December 2010

The lame duck Congress has proven to be a superpowered fowl: it passed what amounts to a $300 billion stimulus, START ratification, DADT repeal, an extension of the national debt, and a health care bill for 9/11 responders.

The immediate lesson is, once again, never to underestimate Barack Obama. The GOP just looked petty on some of these issues, and on some of them Obama peeled off not one or two but ten or twenty Republican senators. On START, he made excellent use of military and Republican authorities. Obviously the much more Republican Congress in January will be harder to manage, but his position looks a hell of a lot stronger today than it did on November 3.  (Or even December 3 when Democrats were having trouble swallowing the stimulus/tax cut deal.)

The Republicans are making a lot of noise about reducing spending. I think the Democratic response should be: Go ahead, make our day.  Show us your numbers. The Tea Party, remember, was up in arms partly because of the threat of reduced spending on Medicare.   There’s a simple reason government spending is so high: the American people like it that way.  If the GOP cuts enough to really make a difference, they’ll cause outrage, not least among their own constituents.  (Red states get more from the federal government than they pay in.)  Expect them to find about $20 billion in cuts, pretend that they’ve made a difference, then ask for a trillion-dollar tax cut.

The DADT victory also marks the success of a long-term strategy for gay/lesbian activists that looked a little quixotic twenty years ago and now looks brilliant. In 1990, campaigning to let gays and lesbians serve in the military seemed like an odd place to put one’s priorities. But now the logic is clear: you basically can’t deny human rights to people who are fighting your wars.

Ironically, that victory owes something to George W. Bush, for starting two wars. When you’re actually fighting a war, anything that hinders victory begins to look really foolish— like losing smart able-bodied soldiers because of their sexuality.

A new culture test, by Emanuel Leung.

As of this week, I’ve sold over one thousand copies of the Language Construction Kit. So first, a big thank you and/or wet sloppy kiss to everyone who’s bought one. This is really, really good for this kind of publishing; somewhere I read that the average for print-on-demand books is a hundred copies, and the median of course is much lower.

As for AD 4901 (How about Against Peace? That’s kind of cute, isn’t it?), the consensus among a wide range of the two readers who’ve got through it is that it needs some work. Which is fine, though it’ll take a bit of time to make the changes. There’s some things that I think only an outside reader can judge, so this was very useful.

I have an intro to the Incatena universe nearly done, so that’ll go up relatively soon.

Trippy. (Animator Cyriak; music “We Got More” by Eskimo.)

The individual mandate is in the news, as a federal judge declared it unconstitutional.   The actual issues will be decided based on arcane Supreme Court precedents relating to the Commerce Clause, and ultimately by five Supreme Court justices.  But conservatives are making a lot of noise right now about how horrible the mandate is.  So just a few snarky notes…

1. As Jonathan Chait notes, the mandate was a Republican idea.  It was featured in GOP responses to Clinton’s health plan, and of course in Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan.  Not a peep about unconstitutionality back when it was a Republican notion.

2. As David Leonhart points out, feverish objections to any new government program are standard conservative rhetoric.  In 1961 Ronald Reagan objected to Medicare as “socialized medicine”; in 2010 Tea Partiers chanted “Hands off my Medicare!” 

3. But the Founders would never have required citizens to pay for something!  …Only they did.  Turns out that in 1792 Congress required all able-bodied white men to buy a rifle.  (This wasn’t under the commerce clause, but under the militia clause.)   Come to think of it, there’s a town in Tennesse that requires firearm possession.  Again, not a peep from the conservatives about coercion and dictatorship and where will it all end.

The mandate is really a tax– a tax on those who refuse to buy health insurance yet can burden the system by taking emergency care, or just free-riding while they’re healthy and signing up when they’re sick.  There are other ways to solve this, however– e.g. if you don’t get health insurance, you could be kept for five years from enrolling in any government health insurance and private firms would be allowed to exempt pre-existing conditions.

