Wednesday, February 11, 2009

When Even Your Ideology Fails, Try Gibberish

The debate over the Obama stimulus package has been enlightening in an unexpected way. Faced with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and with overwhelming support among both economists and the public for spending to mitigate or end the recession, the mostly-Republican opponents of the plan are willing to say virtually anything in opposition to the plan. It is no longer merely a matter of viewing the world through a warped, extreme ideological lens. We have now seen conservatives move on to making statements that are inconsistent with their own ideology, that are self-negating, and that ultimately are pure gibberish.

The arguments offered by the opponents of President Obama's plan generally take the form of simple statements of belief (e.g., "We need more tax cuts!") that are impervious to any countervailing logic or evidence. Moreover, some of their accurate statements actually undermine their own policy conclusions. For example, as Mike's comments yesterday suggest, the statement that the New Deal did not end the Great Depression, while true (which is not to say that the New Deal did not do a lot of good, as far as it went), actually leads to the conclusion that we should make sure that we have a bigger spending package now than even President Obama has proposed. But that is not the lesson that conservatives draw. "I tried exercise; but three minutes of deep knee bends each week didn't take off the pounds. Exercise doesn't work."

Much of this, again, is simply a matter of conservatives not letting reality get in the way of their ideological verities. After trying out the line that "it's not a stimulus bill, it's a spending bill," and having been rightly laughed out of the room, Republican senators were reduced to simply reciting line after line from the bill as if stating the items separately would make them seem less acceptable. A billion for the census? How ridiculous! (Why would we want to stimulate the economy by hiring census takers and trying to fulfill this constitutional duty accurately?) Millions to insulate buildings? How wasteful! Even a moment's reflection on the items that the senators held up for ridicule indicated that the items would, almost without fail, put money into the economy quickly and would actually buy useful things.

With nothing left to do, therefore, the bill's opponents resorted to the most opportunistic of arguments. Moreover, some of their claims were directly contrary to conservative ideology. For example, the new chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, was appropriately ridiculed when he tried to claim that the bill would create "work," not "jobs." What went largely unnoticed was his attempt to justify this sophistry. His claim was that because these government programs have specific end dates -- thus insulating the bill from conservative accusations that this is a stealth plan to make people permanent government employees -- the "workers" would not have "jobs" as they would in the private sector, which creates permanent positions.

This is particularly odd coming from the chair of a party that fights so hard to maintain at-will employment as the default condition for labor law in this country. Not only do they not want jobs to be permanent, they do not even want jobs that a worker can depend on from day to day. Saying that the stimulus bill's "work" is inferior to private-sector jobs, therefore, is not only bizarre word play, but it ultimately relies on a claim that conservatives would generally disavow. The whole point of "dynamic labor markets," after all -- usually used to describe U.S. labor markets as opposed to "sclerotic" European labor markets that are bogged down by all those worker protections -- is that workers cannot and should not count on any job being permanent.

And when all else fails, why not just go for outright gibberish? Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska said (on Monday night's "Rachel Maddow Show") that he would not have voted for the House version of the stimulus package, which is why he had worked with some Republicans to make it palatable (to himself and to them). Asked why his group had insisted that funding for education be cut, Nelson noted that he had been a governor once and that he and other governors had not liked it when the federal government had imposed unfunded mandates on the states. When Maddow asked, incredulously, if he was saying that it was a bad idea to give money to states for education now because it had failed to give them money for education at other times, he simply repeated his previous claim. He might as well have been wearing a hat made of aluminum foil.

As a pragmatist, I do not understand pure free market ideologues. Sometimes markets work very well, and sometimes they do not. When they don't, we should see if we can make them work better. Even so, I have gotten used to the fact that some people simply hate the government with a blind fury. What I had not anticipated was the willingness of some politicians to say simply anything -- anything at all, no matter how nonsensical -- and keep a straight face. I am not sure why I find this so surprising. I'll know better next time.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan


Tam Ho said...

It's no wonder so many lawyers become politicians - it's apparently the best way to shed the obligation of having one's arguments pass the red face test.

egarber said...

There's also another subcurrent:

When defending military spending at home -- for new weapons systems, etc. -- we're constantly told by conservatives that local economies will fail, absent continued contracts and base expansions. Can it only be that military stimulus is good for the economy, while all else isn't?

Neil H. Buchanan said...

egarber is quite right. Interestingly, studies have shown that military spending is the least stimulative of all types of spending.

Jamison Colburn said...

We are definitely getting to the tinfoil hat times lately. I watched that Maddow interview myself -- in disbelief. This has renewed my cynicism (it had been knocked out of me in November, I confess) and utter contempt for "discourse ethics" moral philosophy. Those who intone that the overriding imperative must be to take one's opposites in debate as though they're "reasonable" must surely be red-faced themselves these days.

Anonymous Blogger said...

This has renewed my cynicism (it had been knocked out of me in November, I confess) and utter contempt for "discourse ethics" moral philosophy.

Some individuals are unreasonable cynics, whether right-wing psychotics or left-wing post-modernists, and discourse ethics allows them into the debate when they ought to be suppressed. But who says we must follow discourse ethics and when it fails we should crestfallenly believe that everyone is cynical? Habermas, the premier discourse ethicist, argued famously that the cause of jihadist Islamic terrorism was Marxist class struggle. Yet most jihadists are well-educated professionals who have affluently lived in the West; they hate modernity for its frivolousness. Habermas was wrong. His propensity for brilliant erroneousness is no reason to abandon the belief that most human beings can and do act in good faith most of the time. Over 58% of the American people hate Republicans for their gibberish-laden opposition in the past weeks; apparently, your disgust is a pervasive reaction.