Politics Is Depressing
Sorry to have been out of it for the past couple of days. I was busy, and slightly under the weather, but I also just found politics too depressing to write about.
I mean: you might think that when a genuine crisis occurs — when hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs just last month, when the financial system is looking like nothing more than an enormous black hole into which money disappears without any apparent effect, when our economy seems to be melting down — at a moment like that, people who are normally partisan might try — just try — to get serious and think about the country. And if they didn’t, you might hope that the media would take notice of that fact, instead of covering it as though it were a wrestling match.
Just to be clear: the point is not that people are doing things I disagree with. It’s that their arguments are so transparently silly, and with a few honorable exceptions, they are not being called on it. For instance, there’s the idea we should cut the pork out of the stimulus bill. Matt Yglesias:
“Most of the time, the government is spending money in order to accomplish something specific like build an aircraft carrier or give food to a poor family or maintain a national park or run a prison. If you can build that carrier cheaper, you’re saving the taxpayers money. And that money is thereby freed up for private consumption or investment, and the economy as a whole will thank you. But when you’ve got a substantial output gap and conventional monetary policy canâ€™t pick up the slack, so you decide to try fiscal expansion, then you’re looking at a different situation. Safeguarding taxpayer dollars canâ€™t be the priority when your policy objective is to spend money in order to encourage idle resources to be put to use.”
The point of the stimulus bill is to stimulate the economy. It would be fine to ask whether the present bill is the best way to do that. Does it get the multipliers as high as it could? Does it deliver stimulus quickly? But it is another thing entirely to ask whether we couldn’t manage to scrape by for another year without resodding the capitol mall.
Kierkegaard once wrote: if you are given a task and a certain amount of time to complete it, normally it is a good thing if you complete the task ahead of time. But this is not true when the task is: to occupy yourself productively for a day. In that case, if you appear at noon, saying: look, I finished ahead of schedule!, you only show that you have missed the entire point. Likewise, if your task is to get as much money into the economy as quickly as possible, it is not a good thing to say: look! I got all the things you asked for at half the price!
“Look, I got all the stimulus you needed at half the price!” would be a good thing to say. If God, who knows everything, told us that for some bizarre reason, purchasing a particular kind of pencil at $5 would have such a huge multiplier that for every pencil we purchased, we would get a trillion dollars of stimulus, then we should just buy a couple and count our blessings. But the arguments that the alleged “centrists” in Congress are making are like saying: Ok, fine, we’ll buy a pencil, but why this one? Isn’t $5 an awful lot to pay for a pencil? Why not buy the ordinary kind and save money? Plus, doesn’t the government have enough pencils already? — The pencils are expensive pencils, but very cheap stimulus. And the second is what matters.