every city and town in America will know and understand, and I call it the Dickie Flatt test. I call it the Dickie Flatt test in honor of a printer from Mexia that you know because he introduced me here today. Many of you have met him and know him. Many of you have heard me speak about him. He works hard for a living. His print shop is open till 6 or 7 every week night, open till 5 on Saturday. And whether you see him at the PTA or the Boy Scouts or the Presbyterian Church, try as he may, he never quite gets that blue ink off the end of his fingers.
I’m going to look at every program of the federal government and then I’m going to think about the millions of Dickie Flatts in this country, and I’m going to ask a simple question: Will the benefits to be derived by spending money on this program be worth taking the money away from Dickie Flatt to pay for it? And let me tell you something: There are not a hell of a lot of programs that’ll stand up to that test.
This sounds too good to be true, so let me probe further. Is Social Security worth taking the money away from Dickie Flatt? How about Medicare? Medicaid? Higher ed? Or the least useful half of the defense budget? Can we at least means-test every transfer program in the name of Dickie Flatt?
It’s time for America to choose. Are we going to stay on this 30-year spending spree and squander the future of our country, or are we going to change policy and save the American dream? If I am elected president, I will make balancing the federal budget my No. 1 priority and I will not run for re-election unless I get the job done.
I want to cut government spending, I want to cut taxes, and I want to let families spend more of their own money on their own children, on their own businesses, on their own future.
The debate is not about how much money is going to be spent on education or housing or nutrition. The debate is about who ought to do the spending. Bill Clinton and the Democrats want the government to do the spending. I want the family to do the spending. I know the government and I know the family and I know the difference, and so do you.
Again, this sounds too good to be true. You state principles that imply near-zero government spending, but your only concrete promise is to balance the budget. To paraphrase a great movie that came out soon before your speech, balancing the government’s budget and “letting the family do the spending” aren’t in the same ballpark, the same league, or even the same sport.
The family is the most powerful engine for progress and human happiness in the history of mankind, and if I become president, we will put the family first.
Our welfare system robs poor families of self-respect. It displaces fathers. It makes mothers dependent. And I mean to change it. I want to ask the people – I want to ask the able-bodied men and women riding in the wagon on welfare to get out of the wagon and help the rest of us pull. We’ve got to stop giving people more and more money to have more and more children on welfare. And we will change the welfare system because it hurts the very people that it’s supposed to help, because it denies our fellow citizens access to the American dream. And because we love them, we’re going to help them get it back.
Does “helping them get it back” pass the Dickie Flatt test? Or is the “we” just private philanthropy? Inquiring minds want to know.
You know, Bill Clinton still takes the old “blame society first” for crime. But if social spending prevented crime, Washington, D.C., would be the safest spot on the planet. I want to stop building prisons like Holiday Inns. I want to make prisoners work. I want 10 years in prison without parole for possessing a firearm during the commission of a violent crime or a drug felony. I want 20 years for discharging it, and I want the death penalty for killing somebody.
We don’t have to live in a country where we open up the newspaper every morning and read that a robber, or a rapist, or a murder who has been convicted five or six times is back out on the street and they killed another child. I know how to fix that. And if I have to string barbed wire on every closed military base in America, I’m going to put these people in jail and keep them there.
I’m tempted to say you got your wish, but that’s not quite right. When you gave this speech, the U.S. prison population had already roughly doubled over the preceding ten years. After you gave this speech, the U.S. prison population rose another 60% or so. But the system’s so chaotic that violent criminals often still serve light sentences, while non-violent offenders occasionally face life in prison.
In taking the oath of office, I will swear to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution. Our Constitution guarantees equal justice under law.
Wait, how is drug prohibition compatible with anything else you’ve told us? It’s not in the Constitution, is it? If we needed an amendment to federally ban alcohol, why don’t we need a parallel amendment to ban marijuana, cocaine, or heroin? As president, wouldn’t your oath to uphold the Constitution require you to pardon every inmate serving time on drug offenses?
