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Enlisting Economists, Bush Adds Book to Fiscal Debate

His entire involvement in the presidential campaign has consisted of four words uttered to a reporter as elevator doors were closing: “I’m for Mitt Romney.” But former President George W. Bush gingerly enters the fray a little more this week with a new book outlining ways to rebuild the economy.

President George W. Bush

For the first time since leaving office three and a half years ago, Mr. Bush is advancing a variety of ideas about how to jump-start economic growth by restructuring taxes, expanding trade, encouraging innovation, fixing immigration and overhauling Social Security. He wrote the foreword for the book, a collection of essays from an array of economists, including five Nobel Prize winners, and he proposes a national goal of expanding the economy by 4 percent a year on a sustained basis.

“The 4% Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs,” to be unveiled by the former president in Dallas on Tuesday and published by Crown Business, is neither campaign template nor partisan screed. It is a wonky paean to free enterprise.

It is also the next step in a gradual return to the public stage by a president who has largely remained out of the limelight since turning over the White House to President Obama. Mr. Bush has repeatedly said his successor deserves his silence and has largely avoided commenting on current affairs. He has not publicly appeared with Mr. Romney to endorse him, as his parents have done, or hosted a fund-raiser for Mr. Romney, as his vice president did last week.

To the extent that Mr. Bush has been part of the dialogue this year, it has been as a whipping boy for Mr. Obama and other Democrats. They have warned voters not to support Mr. Romney because he would revive Bush policies that they say led to the 2008 financial crisis and the problems that linger today.

The former president, who was confronted with a recession early in his first term and then presided over a long period of sustained though not particularly robust growth before 2008, does not use the book to defend his record, but instead tries to move forward.

“While the causes of the 2008 crisis will be debated by scholars for decades to come, we can all agree that excessive risk-taking by financial institutions, irresponsible decisions by lenders and borrowers, and market-distorting government policies all played a role,” Mr. Bush wrote in the foreword. “The question now is which policies we should adopt to fix the problems, speed the recovery, and lay the foundation for another long, steady expansion.”

James K. Glassman, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, which assembled the book, said the former president did not want to rehash the past. “This is not a backward-looking book,” Mr. Glassman said. “We hope that the book will be a centerpiece of conversation and debate about economic policy in the campaign and beyond.”

The book tries to reorient the economic debate away from how many jobs are created each month to a focus on stimulating growth that will generate worthwhile jobs. Government programs can create jobs that do not mean much to the country, the book argues, and it would be better to figure out how to expand the private sector.

At the same time, while warning of the consequences of spiraling federal debt, the book cautions against deficit reduction as an immediate goal, saying tax increases and spending cuts in the short term could strangle growth. “Reducing the debt is critical,” Mr. Glassman wrote in the book’s introduction, “but growth comes first.”

The ideas in the book include lowering corporate tax rates, shifting away from taxing income to taxing consumption and property, promoting innovation by letting professors keep gains from their research, expanding free-trade pacts with Japan and other countries, refocusing immigration policy to recruit more high-skill workers, and expanding the work force by lowering payroll taxes on employees with children.

A goal of 4 percent growth would be ambitious for a country whose annual growth has averaged 3.2 percent since 1948 and is currently below 2 percent. But the difference would have a huge impact; had the country’s economy grown 4 percent a year since 1948, it would be 50 percent larger today. Higher growth would help reduce debt by producing more tax revenue.

“We’re in an economy in transition,” said Brendan Miniter, who edited the book. “If we don’t set the target higher, if we just continue to stumble along, ultimately we’re going to pay a pretty stark price.”

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