Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review of Pat Toomey's Road to Prosperity

Over a series of posts I reviewed Pat Toomey's Road to Prosperity. Each post covered a chapter or two, with an additional post on how women are presented in the book (hint: by and large they aren't), and another post on his view of the separation of church and state (based on the book). While it is true that I disagree with much of what Toomey says, I also find his reasoning to be cold. Rest assured, this is an economics book; it is not intended as anything even faintly warm and fuzzy. This is perhaps best summed up in his statement on the fact that new jobs are seldom created where old jobs were lost:

This is a very real problem for those individual auto workers and their families, and, as society, we should have a serious discussion about the public policy options for helping them deal with this problem (p. 113)

That strikes me as being particularly heartless. And he has no solution, other than, we'll have to talk about it. Small comfort to those who are left behind.

On other policies, make no mistake that he favors privatizing social security; people will be required to put money into accounts, similar to 529 college savings plans which "for a very modest fee, a financial services firm provides this service efficiently and seamlessly." I am concerned about how those firms will be regulated, what happens if some of the accounts are held by a firm that collapses, and what that modest fee might be.

You are encouraged to read the book for yourself, although these posts may direct you to specific sections you might want to focus on. A note on his sources is also provided below.

Pat Toomey: No Ladies' Man
Introduction and Chapter 1: Principles of Prosperity
Chapter 2: Lessons from History
Chapter 3: Tax Policy
Chapter 4: Government Spending
Chapter 5: Free Trade Facilitates Economic Growth
Chapter 6: Transforming Social Security
Chapter 7: School Choice
Chapter 8: The Crash of 2008
Chapter 9: The 2009 Lurch Left, and Epilogue

Toomey on church and state

A Note on Sources

Researching and writing a book is a lot of work, and I commend former Congressman Toomey and his co-author for making the effort to do so. However, I do question their use of sources. Research is often a tedious and difficult task, especially if done in a thorough fashion. A writer wanting to reach a diversity of people must make sure the sources refered to reflect some diversity as well. Mr. Toomey does not do well here and if he farmed out the research, his assistants did not do him many favors. Other than government reports the notes section is populated with primarily newspaper articles and reports from and websites of partisan organizations, such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, both conservative think tanks, and the Friedman Foundation, which is dedicated to school choice. While, yes, it is logical to base your book on people who agree with you, it does require you to paddle in a very small pond. There are a number of ways to diversify your sources but they require a lot of work, combing through books, articles, and reports from a variety of publishers, shifting through the strands and weaving together a strong base that brings a larger group together.

Limiting yourself to what you can find easily among your friends leaves you with a flimsy foundation. As one example. When Toomey wants to make a point about the effect of government regulation on the Great Depression (in chapter 2) he cites four works but depends more heavily on one than the others. A book by Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz is cited once, perhaps because that particular work has little to say on the subject. Another book by Gene Smiley is listed in the references a total of five times. Another book, by Jim Powell (a senior fellow of the Cato Institute), is cited 15 times, but only seven of those times alone; most often Powell is cited in conjunction with another source and that source is usually a book by Amity Shlaes. In addition to the eight times she is cited in conjunction with someone else, 7 times with Powell, she is cited 14 times on her own, for a total of 22 citations.

Why does this matter? I did some checking on Shlaes to see why her book, The Forgotten Man, was so important, why Toomey referenced it so frequently. I found a number of reviews of it. The popular press seemed to like it; the scholarly publications not so much. The Journal of Economic History (68, 2008, 325-328) says "Schlaes and many others sadly perpetuate this incorrect myth [of the New Deal as a Keynesian response to the Depression]. While JEH praises the books storytelling structure and calls it "a welcome addition to Great Depression scholarship" it says it is less successful as an "analysis of Roosevelt's New Deal economic policy..." Yet this was how Toomey was citing it. Labor History (50#2, 2008, 217-221), as one might expect, also does not like it, although the review does say the book was praised it the Wall St. Journal and Commentary. The review refers to her "ideologically driven bent" and her book as a "tract for unbridled self-interest." In the New Republic (Mar 18, 2009, pp. 38-42), the review states:
Now here is the extremely strange thing about the Forgotten Man: it does not really argue that the New Deal failed. In fact, Shlaes does not make any actual argument at all, though she does venture some bold claims, which she both fails to substantiate and contradicts elsewhere. Reviewing her book in the New York Times, David Leonhardt noted that Shlaes makes her arguments "mostly by implication." This is putting it kindly. Shlaes introduces the book by asserting her thesis, but she barely even tries to demonstrate it.

American History (December 2007, 63-64) says Shlaes "makes no attempt to be balanced." The reviewer states "She cherry picks economic data to make her case ..." Even Commentary (Sept 2007, 72-77) has some reservations: "If it is true that New Deal policies were not so effective in ending the depression, it is also true that FDR's leadership was instrumental in maintaining the public's faith that the crisis could be met within the boundaries of traditional institutions."

Why does this matter? If Toomey is only reading and listening to people who agree with him he is only hearing half of the story. Each time he cuts the pie, to limit references to women in his book, to limit his sources to only those from a few conservative organizations or those whose thinking is like his own, he closes off part of the world. Eventually he ends up representing only a select few.


Tom Borthwick said...

Sestak cited your blog post on his Facebook! Good for you!

AboveAvgJane said...


Oh, is that where all this traffic is coming from??!!!!