Why Is the Government So Hysterical?

by: Tom Brown

Well-informed people will have their own view about President Obama’s stimulus package. Here’s mine: I believe Congress can (and should) pass legislation that would help stimulate the economy; the most effective, efficient stimulus Congress can provide, in my view, would involve tax cuts as opposed to a hodge-podge of new spending. If I’m reading the papers right, though, many of the spending plans in the president’s bill won’t have any stimulative effect at all.

But reasonable people can differ. I’m less concerned about the specifics of the bill, though—Congressional pork has been with us since the dawn of the Republic—than I am with the tone of the rhetoric being employed to sell it. The people boosting the bill don’t just sound concerned; they’re apocalyptic. They seem to be deliberately talking the economy down in order to get their Christmas tree of a spending bill passed. It’s as if they want to deliberately kill the economy so that they can save it.

Take, for instance, New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who’s in such a hurry to pass the bill he doesn’t seem to think individual items in it should be debated at all. “Why quibble over $200 million?” he told MSNBC the other morning, dismissing concern over one or another’s of the bill’s line items. "If we waited too long and we’re in a depression you can be sure on this show and the other the historians would say, ‘what did they dither for’?” So by Schumerian logic, it’s either vote for the bill ASAP or the country’s not just in a severe recession, it’s in a depression.

Sorry, Senator. When you get a 600-page bill with thousands of spending items that add up to over $800 billion, people are going to want to debate it! Alternatively, if you’re as panicked about depression as you say, take all the junk out and leave only the high-octane stimulus in. In a perfect world, the stimulus package would be split into several pieces, so the people in Congress could take the time to read it all and know what they were voting on. I know I’m not the only one who believes that the bill contains all kinds of programs which would never pass if they were debated on their own merits.

Then there’s Pennsylvania’s Republican senator, Arlen Specter, who wrote an op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post entitled “Why I Support the Stimulus.” Sure enough, he’s in full-bore panic mode:

Specter said:

I am supporting the economic stimulus package for one simple reason. The country cannot afford not to take action. . . . Failure to act will leave the United States facing a far deeper crisis in three or six months. By then the cost of action will be much greater--or it may be too late.

Senator, hello! No piece of legislation, including this monstrosity, is going to turn the economy around in three to six months. And it’s simply outrageous—even irresponsible—to claim that if the bill isn’t passed, “it may be too late.”

Too late for what? Too late to provide wheelbarrowfuls of pork to your constituents that you wouldn’t have been able to deliver to them otherwise, had Congress considered that same pork on its own merits? As it happens, the U.S. economy has shown, again and again, an astounding underlying strength and a dependable ability to revive itself without help from Washington. People like to look to FDR’s New Deal as a template for what the government should be doing now. Unfortunately, a) the economy’s in nowhere near the dire straits now it was in then, and b) one can argue, convincingly, that a lot of the steps Roosevelt took in the 1930s ended up making things worse. At a minimum, the last thing the economy needs now is the deliberate, hyperbolic talking-down that the country’s political leaders seem so eager to engage in.

Which gets us to our new president, who seems more than eager to play the fear card. In Elkhart, Indiana on Monday, President Obama said that if the stimulus bill doesn’t pass, “. . . our nation will sink into a crisis that, at some point, we may be unable to reverse.”

Unable to reverse? For the record, the recession so far isn’t even as bad as the one that occurred in 1981, let alone as bad as the Great Depression. Yet the President flatly states that unless Congress passes his vast stew of a bill, the country will enter into a period of permanent economic decline. This is not FDR-ish (or even Reaganesque) optimism many voters must have thought they were voting for. It is the opposite of that. Not only is Obama’s view flat wrong, he offers it in the gloomy sort of tone that figures to take a bad situation and make it worse. Nice leadership.

In fact, with or without President Obama’s bill, this country will survive and prosper. The only question is when the turn will happen.

I won’t like what’s in the stimulus bill that finally passes. Nobody will—each for different reasons. That’s politics. But I am especially disappointed that our elected officials have opted to sell the bill by preying on the fears of Americans, rather than explaining why they think it makes sense to borrow massive amounts of money to fund programs they say will be good for the country in the short, intermediate, and long-term.

There’s an argument to be made, surely. But the alternative, wolf-crying strategy isn’t helping make things better.