Could you help unpack the claim that New Deal programs extended the Great Depression? Naturally, it’s something that keeps coming up in debate when discussing the extension of government programs, especially in the current climate, but what exactly the argument is isn’t something I’ve truly understood. On the one hand, I’d be more than willing to believe it as partisan rewriting of history, but the same people making the claim seem to credit World War II for ending the depression, which, let’s face it, was the biggest public works project in history (though, admittedly, it isn’t usually characterized as such).  Is there any real basis here? If so, what are the lessons we need to learn? If not, what is the best way to argue against such claims?

—Patrick Augustine

Your instincts are right— the New Deal is a huge problem for libertarians, and popular besides, so they have to engage in a good deal of revisionism to discredit it. 

The general response is just to look at what happened.  Here’s a graph of inflation-adjusted GDP in the Depression/WWII years:


Under Hoover, no new Deal: declining GDP.  Under Roosevelt and the New Deal: GDP recovers, nearly doubling in the pre-war years. 

You may well ask, what the hell happened in 1938?  Roosevelt started listening to deficit hawks, that’s what.  The New Deal wasn’t a technocratic marvel; it was a furious improvisation, and Roosevelt’s style was to try ten things at once in case some of them worked; and he was never entirely happy with long-term deficit spending.  Remember his metaphor, pump-priming; the idea was to jump-start the economy and then step back.  So he did.  This is clearer in the following graph, of government expenditures in the Depression years:

Stopping the stimulus early sent the economy back into a recession (with a lag), and was cured by restoring spending.

The New Deal stimulus was working, but you’re quite right that what really ended the Depression was WWII spending.  Many people seem to react to this as if it the war suddenly removed the discussion from economics: oh, you know, that was a war.  It sure was; it was also, as you say, an enormous public works project.   It was so huge that I  had to remove the war years from the above graph: expenditures were eight times higher, so the 1937 blip gets washed out.  Let me underline that: the war worked better as stimulus because it was eight times larger.

And as government spending, a war mainly involves throwing money into economically useless things: bombs, guns, tanks, aircraft carriers.  Imagine spending all that money on useful investments instead.

For more, some of Krugmans’s columns are relevant.  (Or just search for “Depression” on his blog.)

The fourth link in particular gives more detail on the source of the “New Deal was bad” revisionism.

Also good, this post by Eric Rauchway:

Many on the left are appalled by Obama’s deal on taxes, but it has at least this going for it: it pissed off Charles Krauthammer.

His main complaints:

  • It actually comprises a $990 billion stimulus to the economy.
  • It will add 1% to GDP.
  • It will lower unemployment by 1.5%.

Yes, those are complaints.  He is whining that we’re trying to grow the economy in a recession, and terrified that it will work.  Why does he want the economy to stay stagnant and millions to stay out of work?  Because he wants Obama to lose in 2012, of course.

He thinks the Republicans got snookered into abandoning their “newfound, second-chance, post-Bush, Tea-Party, this-time-we’re-serious persona of debt-averse fiscal responsibility”.  This a couple paragraphs down from noting that two thirds of the stimulus is the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the Holy Grail of the GOP.  That is, if there were no Obama, these “post-Bush, Tea-Party” Republicans would have been adding 2/3 of a trillion dollars to the debt in just two years.

Krauthammer isn’t stupid; how can he possibly believe that the party which loudly insisted on a deficit-mushrooming tax cut plan had the slightest actual interest in reducing the debt?

But I’m afraid he’s mostly worked up over nothing.  It isn’t a trillion-dollar stimulus, for the very reason that 2/3 of it has been in effect for years.  Bush’s giveaway to the rich and his destruction of Clinton’s surpluses didn’t produce prosperity; they helped give us a jobless recovery and then the biggest recession since the Great Depression, featuring the collapse of two major U.S. industries.

(For that matter, it’s beginning to look like winning the 2012 election will be a poison pill.  The Republicans will prevent anything that actually helps the economy, and if they win they’ll do nothing but balloon the deficit more and maybe start another war.)

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