Friday, February 06, 2009

More economic nonsense from the Republicans

This is getting exasperating. There is room for serious and honest disagreements about the best policies to address the current US economic crisis. And whether or not one agrees with them, there have been serious and plausible criticisms, from various ideological directions, of the so-called "economic stimulus package" making its way through Congress (including very plausible criticisms that it's too timid given the scale of the crisis, and that it has already been watered down excessively in an apparently vain attempt to obtain bipartisan support).

However, none of that affects some basic facts about political conflict being waged over this legislation. The Congressional Republicans have clearly decided to embark on a strategy of straightforward obstructionism (most monolithically in the House, but to almost monolithically in the Senate as well). And the actual arguments that Republicans have been making to support their position haven't been serious or honest at all, but instead have overwhelmingly combined shameless demagoguery and blatant economic illiteracy.

To a certain extent, they seem to have been getting away with this in the public-relations war over the stimulus package--which ought to provoke depressing reflections about the superficiality and gullibility of American political journalists (so what else is new?) and about the level of public discourse in this country more generally. But getting away with dishonesty and outright nonsense doesn't make it any less dishonest and nonsensical.

The classic expression of this know-nothing party line was the statement by recently elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele that "Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job." I have heard Republicans and other right-wingers say similar things in the past. But this claim is not just misleading, or questionable, or overstated, or obviously wrong. It's simply idiotic.

OK, let's leave aside government jobs, which might strike the average person as a major exception. Maybe, if we want to be excessively generous, what Steele meant to say was that government action can never help to create non-government ("private sector") jobs in the market economy. But that claim is ridiculous, too. As Josh Marshall (among others) pointed out:
This is such transparent nonsense it's hard to know where to start; but I guess it builds on the DeMint nonsense. Has Steele ever heard of government road building? Defense spending? NASA? We don't even need to get into the many ways that government spending on many things has spin-off effects in terms of heightened economic productivity either because of technological innovation or transportation efficiencies, or whatever. How we doing on the spending on research and initial deployment that created the Internet?
Dan Gross tried to spell out the obvious in a bit more detail:
Contrary to Steele's assertion, in the history of mankind, the government has in fact created many, many jobs (including the one he held for a few years: lieutenant governor of Maryland). Today, government accounts for 22.5 million of the nation's 135.5 million payroll jobs, or 16.6 percent. Those numbers include people who work for the federal, state, and local governments—doctors and nurses in public hospitals and teachers at elementary schools and public universities. Government also has created—and continues to create—all sorts of private-sector jobs, for defense contractors, the aerospace industry, medical-device makers, real estate companies, and construction firms. [Etc.]
No, not all government spending or other government actions promote economic growth or are otherwise beneficial. Some of them may be unwise, wasteful, or economically unhelpful. But in the real world, public investments--in transportation and communications infrastructure, in education, and in funding research, to mention only some of the most obvious and undeniable examples--often play a crucial role in enabling and promoting economic growth, helping to create lots of jobs in the process. And that's just for starters.

We happen to be in the midst of a serious economic crisis. And when the central message of one of our two major political parties consists of blatant nonsense and disinformation--whether this is based primarily on sincere economic illiteracy, political cynicism, or some combination of the two--that is not helpful.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub