Enter into this logical vacuum a book pleading for a renewed focus on fiscal issues: "Bulls, Bears, And The Ballot Box," an attempt by financial gurus and academics Bob Deitrick and Lew Goldfarb to draw a direct connection between a president's economic policies and American wallets.
The book is at times a history lesson, Economics 101 lecture and data-guru lucre. In the process, they assess which presidents successfully created a predictable, stable and consistent economy.
The authors also lay out a code of conduct practiced by all economically successful commanders in chief. But the biggest takeaway for the economic punditocracy will be the authors' contribution to the ongoing Left vs. Right narrative, propagated endlessly in the media like some crosstown sports rivalry.
Their conclusion: Democrats in the White House historically lead to fiscal prosperity, according to the authors. Don't dismiss their results outright. Check their data.
Ranking Them, From Hoover To Dubya
Their finance-first argument remains rather simple. Practically speaking, what good is voting to protect your Second Amendment rights if a candidate's policies will put that very desirable .357 Magnum out of your economic reach?
"People need to vote in their economic interest," Dietrick said in an interview. "Vote for your IRA, 401K. Vote for your retirement. A lot of the social issues we talk about are distractions."
Dietrick co-owns Polaris Financial Partners in Ohio, part of a 29-year career as a financial planning professional. Goldfarb's many hats include CPA, attorney, and professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
The authors' goal, then, became finding a fair way to compare the nation's economic performance for each presidency since the Hoover administration. They found a dozen data points readers can understand, and used them to score each president's performance. (All of you methodology mavens would be glad to know figures were adjusted for inflation and calculated per-capita where possible). The resulting Presidential Rankings of Economic Stewardship, or PRES, creates an all-encompassing rubric for determining a President's economic mojo.
Since each data point is indicative of either a macro or micro economy, a three-pillared system became necessary. One measures changes in the nation's overall fiscal health (think of a big-picture indicator such as Gross Domestic Product), another wealth accumulation and economic standing of individuals (such as average annual stock return), and the third quantifies life for businesses and investors (like increases or declines in profits).
The three pillars served as their own points of comparison, but ultimately combine to create PRES. The resulting top-11 ranking of presidents from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush challenges one of modern America's most widely held political notions: that the economy benefits most when Republicans are in office.
"Many of us intuitively believe that Republican presidents bring shrewdness and a sense of business acumen to the White House," the authors write. "Surprisingly, the facts do not support this hyperbole. In fact, Republican economic dominance is a myth, yet it is one widely believed."
Donkeys Mean Bulls, Elephants Lead To Bears -- Usually
The chasm between Donkeys and Elephants has been fairly easy to draw out in terms of policy positions. History offered Deitrick and Goldfarb a neat delineation: 80 years of Oval Office rule happened to be evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
The most surprising result, according to their system, was in the Business Prosperity Pillar, which guages the life of entrepreneurs and major corporations during a presidency. Knee-jerk responses might push Ronald Reagan to the front of the pack, but businesses actually flourished most under New Deal-creating, ultra-lefty Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During his tenure, corporate profits and industrial production grew at a significantly faster rate than during any other administration.
Reagan does rank the third best president for businesses -- tied, actually, with Bill Clinton.
If you care about the nation's economic health, free-spending John F. Kenney and Lyndon Johnson were your men. No change in income inequality, the second-fewest number of recessionary months and the healthiest level of national debt combined to make the two Democrats the best stewards of the "big picture" economy, according to the authors. (They combined truncated stints in office with the president's successor, so Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford's administrations are lumped together as well).
Generation X and pre-retirement Baby Boomers can attest to the boom of the 1990s, which saw stock market returns grow at record rates, unemployment shrinking at its fastest rate since the Great Depression, and inflation kept in check. The three factors helped Clinton rank best among presidents for personal wealth.
Yet the three pillars offer the same flaw of all data-based rankings: the numbers never tell the full story. One could argue that FDR's four terms and the dismal economy he inherited when he took the oath of office in 1933 naturally offered a chance at the biggest impact. Or that Clinton's luck remains forever tied with a dot-com bubble which occurred without his input.
