George Shultz has one of the most preposterously impressive résumés in recent American history. World War II Marine (1942-45); distinguished academic economist; business executive; secretary of labor (1969-70); director of the Office of Management and Budget (1970-72); secretary of the Treasury (1972-74); chairman of Ronald Reagan’s economic transition team; and the secretary of state (1982-89) who wound down the Cold War.
He’s also been an active adviser to GOP leaders including George W. Bush in the years since. And, as I just learned, he’s not a bad singer either.
When I called out of the blue on Wednesday morning, the 91-year-old éminence grise was in his office at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and willing to meet for an interview that afternoon.
The executive summary? On the economy: “We have some big problems in this country.” He’s very concerned about debt, and about monetary, tax and regulatory policy. On foreign policy: “We’re weaker, much weaker” abroad than we were two decades ago.
But despite it all, Mr. Shultz is confident that if we get the policies right again, America can regain its footing: “When Ronald Reagan took office, inflation was in the teens, the prime rate was in the 20s, and the economy was going nowhere. We still had the remnants of wage and price controls, particularly in oil and gas. And Jimmy Carter said we were in ‘malaise.’ It was a bad time. I’m convinced the economy can be turned around because I watched Ronald Reagan do it.”
“And he basically said, ‘If not us who? If not now when?’ And he held a political umbrella over [Fed Chairman] Paul Volcker, and Paul did what needed to be done. And by late ’82 early ’83, inflation was under control, the tax changes that he made were kicking in, and the economy took off. But it took a politician with an ability to take a short-term hit in order to get the long-run results that we needed.”
Is inflation a primary threat today? Not an immediate one, says Mr. Shultz, “but it’s a building problem because of all this liquidity that’s being stored up. . . . They [the Fed] think their contribution to doing something about [our economic troubles] is very easy money. Well, by this time money is very easy. It doesn’t have to get any easier. . . . It takes other things to get the economy going—not more money.”
Mr. Shultz dwells at length on the national debt, and on the Fed’s role in enabling it: “It’s startling that in the last year, three-quarters of the debt that’s been issued has been bought by the Fed and the balance has been bought by other countries, so U.S. citizens and institutions are not on net buying U.S. debt. . . . The Fed doesn’t have an unlimited capacity because when it buys the debt what it’s doing is monetizing the debt. Sooner or later that has got to get out into the economy. Can’t be held forever. And when it does in that kind of volume—as Milton Friedman taught us, inflation is a monetary phenomenon—it’s gonna be hard to control.”
As Mr. Shultz sees it, there is plenty of empirical evidence about which policies promote growth and which don’t.
“I think the things that need to be done are sort of in the air, and you almost feel as if everybody knows what they are,” he says. “It’s quite apparent that we need to have another round of the 1986 tax act. That is, clean out the preferences and lower the rates. . . . It’s also not a mystery that our corporate tax rate is way too high and there are preferences there that could be cleaned out.”
For Mr. Shultz, the tax issue is not just about rates—though he believes lower rates often produce more revenue than higher ones, and “it’s the revenues you’re looking for”—but about predictability.
He asks me what sports I like. “Let’s talk about football. . . . You want to know the rules and have an impartial referee, but you also want to make sure somebody isn’t going to come along and change the rules in the middle of the game. . . . Now it’s as though we have all these people who have money on the sidelines and we say ‘Come on and play the game,’ and they say ‘Well what are the rules?’ and we say ‘We’ll tell you later.’ And what about the referee? Well, we’re still struggling for who that’s gonna be. . . . That’s not an environment designed to get people to play.”
Mr. Shultz cites the handling of the auto bankruptcies as an important deviation from rules-based economic policy. The question was “are we gonna have a political bankruptcy or a rule-of-law bankruptcy? Political bankruptcy was chosen. So the result is that the unions got paid off and the regular creditors didn’t.”
He also cites Washington’s “habit of passing bills that are thousands of pages long and you know most legislators haven’t even read what they’re voting for.”
That would be ObamaCare, of course. “I fear that the approach to controlling costs in the health-care business is moving more and more to a wage-and-price-control approach. And one thing you know from experience is when you control the price of something, you end up getting less of it. So if you control the price of health-care providers, you will have fewer of them and that’s gonna wind up as a crisis. The most vivid expression of that . . . was Jimmy Carter’s gas lines.”
Experience. Examples. Evidence. Shultz themes.
