On June 29, 1967, Jayne Mansfield, a 34-year-old film actress and nightclub performer, was traveling to New Orleans from Mississippi in a Buick Electra when the car plowed into the back of a tractor trailer. The driver was a young man employed by the Biloxi dinner club where Mansfield had just wrapped up the 11 p.m. show. Mansfield and her boyfriend were crammed up front with him so that her three young children could sleep in back. The road was narrow and poorly lit, and investigators later concluded the driver didn’t see the truck until the very last moment. He swerved left, but it was too late. All three adults were killed instantly. The children survived with minor injuries.
Mansfield had achieved fame in the 1950s in films like The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Her star had faded in the 1960s, but she remained sufficiently well-known that the details of her death drew extensive press coverage. They were gruesome. The front of the Buick had slid under the tractor trailer, shearing off the roof and smashing the skulls of Mansfield, her boyfriend, and the driver. Initial news reports that Mansfield was decapitated were untrue, but Mansfield’s undertaker later said he found her body in a condition that was “as bad as you get in this business.”
Washington took notice. Since 1953, the Interstate Commerce Commission (an agency that no longer exists) had required big trucks to have underride guards—those horizontal bars you see hanging below the rear of a semi to act as a rudimentary bumper—whenever the truck’s cargo bed stood 30 inches or more above the ground. But the rule didn’t specify how strong the underride guard had to be—how able to absorb the force of a rear collision without giving way. Quite obviously, the 1953 standard had failed to save the lives of Mansfield and the other adults in that Buick Electra. So less than four months after the accident, President Lyndon Johnson’s Federal Highway Administration, or FHWA, announced plans to impose stricter performance requirements on underride guards. The FHWA’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking was published on October 14, 1967. The regulation itself was published on January 24, 1996.
No, that isn’t a typo. The federal government took 28 years and three months to get its underride guard rule out the door. By then, nearly 9,000 more people had died the same way Mansfield had, by sliding under a big semi.
Why was three decades’ deliberation necessary to impose such a commonsense safety precaution? Because Mansfield met her fate just as the economics profession was advancing, like an occupying army, into noneconomic agencies of the federal government. The result was a mindset—an ideology, really—that dominates public policymaking to this day. The Marxists (of whom I am not one) have an excellent term for this ideology: Economism. At a time of extreme political polarization, an Economicist bias (pronounced eh-co-nom-i-sist) is practically the only belief that Democrats and Republicans share.
The Economicist ascendancy helped identify priorities and impose order on the expanding postwar federal government, injecting a welcome dose of rigor. But it also encouraged a retreat from activist government, one that started to firm up under President Jimmy Carter and then snowballed under President Ronald Reagan. The Economism of Republican administrations, influenced by “freshwater” economists like the University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman, was much more conservative than the Economism of Democratic administrations, influenced by “saltwater” economists like the Brookings Institution’s Charles Schultze. But both schools were conservative in their preference for market solutions, their bias against “command and control” regulation, and their distrust of the sort of bold government experimentation that characterized the New Deal. After the 2008 housing crash, Economism lost much of its luster in the academic world, and under President Joe Biden we may be seeing tentative signs (in, for example, this year’s Inflation Reduction Act) that congressional Democrats feel less beholden to Economicist dogma. But to make a clean break, Democrats need to understand how Economism conquered Washington, and how the reduction of noneconomic policy choices to mathematical models and formulas wreaked havoc on many efforts to address the country’s most urgent problems.