13 February 2009

Fear cuts both ways

I know it's a little late to be commenting on a post from 4 days ago, but since the attempted stimulus bill is (probably) being voted on this afternoon, I thought I'd try and slip this in under the wire.

Jeremy's post at Porch Dog on the matter rubs me the wrong way. The thesis, best I can tell, is that opponents of the attempted stimulus are relying on fear-mongering:
[This is] the same thing the Bush Administration pulled for eight years…telling the populous that if we do (or don’t do) this thing (whatever that may be), then the world will end. Remember folks, these are the ones that told us to get plastic and duct tape ourselves into our homes.
Though I fall in with the anti-attempted stimulus crowd, I concede that many of us (particularly congress critters) have ramped up the rhetoric much too high. This will be a colossal waste of money, but it won't destroy American capitalism forever. So yes, anti-stimulus advocates drastically overstate their case. But look at what Jeremy led off his post with:
The economy is on its way down the most horrific black diamond slope anyone has ever dreamed up and right now it is doing it blind-folded and on one ski.
We can debate whether this is the worst recession (ever!) or not. I happen to think it isn't. But how is claiming we're on a horrific nose-dive so serious that we should try "just about anything" not also playing on people's fears? The pro-stimulus attempt crowd are just as guilty of using fear to drum up support. (Don't take my word for it. Jacob Sullum did a pretty thorough job comparing Bush's rhetoric for the PATRIOT Act and Obama's for the "American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.")

I wish people would just accept that both political poles prey on emotion to affect opinion. If you really don't think this is the case then tell me how Paulson's We need to spend $700B right now to avert total crisis! is any different than Obama et al's We need to spend $1T right now to avert total crisis! It's been exactly the same tune since September, no matter who's leading the orchestra.

A couple of other minor points: To use Jeremy's numbers, the stimulus attempt is support by somewhere between 37% and 63% of Americans. I don't understand how opposition to it translates into "the establishment" thwarting the will of the people for change. First of all, does a (fairly narrow) majority of American voters supporting Obama in November mean that America necessarily supports his proposals now? Secondly, does the POTUS, both houses of Congress, the Treasury Department, etc. not count as part of "the establishment?" Are the Republicans permanently "the establishment," even when out of power, and the Democrats are the plucky outsiders fighting the power, even when they control both houses and the presidency?

Finally, I don't put any stock in the "but the GOP didn't mind spending oodles on things they favor like tax cuts and wars." Saying the other guys got to waste money so our guys should too is a bit puerile. It's only a step removed from two wrongs making a right, which while being quite satisfying, isn't the best of philosophies. Further I don't have any love lost for the Republicans, so the fact that they're opportunistic and unprincipled is never going to convince me that the Democratic plan is a good one. It's a good observation to make if we're trying to judge the character of Republican legislators (and such judgments will be most unfavorable), but these ad hominem statements don't tell me anything about the desirability of the stimulus attempt.

Both parties are wasteful, both of them try to invoke fear, and both suffer from a poverty of scruples. Let's put all that aside when we're trying to figure out if pitching a trillion dollars into the breach is going to do any good.

Before I sign off I do want to give Jeremy credit for acknowledging that he may be being a bit histrionic. Half the fun of political blogging is being excessive just to get it out off your system. Lord knows Jeremy's co-blogger at Porch Dog has caught me doing that multiple times. So I'm sorry if I'm taking his post too seriously, but I've seen lots of other people make the same objectionable statements without any indications of self-awareness and I figured this was a good opportunity to confront them.


  1. I don't want to spend a lot of time defending Jeremy's post--not because it doesn't deserve it but because it's 3:30AM here and I'm supposed to be on the road in 2.5 hours. (oops not gonna happen, I 'spose)and also because it's his to defend and not mine--but I will say the following things:

    It was a "rant" which is a category we use at PD to signify those REALLY off the cuff logarrheas that hold up particularly poorly in the face of pure logic, which doesn't make them "bad" but does require context in a way that a purer argument would not.

    Jeremy was defending the stimulus against the rhetorical attacks launched by Republicans-which is to say, you can't bitch about the spending portions of this bill _while_ denying the tax cuts added in and the ~3 trillion $ Iraq war. (...or, for that matter, the stimulative effects of World War II, which remains a key Republican talking point.)

    This is not a defense of the bill generally, but it is a defense of the bill vs certain specific attacks.

    The right _is_ attacking the spending portion of the stimulus as if spending itself is wrong while they continue to vote for any spending that supports their agenda. Which means that, however worded, Jeremy's overall critique is sound.

    "Spending" per se is not bad despite Republican arguments to the contrary--it's spending on programs that don't support the Republican agenda that remains at the political heart of the debate.

    That is not to say that the left's arguments have been particularly logical but I think much of the stimulus debate exceeds the bounds of logic in as much as it exceeds our empirical perimeters.

    I much prefer my own take which is this: there are a lot of good programs to borrow money for that might spur later economic growth regardless of its so-called "stimulative" effect and this is a good political time to get that legislation passed.

    Jeremy himself has been pretty good at pointing out that there's no definitive (i.e. scientifically sound) solution to the current economic meltdown. So I think we should be allowed to see his post as purely a dismantling of poor Republican rhetoric rather than any sort of prescriptive rhetoric of his own--and while perhaps somewhat fear mongering not so much as his adversaries here.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I didn't know the particular context of the rant tag, but I sort of recognized that he was making his post off the cuff. That's why I threw in that caveat at the end.

    I think the key is that you and he recognize his post "is not a defense of the bill generally, but it is a defense of the bill vs certain specific attacks." I've seen too many people use Jeremy's points as the former which is a task I think they're unsuitable for.

    Maybe I should have responded to those people as I came across them, but I saw three or four points I wanted to address in his one short post. Additionally I'd much rather critique one of your guys' posts where we have a chance of following up with some good give-and-take rather than saying "Look at all the mistakes Eleanor Clift made on last week's McLaughlin Group."

    Good luck with the road trip, by the way.

  3. I like the ability to generate give and take in good faith as well so I don't mind that you chose PD as the blog of choice for your criticisms, especially since I think your points are sound ones. Besides, I can't say for certain that Jeremy would choose to defend his post the way I did, but the defense offered here is how I took it when I read it.

    And while I'm here, thanks for the kind words from a couple of weeks ago, btw.