Jonathan Chait

The "Uncertainty" Canard

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David Brooks endorses the idea that Democrats have erred by introducing "uncertainty" into the economy:

Republicans need to offer reassurance. Businesses should be able to predict what their tax costs will be, what their health costs will be and what their regulatory burdens will be.

This may be the single most vapid Republican talking point of the last two years. And yet it's been endorsed by moderate conservatives like Brooks and even elite outposts of the conventional wisdom.

The parties do not differ over uncertainty. On taxes, Republicans want to keep the low Bush rates forever. Democrats want to phase out low rates on income over $250,000. The uncertainty is that the original Bush tax cuts had a phase-out date and we can't be sure which party will win. But Republicans winning does not reduce uncertainty any more than Democrats winning would.

On health costs, Democrats passed a major piece of reform legislation which was designed to reduce health care costs. That is the law of the land. Republicans have demagogued all the cost-saving provisions, and they plan to hamstring implementation of the law by defunding the bureaucracy charged with carrying it out, thereby rendering the government unable to enforce the laws on the books. How can you possibly paint the GOP position as reducing uncertainty?

Likewise, on regulation, the main Democratic regulatory agenda concerns carbon emissions by utilities. Democrats are implementing a court-ordered mandate to restrict high emitters of greenhouse gasses. Those rules are public. The GOP plan is to try to harrass and de-fund the Environmental Protection Agency in order to prevent it from carrying out its proposals. How, again, can this be called a plan to reduce uncertainty?

Like I said, you would expect the center-right to buy into the most convincing GOP talking points, and to scoff at the least convincing ones. But here the center-right is parroting talking points that are absurd on their very face. Why? I can't say. My guess is that "uncertainty" is a codeword. Business doesn't want certainty on taxes and regulation, it just wants less of it. But just saying you think low taxes and low regulation is the key to economic recovery is both transparently self-serving and almost self-refuting -- after all, the economic crisis was precipitated by an administration that, for all its spending, was resolutely opposed to taxation of the rich and regulation of business. So expressing a desire to restore "certainty" is simply a way of presenting the pro-business agenda as a specific analysis of the current environment as opposed to straightforward special pleading.

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