Hillary Clinton’s speech in Michigan on the economy on Thursday stands in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s a few days earlier. Unlike Trump, Clinton believes in beating listeners into submission with plan after plan after plan.
She said it herself at the Democratic convention — “I sweat the details” — and she won’t let anybody forget it.
This is good thing, up to a point. Trump’s promises are so hard to knit together, it’s anyone’s guess what he’d actually try to do as president. Clinton’s program adds up to an intelligible agenda: It tells you plenty about the deals she’d try to strike with Congress, and it includes some nice ideas. But there’s a catch.
Clinton’s vision puts a hyperactive government at the center of everything. Rarely, if ever, does she see the case for just getting government out of the way so that American enterprise can get on with what it does best — namely, compete and innovate in pursuit of profit. Clinton’s economic proposals would be more appealing, and more likely to succeed, if there weren’t quite so many of them.
Clinton promises to send Congress a far-reaching plan on infrastructure spending, for instance, as soon as she is in the White House. Her goals include giving every household access to affordable broadband internet, plus an array of investments in roads, airports, public transit, air-traffic management, schools, energy grids and new pipes “to save billions of gallons of drinking water.” She proposes supplementing taxpayers’ contribution to all this with private capital channeled through a national infrastructure bank. She’ll also “provide more funds through merit-based competitive grants, streamline permitting, support ‘multi-modal’ projects that extend beyond a single type of transportation, build out the project pipeline, and encourage better design and technology.”
That’s just infrastructure. She doesn’t lack for proposals under the other main headings of her program.
Item by item, much of Clinton’s agenda makes sense. Certainly the emphasis on infrastructure is welcome: U.S. public investment has fallen far short of what’s required. Well-equipped schools are essential for social mobility and economic growth. Tax reform is overdue, and security in retirement and ill health is unfinished work. Clinton is to be commended for pressing on all these issues. And yet.
In a market economy as dynamic as America’s, wise governments play a supporting and enabling role; they don’t aspire to direct every development or judge every outcome. They set priorities too, because they understand that they can only do so much. Most importantly, they strive to maintain public support for a competitive system that tolerates disruption (meaning winners and losers) as an agent of progress. Perhaps thanks to Bernie Sanders and the support he was able to attract during his campaign, this element has been absent from Clinton’s pitch. Her equivocation on foreign trade is the most striking instance.
Trump’s proposals are too vacuous to be called a plan — except where they’re downright dangerous. You can’t say that of Clinton’s, and her ideas deserve serious consideration. Sometimes, though, the smartest planners lose sight of what matters most.