The Big Casino Theory of Politics

By: Brooks A. Mick

One factor seldom analyzed in our rush to praise or condemn politicians, especially presidents, is simply the factor of blind chance—luck.

I once played blackjack as a business. This was in the very early 1970s before casinos routinely dealt from multideck shoes, before they devised specific shuffling techniques to segregate the cards into patterns unfavorable to players, and before they fully realized that blackjack could be played profitably by card counters. But still, despite a voluminous study of blackjack statistics, I could run into blind luck—which was as often on the side of the dealer as on mine. When blackjack was dealt from a single deck, a game which rapidly vanished from the casinos, one could be very nearly certain exactly which cards were left in the dealer’s hand and which card he had face down. I once doubled down on blackjack, knowing that the dealer was going to bust on his next card. I got my ten-value and so did he and his sixteen turned into 26 and I won double my bet rather than the 1.5 times I would have made on the simple blackjack I held. This got me booted from the table, but that’s another story.

But there were times when the dealer got that last 5 and turned a 16 into 21 and I lost, too.

There was still a luck factor. So with presidents.

Bill Clinton may have been the luckiest president in my memory. He ran on the mantra that the economy under George H. W. Bush was the “worst in 50 years,” even though there was only the tiniest flat spot in the Reagan Boom, but that tiny flat spot was gone in the last 2 quarters of Bush 41’s term and the economy was already growing at a good clip when Clinton was inaugurated. And still the economy was fairly flat from 1992 to 1994, at which point Clinton’s luck kicked in and the Republicans took over the House under Newt Gingrich. The Republicans introduced a semblance of spending restraint, and the spending restraint helped cause the stock market to rise. Then in 1996, more luck, when the Republicans passed the Welfare Reform Act and transferred hundreds of thousands of people from welfare rolls, drains on the economy, to working, productive members. The economy grew further, and the deficits disappeared.

Further Clinton luck included the burgeoning growth of cell phone technology which allowed business decisions to be made much closer to real time. No longer would secretaries or vice presidents spend hours tracking down the boss who was the only one who could authorize a decision. No longer would the boss be forced to spend hours tracking down the one man who had the specialized knowledge to let him make the decision. The economy took off even more, and we generated a budget surplus.

Some people gave credit to various people. Clinton himself claimed credit for much of it, even for the Welfare Reform Act which he had opposed and vetoed twice! He still takes credit for it. Robert Rubin was given credit for the great economy by some, even though he’s clearly not up to doing anything useful about the current crisis and is blamed for some of the disaster by some folks. Don’t discount the luck factor!

And George W. Bush may well be the unluckiest president in history, blamed for much that was simply beyond his control. First, the terrorist attacks were allowed, even provoked, by acts of several preceding presidents. Bush simply received the blow. It should be noted that he had recognized the impending danger and commissioned a plan to head off terrorism—a plan which was completed on September 10th, 1991, and clearly not in time to be implemented overnight.

The economy which had looked so good under Clinton was clearly crashing beginning in January, 2000, one year before Bush43 was inaugurated. Alan Greenspan, given credit by Bob Woodward as “The Maestro” who had guided the country to prosperity, had misread economic indicators and pinched off the money supply and kept cutting it back even when it was clear the economy was in trouble. And thus Bush was blamed for a recession which had its beginnings in the preceding years. Clinton lucked out again, escaping blame, and Bush received the economic blow.

But he dealt with it. His efforts to push tax cuts through a hostile congress gave us quite good economic growth and near-record employment through 2006 despite the dot-com crash, despite the terrorist attacks, despite the out-of-sync monetary manipulations of Greenspan. This was the equivalent of landing a jetliner safely on the Hudson River after being struck by a flock of geese. Unlike Captain Sullenberger, however, Bush is blamed for the geese striking the economic jetliner, not praised for the landing.

The financial collapse from 2007-2008 is blamed on Bush, but as with the terrorist threat, Bush recognized it and tried to head it off with reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over a period of five years and was stymied by Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and other Democrats. Then the collapse is blamed on Bush! This is not merely bad luck; it is profound ignorance on the part of the citizenry which allows this.

History, if it is honestly reported and analyzed, will recognize that George W. Bush did a quite creditable job as president. Could he have done better? Surely. Hindsight is helpful in this regard, but not available when the geese hit the engines. And luck always plays a part.

Extra credit: Who was the “Murphy” of Murphy’s Law?

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