Jack Kemp is dead. Full stop.
The media commentary on his passing is mixed. Some say he was a nice man, and some say he wasn’t, which is about what you’d expect for a public figure, particularly one who spent as much time as he did being controversial. Although I was around when he was making headlines both as a quarterback and later as a Congressman and Republican functionary, and was as aware as anyone at the time of his public persona, I have no opinion to offer about his personal qualities. The one thing I will say about him is that he mistook Arthur Laffer for an economist. The consequences of that simple bit of ignorance have cost the country dearly, and I believe that they ought to be taken into account when assessing his accomplishments.
Kemp wasn’t the only advocate of the Republican tax-cutting panacea to come to prominence in the Seventies and Eighties. Howard Jarvis, and his sidekick Paul Gann, the principal cheerleaders for Proposition 13, were also making headlines, and of course, Ronald Reagan, the Godfather of Voodoo Economics, made it all the way to the White House, and had Laffer’s Trojan horse dragged right into the Oval Office behind him, where it occupied the place of ideological honor for the entire eight years of his presidency.
It was Kemp, though, who was the true believer. He was the one who incorporated Jarvis and Gann’s dismay at seeing old folks taxed out of their homes, and Reagan’s instinctive aversion to seeing his wealthy patrons inconvenienced into a sweeping set of ideological generalizations about the benefits of free markets, and the evils of government intervention. It was he who found Arthur Laffer, and convinced him to provide the ribbon to tie this disparate collection of resentments, half-baked economic theory and boosterism into a coherent, if not intellectually respectable package. It was also Kemp who sold it, with a charm as misguided as it was relentless.
The bill for this folly has now come due, and Jack Kemp has escaped paying it. That’s a great pity, I think. If he’d been able to delay his exit for another five years or so, no doubt this week’s eulogies could have been more fair and balanced, if not more sincere.