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Jimmy Carter Was a Horrible President

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Rick Perlstein reviews a hagiographic biography of Jimmy Carter. He reminds us of just what an absolutely horrible president Carter actually was. An excerpt:

Yet there was one time during Carter’s career when he didn’t call for sacrifice: when he ran for president in 1976. In campaign position papers and interviews with journalists, he averred that while inflation “must not be ignored,” America’s “major economic problem” was “unacceptably high unemployment,” so “we must pursue an expansionary fiscal and monetary program in the near future, with some budget deficits if necessary.” He campaigned, in other words, as a Keynesian. Later in the campaign, he explained that the wave of inflation that the United States had suffered in 1974 and ‘75 had been the “transient” consequence of “the big jump in oil and food prices”—explicitly rejecting the regnant theory that it was caused by excessive government spending. He also promised to enlist the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates and said that incoming presidents should get to appoint a new Fed chair who would be more aligned with the administration’s policies. But once in office, Carter changed his tune. When inflation again surged, he lectured that the cause was excessive government spending, to which the only appropriate response was… sacrifice. He quoted, over and over again, something Walter Lippman said in 1940: “You took the good things for granted. Now you must earn them again…. [Y]ou will have to sacrifice your comfort and ease.” As president, Carter successfully gutted a bill that he had run on: to create a federal guarantee of full employment. He also answered the clamor from Wall Street to choose an “inflation hawk” to chair the Federal Reserve. His appointee, Paul Volcker, then instituted—with Carter’s approval—a program of radical shock therapy intended to grind economic growth to a halt. Carter spoke of the necessity of “pain” so often during these years that the humorist Art Buchwald wondered whether Americans hadn’t voted in a sadomasochist. When inflation refused to budge, Carter replaced his original budget proposal for the fiscal year 1981, which he had previously boasted was “lean and austere,” with one that was $18 billion leaner, including a reduction of $1 billion in welfare spending. He also unveiled changes in bank rules to make it harder to use credit cards. (Volcker considered this a squeeze too far; Carter talked him into it.) Many complained, and reasonably so. But Carter’s response was to insist that those criticizing him were, as he told the National Urban League, “creating disunity among those who are on the cutting edge of progress and compassion and love.”

That Carter was presented with this data and then ignored it is an astonishing piece of information. He should have known better. Carter was famous—and sometimes infamous—for the ruthless, evidence-based analytical detachment with which he reached his policy conclusions. One observer compared this tendency to the way his early mentor, Adm. Hyman Rickover, approached matters relating to the Navy’s nuclear submarine corps: “[He] has to know how every single engine or pump works.” But when it came to inflation, Carter was anything but cool and empirical. He believed that stopping inflation required sacrifice, no matter what the evidence or data suggested.

This conviction would prove fateful in the decades to come: The next two Democratic presidents would sacrifice federal spending, especially on social programs, upon this same altar. All this sacrifice was great for the investor class, who kept getting richer, but terrible for the working class, whose stagnating wages could have used some augmenting by more aggressive social spending. The class-biased nature of the “deficits kill economies” cult was rendered explicit in Bill Clinton’s reaction to Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan’s advice to abandon the economic stimulus program he had promised on the campaign trail. Such spending, Greenspan claimed, would stoke inflation and spook the investor class, and the economy would spiral into the toilet. “You mean to tell me that the success of the economic program and my reelection hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?” Clinton responded.

I want to remind everyone that just because Jimmy Carter was an excellent ex-president does not mean he was not a horrific actual president. He was very, very bad. And that has to be part of our historical memory of him.

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