You know those times when the printer runs out of paper midway through a job, but you don't realize it? You pick up the document and start reading, then wonder where the rest of it went.
That's what John McCain's economic plan feels like. The Republican presidential nominee has outlined plenty of principles and a few specific ideas, like cutting the corporate tax rate, reducing energy costs, and balancing the federal budget. But in his acceptance speech, McCain also pledged to help Americans who "struggle to buy groceries, fill your gas tank, and make your mortgage payment." How? Your guess is as good as mine. Some of the biggest gaps in McCain's plan:
Cheaper energy. McCain's biggest energy proposals are building more nuclear power plants and opening more offshore fields to oil and natural-gas drilling. But it's well known that it could take a decade for such efforts to alter the balance of energy we use and cut back on oil we import from "countries that don't like us very much," as McCain said in Minneapolis. More nuclear plants and offshore drilling won't do anything for the strapped consumers and small-business owners McCain wants to help immediately. Earlier this year, McCain pleaded for relief over the summer months by suspending the 18.4-cent federal gas tax—but he hasn't said if he'll pursue that in 2009, or if it's just for election-year summers. If there ever were a gas-tax holiday, it would leave a vast hole in the Highway Trust Fund and other programs and bleed more, not less, red ink in Washington.
Straight talk: Transforming our energy infrastructure is a huge challenge that could end up costing more than the Iraq war. And take longer. More drilling and nuclear plants could be part of a long-term solution, but until then, the best way for Americans to spend less on energy is to consume less energy.
Cheaper food. McCain's only specific proposals on this are strengthening the dollar, to give Americans more purchasing power, and cutting back on ethanol mandates, which tend to raise prices for corn that might otherwise go toward food. Uh, OK. But a stronger dollar will make only imported food cheaper. Lower corn prices would help a lot in developing countries but would be a marginal improvement in a country like the United States, where corn is already abundant.
Straight talk: American food prices are likely to fall on their own, as the cost of oil (used for manufacturing and transportation) comes down and agribusiness cranks out new products to meet demand. But a smart politician would take credit for it anyway.
More affordable homes. McCain has a plan to rescue at least 200,000 families at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure. But it's similar to a bailout plan already passed by Congress over the summer, so there may not be much more for him to do if he arrives in Washington in January. Whoever is president, however, will inherit a collapsing housing market that's the single biggest problem in the economy. And the only real fix is a painful one: Prices have to fall until the bubble of the last five years is thoroughly deflated.
Straight talk: On the margins, the government can help some homeowners. But most of us have little choice except to ride out the market turmoil.
Falling income. McCain has barely addressed one of the biggest strains on workers: Stagnant real income. (Barack Obama hasn't really, either.) Since 2000, incomes have barely risen after inflation. That's a very thorny problem that can only be fixed by making sure American workers are the most competitive in the world. McCain favors that, needless to say, but making it happen is a huge task, and he hasn't explained how he'd tackle it.
Straight talk: The rich are getting richer. The rest of us aren't.
Worker retraining. In his acceptance speech, McCain acknowledged a troubling subplot of globalization: "Some of you have been left behind in the changing economy." Those feeling the crunch worst are workers whose jobs can be outsourced to India, China, or other low-cost countries. McCain has mentioned a vague plan to make unemployment insurance more practical, and in his speech he pitched a convoluted-sounding idea to pay displaced workers a stipend equal to the difference between what they earned in their last job, and a "potential" new job. Huh? Boy, I'd hate to be the federal official who had to administer that program.
What McCain hasn't addressed is relocation: Workers in manufacturing or textiles or other dying industries often can't get to better jobs, because they can't afford to move. In parts of Michigan, for instance, the economy is so depressed that even upstanding homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their house is worth. To move somewhere else, where the economy is better, they'd have to come up with a big check just to sell their house. Federal and state governments already run lots of retraining programs, most marginally effective.
Straight talk: A competitive economy produces winners and losers, and taking care of the losers is a tough problem that's getting worse because comparable jobs are often far away. Finding a widespread fix is expensive, and there are probably more efficient ways to spend the money.
Balanced budget. McCain is a bona fide fiscal hawk. When it comes to outing pork-barrel practitioners in Congress, McCain has more credibility than anybody else in government. Still, while he promised that "you will know their names," that doesn't mean the pork will stop flowing, because the president still doesn't have line-item veto power to excise the fat from bills, while keeping the meat. If McCain's bully pulpit sends the pork-rats scurrying beyond the Beltway, it will be a novel development.
McCain's plan, meanwhile, calls for lots of additional spending, on things like a $5,000 health-insurance credit for every family, housing subsidies, and tax cuts. To help pay for that, he wants a one-year spending freeze while he scours the federal budget for the legendary—and ever-elusive—waste, fraud, and abuse. Let's hope he finds it.
Straight talk: Everybody wants government to spend less and work better. And maybe McCain will finally be the Hercules who cleans out Washington. But it's been promised many times before.