Memo To: Website fans
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Promises for 1998
I actually woke up New Year's Day thinking I have to make a greater effort this year to be nicer to people with whom I disagree. I actually used to be nicer, but as time goes on, the less patience I have with people who I believe should know better. Alas, I have had less patience with old friends who disappoint me on economic issues I had assumed we had settled long ago. I realize it is only because I'm getting older and worry that time may run out before I see all I believe we should accomplish. It may be that my nagging and whining are counterproductive and I resolve to try more restraint. I still have patience with those people, especially young people, who show any interest in learning more or in exchanging opinions on matters that are contentious. I'll be 62 in June, which means I may soon qualify to be a grouch instead of a grumbler.
My father is partly to blame. Michael Gabriel Wanniski, who died in 1988 at 86, throughout his life spoke his mind plainly, whether he was schooled on a subject or not. He got as far as the 6th grade before he went into the Pennsylvania coal mines, but he taught himself a great many things and developed strong opinions on many subjects. One of his favorite sayings, "which I could never quite understand when I was a kid, was: "I may not always be right, but I'm never wrong." George Will of ABC-TV for years has accused me of thinking I know more about everything than he knows about anything. He has refused to talk to me for years, even though I've been nicer to him than a lot of old friends I disagree with most of the time. Alan Greenspan, one of the old friends I was sharp with this year, on his conduct of monetary policy, a few years ago asked me in exasperation: "Have you ever been wrong about anything, Jude?"
My short answer is that at one time or another I've not been right about everything, but I've never been wrong. My opinion is always the best I can do at the moment, but I am not afraid to express it even knowing it might not be right. There was a time I genuinely believed a 15% capital gains tax was optimum, but Alan Greenspan and Ted Forstmann persuaded me that zero was optimum. They had better arguments than Bob Mundell, who had persuaded me that 15% was optimum, and who got so mad at me when I told him zero was the right answer that he wouldn't talk to me for almost two years. When Mundell and Art Laffer were first teaching me supply-side economics, they would at times take different positions on something I was trying to learn.
When Laffer was in New York, I would invite him and Mundell to dinner at Michael 1 restaurant near Wall Street and invite them to debate their disagreement. Laffer would bluster when I invariably pronounced Mundell the winner. Years later, other people offered opinions on the same issues and I realized that Laffer had at times been right after all.
On issues of national security, only history can tell if a position is right or not right, and sometimes even that is not possible. My opinion is always based on what I think is the position that will produce national security. Too much diplomacy in wartime or too much force in peacetime may be suboptimal, but you can only tell if you base your opinion on the best possible information you can assemble. Because I've become more dovish with the end of the Cold War, many of my old hawk friends think I've become too soft, and maybe I have. But as long as I see both political parties dominated by hawks, I'm going to do everything I can to poke holes in hawk arguments and everything I can to develop good dove arguments.
Those of you who visit the website also understand that I am a contrarian. I'm always suspicious when I see practically everyone line up on one side of an issue, especially if it is a large gathering of angry men under a tree, preparing a noose for a fellow they know for sure is guilty. When I take up the cause of someone about to be hung, there is always the chance he is guilty as hell. One of the things I learned both from my father and in church, though, is that some men who might seem guilty do not deserve to be nailed to a cross. Years ago, George Will and I parted company when he became the first conservative prosecutor in the press corps for the impeachment of Richard Nixon while I was the last to concede defeat in my defense of Nixon at The Wall Street Journal. When you take up an unpopular cause, you can be anything but wishy-washy, which is the source of Will's crack that I think I know everything.
Well, at least I have an opinion about almost everything. But in 1998, I'm going to be nicer in expressing irritation with old friends, including those I think should know better. More diplomacy. Less force.