Friday, February 06, 2009

One More Note on Obamanomics

I find it somewhat silly--and so it probably appears to people who know me well--that I'm sitting here at my computer, trying to follow the latest news and figure out and say something about whatever it is that I think of the stimulus package being crafted in rapid fits and starts by people a thousand miles away from me. No one reads this blog for breaking news (or at least I certainly hope not!), and I don't have anything like the kind of training in or familiarity with the buget choices and economic possibilities at stake in this whole mess to be a reliable guide. I'm an idea man, mostly, and ideas are taking a deep backseat at the moment.

But they're still there, of course, which is why Ross Douthat's piece this morning is a wise one:

[T]he empirical conclusions that undergird the pell-mell rush to spend as much money as possible are eminently contestable, and the contest tends to break down along, well, ideological lines. So smart liberals are more likely to find the Keynesian model libertarians and conservatives are more likely to raise doubts about its track record--and the question of which comes first, the ideology or the empirical analysis, is essentially unanswerable. Some people are Keynesians because they find the case for stimulus persuasive, presumably; some people find the evidence for Keynesianism persuasive because they're liberals, and thus predisposed to support government spending in general; and many people fall somewhere in between. And the same goes on the other side: I like to think that I'm interested in evidence-based policymaking, but I'm sure that I wouldn't find Tyler Cowen and Greg Mankiw's stimulus skepticism half so persuasive if I weren't already predisposed to tilt against trillion-dollar boosts to big government. In either case, where you place the burden of proof--about the stimulus, or about any government intervention to come--depends on the philosophical premises you start with.

So it is with me. When I mildly defended the stimulus package as it existed as of Wednesday against the accusation of it being a "disaster," I was speaking as someone who isn't necessarily bothered by the idea of the federal government coming to play an even larger role in funding, building, and organizing the provision of certain social programs and public goods and economic opportunities, perhaps mainly because I just don't feel the fear which many do that a centralized response to collective problems will necessarily result in undermining the sort of values I think our national community--which isn't the only one, and arguably not even the most important one, that we live in, but it is a good and essential, nonetheless--ought to make possible and defend. In short, assuming one's "leftism" or "socialism" or "progressivism" is genuinely democratic, community-minded, and participatory--admittedly, an often ignored component--then I don't see why big government (or, at least, a government which is big in selective ways) doesn't make (or at least can't make) local life and family life more healthy and humane. (See this fine back and forth between Ross Douthat, Henry Farrell, and Patrick Deneen for an argument over this point, which I've made again and again and again.) So bring the stimulus on, I say, and if there is--as I said before--crazy stuff in there that really doesn't seem to satisfy the burden of proof, let's at least see some rationales for cutting them out, rather then treating the whole package as fundamentally suspect. If anything, I support it not because I'm a doctrinaire Keynesian, but because Keynesianism seems the best way to get us at the kind of big, structure reforms that we really ought to be pursuing. Let's talk about nationalization. Let's talk about protectionism. The way I see it, anyone who wants to defend a genuine conservatism, to say nothing to those who see the pratical necessity of at least attempting to limit the financial damage which decades of irresponsible lending practices and spending habits have gotten us all, shouldn't be frightened off by those discussions. They should embrace them, if only to separate themselves from those good-hearted folk who appear to think simple constitutionalism (liberalism a la Herbert Hoover, perhaps), as honorable as that attitude may be, is the complete answer to the dilemmas of modern life.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure he knows what he's talking about, Russell. It's not Keynsianism vs Monetarism. It's just two sides of the Keynsian coin that are being argued over, with a very pragmatic concern on the part of fiscal conservatives in both parties about increasing the national debt/deficit. It's an argument over how to best and most effectively apply Keynsianism. The Democrats will, of course, tend towards spending while Republicans will tend towards tax cuts, both Keynsian tactics. But the thing that has caused people to second guess this "stimulus" bill is that presumably, as Obama keeps telling us, we need this now and we need it badly. So the bill shouldn't be filled with pet projects that don't use the money effectively and with ideologically driven items that are more about changing the U.S. socially and infrastructurally in the medium to long-term.

Anonymous said...

The solution to decades of government-incentivized irresponsible lending and spending is to nationalize irresponsible lending and spending? An interesting proposition. Or is the idea that this is one way to hasten the collapse of a corrupt system? That might be true. The question is then what would take its place. I don't know, but I'll bet dollars to donuts it won't be a utopia for the workingman.