As we turn to foreign policy, the national debt again looms large: “Now remember something. Alexander Hamilton, our first secretary of the Treasury, and a very good one, redeemed all of the Revolutionary War debt at par value, and he said the ‘full faith and credit’ of the United States must be inviolate, among other reasons because it will be necessary in a crisis to be able to borrow. And we saw ourselves through the Civil War because we were able to borrow. We saw ourselves able to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese because we were able to borrow. We’ve got ourselves now to the point where if we suddenly had to finance another very big event of some kind, it would be hard to do it. We are exhausting our borrowing capacity.”
Mr. Shultz is not an alarmist about the rising power of China. He believes Chinese leaders understand their interest in having good relations with the United States. He is withering in his critique of those who would blame cheap Chinese labor or a cheap Chinese currency for U.S. economic problems:
“We are consuming more than we produce and we’ve done that a while and we’re complaining about the fact that we have an imbalance of trade with China. But if you consume more than you produce, you have to import. It’s just arithmetic. And if you spend more than you earn, you have to borrow. It’s just arithmetic.”
Mr. Shultz is more concerned about the Middle East, an area where he concedes even the Reagan administration struggled, “just like everybody.” So what would he do about the threat of an Iranian bomb? Is he concerned we haven’t seized the current opportunity to weaken Iran’s ally in Damascus?
“[Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] and the Iranians have been a strategic adversary. Gadhafi was sort of a tactical adversary. . . . I think I would have said to the Turks, ‘I see you are providing safe havens on your border and probably you could use some help. We’re there with you.'”
He also thinks we can have a deterrent effect without major military strikes. He recalls an episode from the 1980s when the U.S. Navy became aware of Iranian efforts to mine the Persian Gulf: “We boarded the ship. Took off some mines for evidence. Took off the sailors, sank the ship. Took the sailors to Dubai, I believe, and said to the Iranians ‘Come and get your sailors and cut it out.'”
What about Mitt Romney? Is he running on the right themes? Will he have a mandate if he wins?
“He made one speech that I thought was outstanding, addressing a long-term problem. And that was the speech about K-12 education, and he pointed out the degree to which the United States is falling back. . . . We know that economic growth in the long run is correlated to education achievement.”
Could he recommend one book for Mr. Romney to read this summer? “This book that John Taylor”—the Stanford economist and Mr. Shultz’s colleague at Hoover—”has just published, ‘First Principles: Five Keys to Restoring America’s Prosperity.’ You don’t have to spend weeks reading it.”
Mr. Shultz also mentions the memo his economic transition team wrote for President-elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, recently excerpted in The Wall Street Journal (“Advice for a New President,” May 26): “If you just took that and put that into effect again, then we’d be in business.”
I try hard to pull Mr. Shultz back toward despair. Aren’t we an older, more poorly educated society than the one that climbed out of similar debt after World War II?
“Well, we gotta get after these things! Somehow people are locking into the idea of chronological age. There’s another way of calculating age. That is what is the probability of your dying within the year. If you use that way of calculating, people who are 75 today on that basis are 65 as of some earlier time. . . . We need to gear our retirement system in such a way that people keep working longer.”
He suggests ending Social Security taxes for people who have paid in for 40 years. The way to meet our demographic challenge is to keep people in the labor force longer, Mr. Shultz says, and not fall for European notions that there is some fixed amount of work to be divided up. “The trick is to keep expanding the pie.”
We end on some wistful and optimistic notes. “There’s no lack of creativity in the United States.” Silicon Valley, he says, “is a giant Stanford spinoff.” He waxes lyrical for a moment about Steve Jobs. “My wife tells a story,” he says about a party with Jobs’s wife. “[My wife] says well ‘Where’s Steve?'” “Steve is thinking. He’s decided to take six months off and think” is the response. “He was a creative genius,” adds Mr. Shultz with admiration.
Shultz conservatism is not dour, budget-balancing conservatism. Nor was Reagan’s. It is a belief in the human spirit.
And, of course, in economic policies based on evidence. As the interview closes, I am treated to a song—not a note out of place—that was sung by the secretary on Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday:
“A fact without a theory is like a ship without a sail. Is like a boat without a rudder. Is like a kite without a tail. A fact without a theory is as sad as sad can be. But if there’s one thing worse in this universe, it’s a theory . . . without a fact.”
Mr. Pollock is the Journal’s editorial features editor.