Jonathan Chait

I'm Not Done Arguing Yet

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My piece in the New York Times magazine last weekend about President Obama and the left kicked up a lot of debate. The thesis was that the left's criticisms that Obama failed to secure enough stimulus. Let me address a couple objections I've seen. One argument claims that my argument hinges on the premise that those who argued for more stimulus are unimportant. Here's what I wrote:

It’s worth recalling that several weeks before Obama proposed an $800 billion stimulus, House Democrats had floated a $500 billion stimulus. (Oddly, this never resulted in liberals portraying Nancy Pelosi as a congenitally timid right-wing enabler.) At the time, Obama’s $800 billion stimulus was seen by Congress, pundits and business leaders that is to say, just about everybody who mattered as mind-bogglingly large. News reports invariably described it as “huge,” “massive” or other terms suggesting it was unrealistically large, even kind of pornographic. The favored cliché used to describe the reaction in Congress was “sticker shock.”

David Sirota paints this as an attempt to call Paul Krugman unimportant, all of course in the name of my Corporate Beltway Elitism:

In declaring who "matters" and who doesn't, Chait took a cue from Dick ("Public Opinion Doesn't Matter") Cheney, who famously  insisted that the American people are insignificant serfs. Only, in this case, Chait shows us the obverse of the Cheney-ism -- he tells us the only people who supposedly do "matter." In the nation's capital, that's Washington politicians, Washington pundits and corporate executives. Everyone else -- tens of millions of Americans who think differently -- are of little concern.

Blue Texan at FireDoglake agrees. ("That’s just wrong. Unless you think Paul Krugman didn’t matter.")

Of course, the trick here is to take a descriptive statement and turn it into a prescriptive statement. Obviously I don't believe it's a good thing that people like Paul Krugman were marginalized, and that the decisive weight all rested with those who feared the stimulus was too large. To describe that reality is not to endorse it. You know who else thinks Paul Krugman was ignored during the stimulus debate? Paul Krugman!

Meanwhile, Brian Beutler makes a better, but still unpersuasive case, citing the oft-mentioned point that Americans care, or cared, more about jobs than deficits:

By late October 2009, according to Gallup, 14 percent of the public thought the President's top priority should be the deficit, double what it had been at the end of Bush's term. The same poll found 41 percent of the country thought the economy should be his top priority -- down from 64 percent in 2008, before the stimulus had helped end the country's employment free fall. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and health care also bested the deficit. Other polls showed similar figures, though many asked questions in different ways, and still others asked respondents to name their top economic priorities. Jobs always trounced the deficit, but public concern was starting to bud. Prior to about 2009, the deficit wasn't even listed as an option on similar polls.

In his 2010 State of the Union, Obama announced a discretionary spending freeze. "[F]amilies across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions," he announced. "The federal government should do the same."

In the year and a half since, "stimulus" has fallen into political disrepute, jobs have remained a high priority for the country, and anti-deficit mania has climbed.

The problem here is that Beutler assumes the public views stimulus and deficit reduction as a binary choice. I've seen no evidence that most Americans see it that way. No, it is true that increasing short-term deficits boosts short-term growth. But the whole problem is that Americans don't believe that. They tend to grow more anti-deficit when the economy is in a recession and, indeed, seem to identify the deficit as the cause of economic problems. So presenting a lot of data showing they care more about jobs than deficits when they (wrongly) see the two problems as linked doesn't really get you anywhere.

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