You’ve Got A Hammer, But This Time, There Actually Are A Lot Of Nails Around…

As part of a post on the politics of emergencies, Reihan analogizes the following two lines, the first of which is George Packer, defending Obama against David Brooks, the second of which is his invention:

  • Obama isn’t trying to remake America’s economy and society out of ideological hubris. He’s initiating sweeping changes because he inherited a set of interrelated emergencies that require swift, decisive action.
  • Bush isn’t trying to remake the Middle East out of ideological hubris. He’s initiating sweeping changes because he inherited a set of interrelated emergencies that require swift, decisive action.

The analogy bears weight in only one tiny regard: if you think that Packer’s invocation of a crisis that “requires swift, decisive action” is meant to foreclose debate and endorse any policy that the President puts forward, then you will see the analogy, since Bush used the crisis as a method of avoiding real debate.  

But on the merits, there is no analogy.  Nothing about the 9/11 attacks, coming from radical Islamists who had had negligible contact with Saddam Hussein, suggested a reason to attack Iraq.  Yet the administration took advantage of a public willing to believe that there was such a connection in order to conduct a meaningless war.  In a less serious instance, they passed a capital gains tax cut on September 13, 2001.

In contrast, Greg Mankiw, a prominent stimulus critic, listed the potential for fiscal policy to stimulate “a less than fully employed economy” as one of his fourteen examples of where there was broad agreement by economists on an issue of macroeconomics.  One can easily argue that the choices of spending are bad ones, given the aim of stimulating the economy, but what one can’t argue is that federal expenditures as stimulus are an arbitrary response to the crisis that we’re facing.  

A further point: someone might try to repair the analogy by arguing that many of the items in the stimulus bill are Democratic pet projects, just like attacking Iraq was a neocon pet project.  However, this isn’t enough–projects can be both Democratic pet projects and stimulative.  This is a point that many conservative commentators have continually missed.  The Democrats are the majority party.  If there’s a case where they can advance external goals while also addressing the crisis, they should.  That’s only wrong if they’re subordinating the stimulus to their other goals.  Any such argument would have to proceed on a case by case basis, and so far that kind of criticism has been lacking.  Instead, there have been a lot of careless attacks that do nothing more than call the bill liberal.

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