Using the Crisis to Advance a Preexisting Agenda: Not a 'Both Sides Are Equally At Fault' Situation

by Neil H. Buchanan

Two weeks ago, I wrote here on Dorf on Law that progressives are most definitely not wrongly exploiting the current economic crisis to, as the editors of The Washington Post put it, "use emergency legislation intended to rescue the economy as a vehicle to achieve long-sought progressive goals."  I tried to contrast two types of responses to a crisis: what one could call the "exploitation" move by advocates who push their unrelated policy agendas, as opposed to the "now more than ever move" by advocates who make the case that things that they have always favored have now become even more important due to the crisis.

It is actually somewhat tricky to distinguish the two, because both responses can be characterized as beginning with: "As I've been saying all along ... ."  A key difference is in whether the policy agenda is actually relevant to the crisis.  Thus, I argued that progressives' calls for massive spending on infrastructure (water and sewage systems, bridge and tunnel repair, and so on) are not exploitative, because the argument for such spending is strong at all times -- infrastructure spending increases growth and prosperity -- but is even stronger when there are millions of unemployed workers and resources available.  Eliminating the estate tax, by contrast, would be an exploitative move.

In a comment on that column, Professor Dorf added a new category, writing this:
"We might distinguish 3 categories of policy proposal that X pushes in a crisis:

"(A) A policy that X wouldn't ordinarily favor;
"(B) A policy that X would ordinarily favor on grounds G1 but that is now also supported by G2 due to the crisis; and
"(C) A policy that X would ordinarily favor on grounds G1 and that X is now supporting either on grounds G1 or on pretextual grounds G2 that have nothing to do with addressing the crisis.

"(A) clearly is not exploiting the crisis. (C) clearly is exploiting the crisis. I read Prof Buchanan to say here that (B) also isn't exploiting the crisis. I think that's right, but I also think that how one characterizes any instance of (B) will depend in part on what one thinks about the policy's merits (in general and in the special case of the crisis)."
I want to focus on the final sentence of that helpfully clarifying comment, but first I think it is important to work through Professor Dorf's three categories, especially because the first one was at best implied in my column (but was in any case unexplored).

The purest example of "not exploiting a crisis" is (A), a person who actually changes his mind when conditions change.  An example of this might be what one could call a "conservative Keynesian," that is, a person who generally disparages Big Government and thinks that the private sector is inherently better at doing everything but who understands that deficit spending is (especially when interest rates are near zero) the only way to combat a recession or depression.

Thus, this person generally thinks that the government should not borrow money -- even for public investment, because this person (incorrectly) believes that public investment has a zero rate of return, that is, that all government spending is wasted -- but that a short-term economic crisis changes that calculus because even wasted money is useful in restarting the economy.  (Think of Keynes's misunderstood sarcastic suggestion that the government bury tubes of money so that private entrepreneurs can hire people to dig them up.)

As I noted above, (B) is someone who believes in public investment in general but who notices that public investment serves double duty in a crisis, both building for the future and helping in the present.  An example of (C) is someone who decides that the most important thing to do in the current crisis is to push through more restrictions on abortion.

Shortly after I wrote that column, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne (a liberal, but not generally a progressive of the Elizabeth Warren variety, by my reading) wrote a column that solidly fits into the (B) category.  He focuses on two similarly non-Warren-style liberals in the Senate, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Patty Murray of Washington, who make a slightly different kind of (B) case.  They are not saying that certain liberal policies are extra good because of the crisis so much as saying that the crisis did a great job of highlighting problems that we should have cared more about all along.  In Professor Dorf's framing, they are simply pressing G1 -- the original grounds for doing something -- rather than saying that the pandemic-related grounds G2 make the case for action stronger.

Thus, Bennet argued: "I think it’s convenient . . . to say [of the pandemic], ‘Well, this reveals this terrible inequality,’ but anybody who spent any time in a classroom in a poor kid’s neighborhood in America in the last 50 years versus a more affluent kid’s classroom in America in the last 50 years would know that not only has there been inequality but it’s been intense and deeply unfair."  Murray, meanwhile, "also placed 'child care and support for families,' including family leave, at the top of her list of underdiscussed issues as Congress considers a new round of relief, given how many workers are either out sick or caring for family members."  That is a bit of G2 but mostly G1.

Dionne concludes: "Sometimes an illness allows us to discover an overlooked ailment that desperately needs attention. It should not have taken a pandemic to bring home the shortcomings of our government and our society. But we’d be foolish to ignore them."  Again, it is not new grounds G2 but rather a clearer view of the longstanding original grounds G1 that make the case.

