So often are the certitudes and pronouncements of the chattering class simply mistaken that they must always be treated with deep skepticism. That is especially true when anything important is at stake — from the arguments for invading Iraq several years ago to today’s economic stagnation. Whatever the conventional wisdom tells you must be true is almost certainly false.
The choral complaint emanating from every mainstream-media outlet — and the mouth of nearly every mainstream pundit — is that the federal government is spending too much and that the public will not stand for it anymore. “We must bring deficits under control!” they tell us. “The American people distrust government because spending is out of control!” they cry. Rick Santelli, the loudest mouth on the CNBC business cable channel and a revered figure in the tea party movement, put it most succinctly the other day when he screamed, “Stop spending!”
Cutting spending is not just bad economics; it’s bad politics, too.
Demands for the government to stop spending usually come with an asterisk and a footnote: stop spending on everyone except me. A self-styled conservative in Congress who supposedly hates spending will vote against extending unemployment benefits, then turn around and protect federal subsidies to wealthy corporate farmers. Other conservatives will fight against increased spending on mass transit, new schools or infrastructure, while promoting bloated weapons programs that the Pentagon doesn’t even want — because the contractor has donated to their campaign or operates a manufacturing plant in their districts. Cut spending, but don’t cut spending on my priorities, no matter how wasteful.
Even if hypocrisy were not so rampant, however, the demands to slash government spending at this stage in the economic recovery are profoundly in error. While one pundit after another warns of the risks of growing deficits, none of those potential risks is imminent. Instead, the nation and the world face the risk of a renewed recession, worse than the last — just as the country sank into recession again in 1937, following the first signs of growth after the Great Depression.
Corporate investment and consumer confidence aren’t nearly strong enough to provide the number of new jobs needed — and only when employment begins to move sharply upward will revenues begin to grow and deficits start to shrink.
Cutting spending is not just bad economics; it’s bad politics, too. The Obama administration’s stimulus spending last year was just enough to prevent the Great Recession from deepening into another depression, but not nearly enough to lift the country toward a broad and full recovery. Lacking the courage of their traditional convictions, the president and his Democratic majorities in Congress tried too hard to please the Republicans, the conservatives and the Washington press corps. Trimming the stimulus too much and refusing to push hard for a second round this year has made the Democrats look weak — and left too many working families in distress.
The noisy Santelli and the publicity surrounding the tea party movement have fostered the misleading notion that most Americans oppose spending to put the country back to work. In fact, as Michael Lind pointed out recently in Salon.com, the latest USA Today/Gallup Poll shows that a substantial majority favor more spending rather than less. Published last month, that survey reported 60 percent support “additional government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy,” with fewer than 40 percent opposed.
For Democrats hoping to stem their expected midterm losses in November, that poll contained an important message. Fully 83 percent of Democratic voters and 52 percent of independents said that they support a second round of stimulus spending — while 61 percent of Republicans were opposed. The Republicans who favor more spending, nearly 40 percent, are most likely to be white working-class males who have lost their jobs or fear losing them. Why are Democrats in Congress and the White House missing the opportunity to motivate their own base, while appealing to independents and disaffected Republican workers?
They are listening too closely to the conventional wisdom, that’s why — and as always, it is leading them in the wrong direction.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com).
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