book review

Hood explores conservative Depression-era economic policy

Where many cite New Deal, Hood favors ‘Conservative Manifesto’ 

CorrespondentAugust 11, 2012 

  • More information John Locke Foundation, 191 pages

Nonfiction

Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery

John Hood

One of the few salutary effects of the recession has been the renewed interest in history among members of the policy community. Recent U.S. economic problems have proved so difficult and protracted that many have looked back to the Great Depression of the 1930s for answers, particularly to the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes and to liberal interventionist policy nostrums associated with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

In “Our Best Foot Forward,” John Hood, president and chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, looks back to the 1930s for policy inspiration, too – not to Keynes and the New Deal, however, but rather to an obscure policy statement drafted in 1937 by a group of long-forgotten conservative politicians.

That this statement, known as the “Conservative Manifesto” insofar as it is known at all, proved a bridge to nowhere in a legislative sense – at least in the short run – doesn’t matter much to Hood. Indeed, the author makes the case, 75 years after the fact, that the manifesto’s guiding principles and many of its specific policy proposals would well serve the people of North Carolina today.

The 1937 manifesto – the product of “bipartisan conservative action”– vigorously promoted free enterprise, tax cuts, reduced governmental expenditures, balanced budgets and states’ rights. To Hood, such measures, modernized and tailored to North Carolina’s specific needs, constitute a good starting point for addressing the many economic problems we confront today. It is, in fact, the scale and scope of economic distress in North Carolina – and the fact that the state’s economy basically has been in the doldrums for the last 15 years – that spurred Hood to write his book, the subtitle of which (“An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery”) gives readers a strong hint of what it is about.

In Hood’s view, right-mindesd reforms in four basic areas – fiscal policy (taxing and spending), the regulatory environment, infrastructure and physical capital, and education and human capital – can get the “Dixie Dawdler” (North Carolina) moving again. Like its 1937 analogue, Hood’s “Manifesto for Growth” comprises 10 points. Four of the proposed reforms pertain to taxing and spending, and two relate to regulatory reform, infrastructural investment and education.

Hood is a wonk, and he offers plenty of policy details for kindred souls, but in a general way, his plan goes something like this: Regarding fiscal policy, Hood pushes for prudence, spending limits and a simpler, more efficient (and, in his view, “fairer”) tax code, which reduces “the bias against savings and investment.” He would like to cut red tape and ease regulatory burdens pretty much across the board, but particularly for entrepreneurs and small business. Regulations should always meet a cost-benefit test, he writes, and if the benefits don’t outweigh the costs, a rule should be scrapped. Hood is a strong believer in infrastructural investment of all types but believes such investment also should be subject to cost-benefit analysis and should include the possibility of private-public partnerships.

Regarding education: Hood favors raising standards, regular testing and benchmarking, performance-based pay for teachers, greater competition, more innovation and greater attention to vocational education and career training.

Stepping back a bit, what Hood is offering is a thoughtful right/center-right growth prescription heavy on markets, incentives and competition, and suspicious of governmental hyperactivity. Although “Our Best Foot Forward” at times reads rather more like a policy report than a book, it is loaded with data and interesting ideas and makes valuable contributions to the policy debate in North Carolina.

Fair-minded readers of all political stripes – including those loath to support the programs Hood is promoting – likely will agree.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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