Similarly, The New York Times ran a news article under the provocative headline: "Why Liberal Californians Don’t Want to Go Back to Normal."  This captures the Bennet/Murray spirit of the situation in the Golden State:
"[T]housands of people have been let out of the state’s jails and prisons, cash bail has been eliminated for most crimes, thousands of homeless people now have roofs over their heads, and children in rural and poor areas of the state are being sent tens of thousands of laptop computers for distance learning — temporary measures to confront the pandemic that leaders are hoping will become durable solutions to longstanding problems of inequity.
"In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric M. Garcetti has proposed using the crisis as a catalyst to achieve free higher education and to mitigate inequality. Invoking Franklin D. Roosevelt and the social welfare programs that he championed, Mr. Garcetti said, 'the shock to our economy and our lives recalls the scale and the challenges faced by the generation who sacrificed through the Great Depression and World War II.'"
The latter quote again arguably blends G1 and G2 reasoning, but the point is that there is nothing exploitative or opportunistic about pushing for policies during the pandemic that always had a sound policy basis.  And when there is another policy basis that will end when the pandemic ends, we should take that into account, too.

It is only when a policy has good G1 grounds that are temporarily negated by the pandemic that we should abandon that policy.  If, for example, you thought all along that the computer systems for unemployment offices should be shut down and completed replaced, that might be a good idea when there are few new applications for benefits but -- even though better computers are a very important thing -- it would be a terrible idea to do this in the midst of an employment crisis.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, the best-case scenario -- top-to-bottom replacement -- becomes inferior to the equivalent of trying to repair a jalopy while driving it down a mountainside.

But it is Professor Dorf's last sentence that is most interesting: "[H]ow one characterizes any instance of (B) will depend in part on what one thinks about the policy's merits (in general and in the special case of the crisis)."  He is pointing out that an important difference between (B) -- continuing to push a preexisting policy agenda for new, non-exclusive reasons -- and (C) -- pushing forward based on pretextual grounds, even though they "that have nothing to do with addressing the crisis" -- is whether the underlying policies were justifiable on their original grounds G1 at all.  That, after all, is what "the policy's merits" boil down to.

So yes, a conservative who continues to push for tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts might have an argument if he could prove that tax cuts in a non-pandemic environment have the beneficial effects that conservatives claim.  The problem is that they emphatically do not.  Trickle-down economics is about as thoroughly debunked as it could be (falling short only of "tax cuts pay for themselves," which is an amped-up form of trickle-down reasoning).  The estate tax doesn't "break up family farms and small businesses," either, so eliminating the estate tax now will not save small businesses that have been decimated during the pandemic.

In fact, if tax cuts did those things, I would be among the first to favor those changes -- both before the pandemic and during it.  But they do not, so I do not.  The merits must matter, except in the polar-opposite cases that I described above (burying tubes of money, replacing a computer system).

It would, as always, be easier to take conservatives' tax cut obsession seriously if they did not have the same one-note policy agenda in every situation.  The economy is strong?  Cut taxes.  The economy is weak?  Cut taxes.  We are going to war?  Cut taxes.  We are at peace?  Cut taxes.  People are healthy?  Cut taxes.  There is a pandemic?  Cut taxes.  Liberals, other than in conservatives' fevered imaginations, simply do not have a parallel "increase taxes in every situation" attitude.

And what of other conservative policies?  Trump's political brand begins with xenophobia, and he has been trying to justify immigration restrictions for what seems like forever.  On their original merits, these policies were unjustifiable (to say nothing of cruel).  And as bad as it has always been to drive immigrants -- even those here under no legal cloud -- into the shadows and cause them to distrust public authorities, it is especially terrible policy now.

Thus, Trump's exploitation of the crisis, trying to hold additional relief bills hostage to force "sanctuary cities" to cooperate with his purges, is the very picture of bad policies that are even worse in the current environment.

By contrast, the administration's having effectively halted all immigration might have been good and even necessary if the virus were not already raging here and if we actually kept everyone out, making what would be bad policy in general (especially for a nation built on immigration) temporarily justifiable.  But the "ifs" in the last sentence do not reflect reality, so Trump is simply using the crisis to effectuate a simply terrible policy that he favored all along.

As I argued in my earlier column, then, this is another case of false equivalence.  It is not enough to say, "Both conservatives and liberals are still pushing agendas that they have favored all along."  It matters whether the pandemic changes things, and it matters whether the agendas were sensible on the merits in the first place.  This is not a bipartisan problem.