Still, Deitrick and Goldfarb argue it was the choices made throughout the course of an administration that changed or accelerate the economy's direction.
They argue it was FDR's decision to ignore calls for a balanced budget, instead making the federal government an economic jump-starter through deficit spending, which pulled the nation as a whole out of the fiscal doldrums.
Clinton, meanwhile, enacted a set of tax policies that would today possibly be termed a set of socialist wealth redistribution schemes that take money out of the pockets of "job creators." Yet during his tenure, the middle class's income increased an average of 7.5 percent annually. Slick Willy is actually a superstar in Deitrick and Goldfarb's rankings.
It all leads back to a very esoteric and idealistic set of principles shared by presidents with high scores, according to the authors, called the PRES Rules. And it may be the one ideological wedge that makes "Bulls, Bears and the Ballot Box" sound like a rallying cry for Occupy Wall Street.
The Model Marriner
Feeding into the uncanny American need to rank things helps with the book's marketing and perhaps offers a good dose of dinner-table fodder. But how instructive can Deitrick and Goldfarb's work be in 2012, when presented with candidates resting at opposite ends of the economic policy spectrum?
The authors have a model citizen in this regard: a wealthy Mormon Republican businessman who advocated government spending during tough times, a fairer distribution of wealth and a tax-subsidized social safety net benefitting the least fortunate funded by higher rates for the well-off. (The disparity from our modern GOP candidate is a bit jarring).
That man, the Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Marriner Eccles, laid the foundation for what would eventually be Keynesian Economics, and created policies that helped pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression, according to Deitrick. It is in Eccles that the authors find a model economic leader: an almost utopian nonpartisan political titan able to innovate and, if need be, spend taxpayer money in the ever-lasting fight for economic fairness and market stability. Their choice term is "statesmanship."
Sound a little too good to be true? Eccles lucked out. The nation was down on its luck and ready to experiment. The feedback-loop of Twitter and blogs was about a century away. And he had the backing of FDR, a forceful president willing to figuratively bash heads to get what he wanted.
The authors admit the Eccles they portray can seem alien to today's Beltway circus. "Politically speaking, the past two decades have been an atrocity on the American people," they write. "Politics has become tainted with partisanship, heckling, cynicism, and red herrings, all of which are exacerbated by the 24/7 news cycle."
But in Eccles they find five main ideologies and characteristics: Do not try to improve the lives of the privileged few; grow the middle class; use the federal government as an economic battering ram when necessary; be bold and innovative; and remain impervious to the political fray. Sound idealistic? Perhaps the last two, yes. But the first three are clearly poles in the tent of modern Democratic economic policy -- this year more than ever.
It's instructive to know Deitrick was spurred to write the book after George W. Bush's tenure, one which the financial guru said was marred with muddled thinking and the misguided decision to ignore regulations already on the books.
"I couldn't understand how we went through two crashes," he said. "In my view, I thought that the notion of putting people in charge of very important positions in the federal government who didn't know what they were doing was a tragic mistake for the country."
He does not see current GOP candidate Mitt Romney in any better of a light.
"We don't know exactly what Mitt Romney is going to do," Deitrick said. "We do know this: He wants to cut marginal tax rates by 20 percent. It looks like we're getting back to what we're doing in 2000. We're just going to allow supply-side economics to rule the day. We need to have supply in sync with demand."
Lest you feel the urge to call Deitrick and Goldfarb ultra-lefties massaging data to suit their cause, Deitrick cops to no affinity for one party over the other. He has voted for candidates from both parties. But the authors do not shy away from the partisan implications of their data-crunching.
"Our belief is that the figures and the results stand for themselves," Deitrick said. "I hope that this message begins to resonate with the American people. Instead of voting for all of these silly nonsensical things the campaigns want to them vote for, vote with your wallet."
Strangely, the book's own argument may be its truest shield against charges of partisanship.
"Bulls, Bears, and the Ballot Box" is based in the very right-wing, modern Republican notion that the best choices are made by an individual motivated by personal success -- leading the authors to find data supporting solutions advocated by the modern Democratic Party.
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