Al Gore photo

In what seems like an eternity, but was only a short time ago, we were learning more about “hanging chads” on punched election ballots in Florida than any of us ever wanted to know. The world marveled as the denizens of the last Superpower fought tooth and nail over whether a ballot counted according to whether the holes were punched correctly. The difference between President Bush and a potential President Gore was in the end just a small number of votes in just one state. It was the closest of elections, with the results literally hanging by a chad. So, it is not at all far-fetched to imagine what would have happened if Al Gore had won the election. How much of an economic difference would there have been? I would suggest, not all that much.

The market had already begun to collapse by the time Bush was inaugurated in January ’01. Could Gore have prevented a recession? The answer is no, because the weakness had already set in. There would still have been 9/11. That had been planned since Clinton’s presidency, when Gore was vice-president. An Al Gore as president would hardly have deterred bin Laden from his plans.

And the economic aftermath of the event would have been roughly the same. Greenspan and the Fed would have kept lowering rates and kept them low for too long, no matter who resided in the White House. Would Gore have nominated an old-school monetarist as Fed Chair? Hardly likely. Almost the entire establishment, both Right and Left, the latter of which Gore was a leading figure, were Keynesian to their core. And Greenspan (or Bernanke, or whoever) was not going to allow deflation on his watch, not without a fight, with his main weapon being low rates and easy money.

The regulations that fostered the housing bubble and the subprime crisis were already in place. Both parties were in thrall to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Greed was already running rampant on Wall Street. Did I somehow miss loud, insistent calls for a tighter home-lending regulatory environment from the partisan leadership on either side of the aisle? No, there weren’t any.

Would consumers have borrowed less on their homes? Was anyone complaining (except those buying?) that housing values were climbing too fast? Indeed, my neighbors in Texas were lamenting our lack of participation in the seemingly nationwide skyrocketing of housing prices.

Would we have avoided a subprime crisis leading to a credit crisis under Al Gore? Did the Democrats protest the laws, passed by a Republican Congress, that allowed a few investment banks to massively increase their leverage? Or did they also take the lobby money and vote for the legislation?

The repeal of Glass-Steagall? That happened in 1998 under Clinton, with the full support, yea, the insistent urging, of the Republican leadership. (Shepherded by a certain Texas senator, who also called Alan Greenspan the “Greatest Central Banker in History.” I still fondly recall Senator Gramm, an economics professor in his prior life, who I think all in all was a very good senator, if just a tad overenthusiastic about Greenspan. (Side note: The conference I just spoke at here in South Africa voted overwhelmingly that the devil’s actual surname was Greenspan, from a rather dubious list of choices. Ah, how we fall from Grace. But back to our historical meanderings.)

Yes, we would not have had the Bush tax cuts, which some mathematically challenged individuals think are responsible for the whole deficit crisis. The tax revenues that were supposedly lost due to the cuts? Tax revenues were actually up just a few years later. To argue that the Bush tax cuts did not have a stimulative effect on the economy flies in the face of all credible nonpartisan research, which shows tax cuts do indeed provide a positive stimulus effect; so the recovery would have been even weaker without them.

But under Gore we would likely not have had the Bush spending increases (which is what heshould be blamed for), as the Republican Congress would likely have continued policies started under Gingrich, which opposed spending wanted by a Democrat president and which resulted in the running of a surplus. It was only when Republicans could get credit for spending increases that they wasted the surplus. But my bet is that (sadly) they would have still figured a way to use up that surplus, post-2000.

Would a Gore presidency have reacted any differently to the credit crisis, in ways that mattered? There was initial bipartisan consensus (at least of a majority, although with some noted disagreements) of the need for a stimulus, although later there was serious disagreement as to what that stimulus should be.

Would Gore have launched a war in Afghanistan? To think he would not have is to ignore who Al Gore was. He was (and I assume still is) a very hard-nosed foreign policy and defense hawk, when he was in the Senate and as vice-president. Would he have gone into Iraq? Probably not, but when all the world’s intelligence agencies (even the French!) believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was close to a nuclear weapon, who can say?

(I should note that they all believed that because they had tapped Saddam’s communication lines. His top scientists told him they were close, because they were afraid for their lives to tell him they were not. So even Hussein believed he was close to a nuclear device. It was all a colossal failure of the intelligence professionals – even those in Iraq! Without such “evidence,” Hussein might still be in power today. If it was not so profoundly sad, with such a tragic loss of lives, the irony would be just too delicious.)

So, there would have been less accumulated debt, but not all that much in the grand scheme of things. The increase in debt under Bush just brought forward a few years the end of the Debt Supercycle. Instead of the necessity of dealing with the deficit in 2013, we might have gotten to 2016. But the math of the entitlement programs makes the Day Of Reckoning a future certainty. However, that is not the point.

The point is that the main economic events would have happened under either president. Would there have been a difference in marginal tax rates? Yes, but I do not think tax rates were the cause of the debt crisis, or the subprime crisis. Would Republicans have avoided the temptation to spend under a President Gore? Not if Hastert and DeLay were still in charge of the House, at least if they continued to espouse the same policies. Less deregulation? But the subprime problem was not caused by deregulation.

The economy would have been basically the same under either president, though a case could be made that there would have been less accumulated government debt. Differences? Sure, I can think of many, but not major ones.