Yet More Evidence Accumulates

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In yesterday's post, I discussed the growing evidence -- impossible to ignore, unless one is highly motivated to turn a blind eye -- that the words and actions of those on the right in this country have become unapologetically detached from anything resembling reasoned argument. Whether or not there are reasonable conservatives who would privately concede that their movement's public face is now an embarrassment (and I certainly do believe that such conservatives must exist), the fact is that the words and actions of those with reasonable claims to being leaders on the right -- in media, in political office, among those taken seriously as presidential candidates, in policy analysis circles, and even in academia -- demonstrate that they feel no need to make defensible arguments or to respond to the arguments of others.

After writing my post yesterday, I came upon a brand new instance of the silly non-argumentation that we see from conservative leaders these days. On Monday of this week, in his NYT op-ed column, Paul Krugman pointed out that Republican politicians suddenly become quite Keynesian when it comes to military spending. He pointed out that the now-standard Republican position is that government spending cannot create jobs, and thus that cuts in government spending do not eliminate jobs. Now that the automatic cuts in Pentagon spending that are part of the otherwise-awful August budget deal (the one that temporarily avoided a debt limit crisis) have become a real possibility, however, those same politicians have begun loudly to complain that allowing such defense cuts to occur will surely cost jobs in a fragile economy.

Krugman went on to discuss why conservatives might be willing to tolerate this inconsistency in their thinking. Citing Keynes, Krugman noted that spending on the military does not directly compete with any businesses that might be trying to make a profit outside of the government-supported world, whereas other types of government spending (on energy or housing, say) can seem to be competing with the exalted private sector. Energy projects are thus assessed as "efficient" or "inefficient" on the basis of (often flawed) comparisons to what the private sector could do, but if we "[s]pend money on a weapons system we don’t need, ... those voices are silent, because nobody expects F-22s to be a good business proposition," as Krugman put it.

Krugman directly criticized Buck McKeon, the California Republican who is chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Yesterday, McKeon responded in a letter to the editors of the Times. That letter is a perfect snapshot of the kind of nonsense that the right (at least, those on the right who are saying or doing anything publicly these days) now considers a substitute for argumentation.

"To be clear, as a fiscal conservative I have never supported policies that advance government expenditure for the express purpose of job creation. Indeed, I believe that the private sector is far better equipped to promote lasting jobs growth than Washington will ever be," McKeon insisted. Even so, "Congress is charged by the Constitution with providing for the common defense by raising and supporting our armed forces. We don’t spend tax dollars to protect American jobs, but to protect American lives. As such, it is accurate to point out that cuts in defense spending will cripple a critical industry, result in huge job losses and erode our ability to provide for the common defense."

So, apparently it is OK for McKeon to point out that cutting spending on the military will result in job losses, because we are not spending money on the military specifically to create those jobs. That must mean that it would be acceptable to spend federal money on non-defense projects that happen to create jobs, so long as there are good non-jobs reasons to spend that money. That seems like a very good decision rule.

Spending money on infrastructure results in better roads, safer bridges, more efficient electrical grids, improved rail and air service, cleaner drinking water, and more hygienic sewage treatment. It also would create jobs. By increasing spending on infrastructure projects, therefore, we would not be "spend[ing] tax dollars to protect American jobs, but to protect American lives." Similarly, why not spend more money on support for state and local governments, which will otherwise fire ever more teachers, police officers, firefighters, and so on? These, too, are dollars that will result in saved lives and improved futures.

If we are going to apply sound business principles to discipline government, moreover, then it would also make sense to engage in such spending (and incidental job creation) when the cost of doing so is low. That is, we should do so when the government's necessary hiring of people to rebuild bridges would not compete with the private sector's need to hire workers. That means that the government should plan to engage in temporary projects when the economy is weak -- not explicitly to hire unemployed workers, but to avoid competing with the private sector. Furthermore, during times of prosperity, the permanent spending on teachers, police, firefighters, and so on can be justified on the same grounds that long-term spending on soldiers and weapons is justified: protecting and improving people's lives and futures.

McKeon's position also presumes that every dollar spent on the military serves its purpose, protecting lives rather than lining the pockets of defense contractors or simply providing protection from non-existent threats (like the Soviet Union). Government spending is inherently wasteful, in other words, unless it is military spending. We thus cannot even cut any spending that has already been planned, apparently because that would also put American lives at risk. If we are so certain that the Pentagon is that good at making sure that its spending only goes to useful projects, why not ask the Pentagon's planners (who are public employees) to share that expertise with the rest of the government?

What is especially amazing, however, is that McKeon simply repeated the argument that Krugman (channeling Keynes) attributed to "weaponized Keynesians," but without any attempt to explain how Krugman's argument is wrong: "The defense industry is unique. It relies entirely on federal government dollars. Unlike other sectors of the economy, there are no private sector resources that can rush in to fill the void left by a reduction in federal spending. In that void, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost by those who wear the uniform and those who support them."

Right. That is exactly the argument that Krugman attributed to McKeon and his colleagues. The argument from the right is that "defense is different." As Krugman pointed out, however, that is not an argument that spending does not have Keynesian (job-producing) effects. It merely justifies the spending specifically because it cannot be justified by standard efficiency principles. Even so, the Republicans are arguing that spending creates jobs, and spending cuts cost jobs.

Note also that McKeon's claim is quite inconsistent with conservative assertions that the economy "naturally" reaches full employment. The people who claim, for example, that it is a good idea to put thousands and thousands of British public employees out of work are not claiming that the private sector will employ those people in the same types of jobs that they previously held. Nor do they claim that when, say, a tire company or a bank lays off thousands of employees that everyone will be re-employed in the same line of work. We no longer have as many steelworkers, miners, and auto workers as we used to have. We have no buggy whip makers or ice-truck drivers at all.

The supposed genius of the private sector is that people will be re-employed in the most profitable way, after allowing the wage level to fall with the influx of laid-off workers. If we were to lay off thousands of people (in uniform and otherwise) due to military spending cuts, the anti-Keynesian theories employed on the right all say that everyone would be put back to work either immediately or quite soon. (Keynesians say that most people will be put back to work eventually, but not all of them will be, and the process of waiting will involve great -- and avoidable -- human and economic cost.)

In other words, McKeon's version of an argument is to pick and choose talking points in such a way that they support his immediate purpose, no matter how inconsistent they are with the rest of his professed beliefs, and completely ignoring that his opponent has already responded to an assertion that McKeon simply repeats.

Remember, McKeon is no backbencher. He is the chair of a highly powerful committee in the United States House of Representatives. This kind of non-argumentation is now standard issue from those who purport to know how to fix the economy and make America great again.