And, as president, by executive order I will end quotas, preferences, and set-asides. I will fight for equal and unlimited opportunities for every American, but there will be special privilege for no one.
Reagan had the legal power to do this, right? Why didn’t he?
The American dream – the American dream has always been the deeply held conviction that in America we have a land of opportunity, that in America hard work pays off, that in America you can do better than your parents did, and your children will have an opportunity to do better than you have done.
My wife’s grandfather came to this country as an indentured laborer to work in the sugar cane fields in Hawaii. My wife’s father was the first Asian-American ever to be an officer of a sugar company in the history of Hawaii. And under President Reagan and President Bush, my wife served as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, where she oversaw the trading of all commodities and commodity futures in America, including the same cane sugar that her grandfather came to this country to harvest long ago. That is what the American dream is all about. That’s America in action. And it’s not the story of an extraordinary family; it’s the story of an ordinary family in an extraordinary country.
So what’s your stance on immigration? I guess I should be glad that you’re staying silent rather than attacking it. Reagan, in contrast, was vocally pro-immigration (though he didn’t do much to liberalize it).
The United States of America cannot be a passive observer in world affairs. But we can’t be the world’s policeman either. For our children’s sake, and for the sake of humanity, we must be the leader of the world. And to be the leader of the world we must be strong. And that’s why I am committed to the principle that even in a world where the lion and the lamb are about to lie down together, I want America to always be the lion.
As president, I will stop the defense cuts. I will provide the pay and benefits necessary to continue to recruit the finest young men and women who have ever worn the uniform of this country. And we will provide them with the finest training and the best equipment that Americans can build.
“The finest”? “The best”? Sounds exorbitantly expensive. Whatever happened to Dickie Flatt?
As president, I will never send Americans into harm’s way unless our vital national interests are at stake, and unless our intervention can be decisive. And I will never send American troops into command under U.N. command.
As a Texas senator, I have been called upon to console families of young men who have given their lives in the service of our country in Somalia and the Persian Gulf. And I want to promise you here today that I, as president, will never send your son or daughter anywhere in the world that I would not be willing to send my own sons.
So were the actions in Somalia a matter of vital national interest? The Persian Gulf? Can we get a tentative ranking of vitality?
In the postwar period we have been like a little rich kid in the middle of a slum with a cake. And everybody’s looked at this cake and they wanted a piece of it, and we’ve gone around cutting off pieces, handing it out. And people have hated us for it, because they wanted a bigger piece than we gave them. But what we have to share with a hungry world is not our cake, but the recipe that we use to bake that cake.
That recipe is private property, free enterprise, and individual freedom. And in a Gramm administration we will keep the cake and share the recipe.
Sounds great. But again, too good to be true. Does “sharing the recipe” include allowing foreigners to come here and get a job?
Unlike the current occupant of the White House, I know who I am. And I know what I believe. And in this campaign I will speak in simple words that everyone will understand, because I want you to know how I feel in my heart.
I appreciate the simple words. Your true meaning, however, remains slippery. You could reply, “If I spelled out my real intentions, no one would vote for me.” Perhaps. The alternative, I fear, is that you’re another power-hungry politician who deceives to gain power, not a conflicted politician who deceives for the greater freedom of your country.
Neither of my parents graduated from high school, but my mother had a dream before I was born that I was going to college. I resisted. They kept trying to inoculate me with learning. I failed the third, seventh and ninth grade. But my mama prodded me every step of the way through college, to a Ph.D. in economics, because in the America that we grew up in, mothers’ dreams did not die easily.
Too many mothers’ dreams are dying too easily in America today, and I want our America back. I want it back for those of us who have known it, and I want the American dream back for those who missed it the first time around.
Including would-be immigrants? Sounds great – and too good to be true.
Almost 3,000 years ago, a prophet in Judea named Joel told his people, Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. America is not through dreaming. I want an America where families are limited only by the size of their dreams. I believe that America is worth fighting for, and with God’s help I believe that we can and will win this fight. Thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America.
So on a scale of 0-10, how much has the last quarter century vindicated your belief that “we can and will win this fight”? Well?