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McCain's economics remain just Bush league

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Take a great nation with a fabulous work ethic and inventive people. Turn its $236 billion budget surplus into an estimated $482 billion deficit, and nearly double the national debt to $10 trillion. In the meantime, fuel economic growth with a consumer-led borrowing binge that makes America beholden to China. And in the course of encouraging a housing bubble, undermine any regulations that would temper speculation and protect the vulnerable. Here you have it, the United States of America in the eight years of George W. Bush.

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And John McCain said little at the debate in Nashville that would suggest a new McCain dawn to follow the dismal Bush sunset. The Republican proposes more big spending programs -- for health care and a government buyout of bad mortgages -- and more big tax cuts for the rich.

While neither candidate has offered a plausible blueprint to pay for their proposals, Democrat Barack Obama at least talks of raising taxes on someone -- in this case, households earning more than $250,000 a year. For McCain, the Candyland of no-new-taxes and yes-more-spending is always open. "We have to keep Americans' taxes low," he said, and in a show of solidarity with the upper brackets, added, "all Americans' taxes low."

In years past, McCain had earned his due as a fiscal conservative. He voted against an early Bush tax cut. On several occasions, he opposed popular legislation deemed too expensive. And his opposition to earmarks -- that is, pork spending -- is admirable. But his economics have since surrendered to the Bush free-lunch vision.

For all his talk of the need for greater government oversight, McCain can't seem to shake his worship of unfettered markets. His campaign's economic adviser had been Phil Gramm, one of the parents of unregulated financial derivatives. By contrast, Obama's economic adviser is investor Warren Buffett, who called financial derivatives "financial weapons of mass destruction" back in 2003.

Thank heavens the Bush plan to let workers put their Social Security contributions into the stock market came to naught. Imagine the bailout we'd be doing today had Americans seen their Social Security nest eggs shrink by a third in a matter of weeks.

On a related subject, kudos to Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. In his blog, Baker slams moderator Tom Brokaw for implying that Social Security is about to go broke. That is not so.

Scare-talk about an impending collapse of Social Security was a means by which Bush tried to con American workers into accepting his privatization plan. Until the recent market plunge, McCain was still pushing the notion.

Businesses don't fear modest tax increases as much as economic instability. They don't mind careful regulations if they keep markets honest and discourage wild speculation. And businesses, more than anyone else, know that unregulated markets breed chaos. They need predictability.

That's why they are nervous at McCain's naive free-market idea for health care. The Chamber of Commerce and other business groups worry that it would undermine the employer-based system of coverage without putting anything soft underneath it to catch the falling bodies of the newly uninsured.

Fortunately, America still has its hard-working people and creative thinkers. A return to old-fashioned standards for budgeting and regulating can nurture a healthy economy that puts their talents to good use. Sometimes, the best kind of change is a change back to what was.

Froma Harrop's e-mail address is harrop@wctrib.com

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