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HERBERT: A voice of reason on economy

The Republican Party is not simply the "just-say-no" party. It's also a shameless advocate of the free lunch. Ronald Reagan famously told us he could jack up defense spending, cut taxes and balance the federal budget all at the same time.

George W. Bush put two big wars on a credit card. And now we have Newt Gingrich assuring the deluded GOP faithful that, yes, the party can bring down the federal deficit while cutting taxes.

The Great Recession and the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been savage enough to reintroduce the GOP to reality.

One of the reasons so many conservative Republican absurdities became actual U.S. policy was the intellectual veneer slapped upon them by right-wing think tanks and commentators.

The grossest nonsense was made to seem plausible to a lot of people — people who wanted to believe in a free lunch. When Reagan told the country that "government is the problem," the intellectual handmaidens of the corporate and financial elite were right there to explain in detail why that was so.

The result, in addition to the consequences of Afghanistan and Iraq and the damage to America's standing in the world, was the tremendous transfer of wealth from working people in the U.S. to the folks already in the upper echelons of wealth and income.

The liberal or progressive community was slow to counter the remarkable effectiveness of this intellectual offensive. But during the 1990s and into the early-2000s, that began to change. And one of the progressive organizations that has done a really good job is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Demos grew out of a series of meetings of scholars, activists, journalists and elected officials who were concerned about the ever-increasing influence of the right on public policy. "The thinking was that there should be more moderate, liberal and left-of-center voices," said Miles Rapoport, the group's president.

It didn't take long for Demos to begin issuing loud warnings about the danger that ever-increasing debt was posing to American households, while pointedly disputing the argument that over-the-top credit card debt was primarily the result of excessive consumer spending.

Working people from the middle class down were in serious trouble, and Demos, along with many other voices (the bankruptcy expert and middle-class advocate Elizabeth Warren comes quickly to mind) was sounding the alarm long before the Great Recession hit.

In a 2003 report called "Borrowing to Make Ends Meet," Demos spotlighted the increasing gap between the incomes and the day-to-day living costs of many low- and middle-income families.

That report was updated in subsequent years, and in 2007 Demos was reporting: "Many households have tried to cope with this financial imbalance by relying on credit cards to cover basic expenses that earnings do not meet. Homeowners, ominously, have then relied on cashed-out home equity — $1.2 trillion over the last six years — largely to pay down those debts and to cover other costs of living."

In 2006, Tamara Draut, Demos' vice president of policy and programs, wrote a book called "Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead." Draut made the case that the hallmarks of adulthood — from getting an education to buying a home to finding a good job with decent benefits to raising children and beginning to save for retirement — had been eroded by the shortsighted public policies that have prevailed recently.

Ronald Reagan and the zealots who revere him have preached a gospel that, when carried to its logical conclusion, would all but abolish government. It's a failed philosophy.

Demos has responded with admirable real-world scholarship, a highly respected fellows program and steadfast efforts to promote civic engagement. It's not just comforting but essential to have sane countervailing voices to remind us that government action is necessary to plan for the common good, to set proper rules for economic activity and to be a bulwark against predatory practices in the private sector.

THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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