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Larry Kudlow: Jack Kemp’s Big Ideas

Politicians today could learn from his style, his optimism and his economic policies

When I first visited with Jack Kemp in his congressional office in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s, I couldn’t help but notice the row of books on his desk. There was Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Benjamin Anderson and Milton Friedman. And, of course, there was Jude Wanniski’s The Way the World Works.

Larry Kudlow
Larry Kudlow

Kemp extracted big ideas from these big books, and he applied them to an American nation that was in big trouble. His detractors called him a jock, just as they called Ronald Reagan a dunce. Yet both men proved their critics wrong.

Working with Wanniski, Arthur Laffer, Robert Mundell, Alan Reynolds, Steve Entin, Norman Ture and many others, Kemp developed an agnostic economic formula that solved the vexing problem of economic stagflation and malaise.

Lower tax rates for everyone, he argued. Make it pay after-tax to work, produce, invest and take risks, and the country will get more of all of it. Along with lower marginal tax rates to reignite economic growth, stabilize the free-falling dollar to curb inflation. Add free trade to that mix, since tariffs are nothing more than taxes on the purchase and sale of international goods.

Foster policies that will unleash our God-given creativity and imagination, Kemp argued, and let individuals take it from there.

Kemp was always talking about a rising tide to lift all boats, borrowing from the JFK phrase of the early 1960s. In fact, in meetings in the mid-1970s, Laffer and Wanniski helped persuade Kemp to follow in JFK’s footsteps and propose reduced tax rates across the board to get the economy growing again.

Kemp, an unbelievably energetic activist, then helped convince Reagan of the merits of this new policy approach. The economic dons of Cambridge and New Haven scoffed. They wanted to raise taxes, allegedly to curb inflation, and pump up the money supply to expand the economy. Kemp and his group told the dons they had it exactly backward. He was right. The Ivy League was wrong.

Kemp actually thought of himself as a bleeding-heart conservative. First and foremost, this son of a truck driver wanted to improve the plight of the nonrich in the inner-city housing projects and those trapped in the dead-end welfarism of the barrios. He worked to expand the economic fortunes and political rights of all minority groups, including all those blue-collar workers who were getting killed by high tax rates and virulent inflation.

A perpetual optimist, Kemp told the Republican convention in 1996: “You see, Democratic capitalism is not just the hope of wealth, but it’s the hope of justice. When we look into the face of poverty, we see the pain, the despair and need of human beings. But above all, in every face of every child, we must see the image of God.” He then added, “I believe the ultimate imperative for growth and opportunity is to advance human dignity.”

Nobody talks like that anymore. Politicians should. It’s inspirational stuff.

Another of Jack’s pet projects was the bringing together of capital and labor, workers and investors, and businesses and jobs. His ultimate goal was to make the nonrich rich. And to achieve that, he knew Wall Street had to work with Main Street; investors had to work with unions; and high finance had to work with the hard-hit folks in the inner cities. He had a true post-partisan vision long before that phrase became fashionable.

Over the years, Kemp often called me to affirm and encourage my simple paradigm: You can’t have a good job without a healthy business to create it, and you can’t have a good, healthy business without the investment capital to fund it. It’s a unifying message.

This week, President Barack Obama unleashed yet another attack on international businesses, essentially calling them unpatriotic tax cheats even though they abide by existing laws. Last week, Obama used his clout to undermine investor contract laws in the Chrysler bailout. The president also has blasted banks and Wall Street, and has launched a war against capital.

Kemp knew all of this to be wrong. He said we need to stop taxing saving, investment and business two, three and four times. Simplify the tax code, he said. Lower tax rates across the board. Understand that Hispanics in the barrio need the very capital that is supplied by investors. Without it, there will be no new jobs. And jobs along with economic growth are the best anti-poverty weapons we have.

Kemp never tore people down; he tried to build everyone up. He argued passionately to persuade, not to destroy. He believed in one grand economic coalition that in fact would constitute a rising tide.

So Kemp has passed away, and we mourn. But his big ideas and dreams will live forever.

Larry Kudlow is the founder and CEO of Kudlow & Co. LLC, an economic research and consulting firm in New York City, and host of CNBC’s Kudlow & Company. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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