Commentary Magazine


From the Editor: Exaggerating a Disaster


Nothing captured quite so perfectly the manic state among those eager for the passage and implementation of the so-called “stimulus” as the wild remark by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, that “every month we do not have an economic recovery package, 500 million Americans lose their jobs.”

There are only 300 million Americans in all, among them 75 million under the age of eighteen and 36 million over the age of sixty-five. The number of employable Americans is thus somewhere around 190 million. If one were to calculate using Pelosian math, by the end of this month alone, the United States would be facing an unemployment rate approaching 1,200 percent.

“I do not think we can move fast enough,” Mrs. Pelosi added. That is literally true, although substantively false. Literally true, because it would not be possible without the application of a physics yet to be discovered to create hundreds of millions of Americans in one fell swoop and then instantly destroy their jobs.

Her words are substantively false, however, because “we” certainly can move all too fast. What matters here is the perspective of the observer. Pelosi surely would have thought a bill that radically cut marginal tax rates in response to the deepening recession would have passed too quickly even if it had taken two years to reach the President’s desk.

Of course, Pelosi’s “500 million” remark was a slip of the tongue; we all have them, and most of us do not have them when we are being filmed, and so perhaps she should be cut a little slack, for, as Hamlet put it, “Use every man after his desert, and who should escape whipping?”

But it was an instructive slip nonetheless. It is more than bad enough to note that, should the unemployment rate rise by the number of half a percentage point every thirty days, the current horrific pace, something like 600,000 Americans would lose their jobs each month. Why would Pelosi’s unconscious therefore direct her tongue to such a bizarre exaggeration?

Perhaps because, when Pelosi spoke those words, she was revealing that there was something about the legislation she, and by extension, its supporters, did not want to acknowledge: The bill that passed the House of Representatives, under Pelosi’s stewardship and in record time, was, in truth, something entirely different from a “stimulus.”

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It was, rather, a compendium of spending plans, proposals, and fantasies that suddenly and thrillingly had been let loose from the drawing board on which they had languished for so long—the outward explosion of the pent-up desires of liberal legislators. President Obama himself made that clear when he spoke to Democratic legislators during the fractious Senate debate on the bill:

And when you start asking, well, what is it exactly that is such a problem that you’re seeing, where’s all this waste and spending? Well, you know, you want to replace the federal fleet with hybrid cars. Well, why wouldn’t we want to do that? That creates jobs for people who make those cars. It saves the federal government energy. It saves the taxpayers energy. So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill. What do you think a stimulus is? That’s the whole point. No, seriously. That’s the point.

That actually isn’t the point. There is, in fact, a difference between spending that is designed to stimulate and spending that is incurred because some people think it is worthy and necessary and will help people. When the President spoke of “saving energy” as a benefit to be gained from a hybrid-car procurement program, he was instantly changing the terms of the discussion away from stimulus to something else—to a theme with which he was, in fact, far more comfortable.

Obama has good reason to be more comfortable with a different theme, considering the sorry and sobering history of failure recounted brilliantly by James K. Glassman in “Stimulus: A History of Folly,” his first article for Commentary, which begins on page 19. Now, it is doubtful Obama views the sorry history Glassman relates in the same way. For some thinkers on the Left, like Paul Krugman, the problem with stimulus is comparable to the riposte some have made about the problem with socialism—not that it has been proved not to work, but that it has never been properly tried. Obama seems to share that view to some extent.

Nonetheless, something did become very confused in the weeks immediately before and after Obama’s swearing-in. It was almost as though the country’s unapologetically liberal politicians found themselves forced to argue that larger government was not so much a good in itself but rather merely a means—a temporary means, even, lasting a couple of years at most—to put the economy back on track.

The argument was disingenuous, because liberal politicians actually do believe in big government for its own sake. And the cognitive dissonance caused by the decision to go with the disingenuous talking point rather than the truer one is, I think, what led Pelosi into her “500 million” error and Obama to slip himself and argue that any and all spending constitutes a “stimulus.”

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There is nothing wrong with elected liberals attempting to implement liberal policies through legislation. They are liberals. They were elected, in many cases by substantial margins. Most liberals who triumphed in November did not hide their view of the need for activist government from the voters who elected them. It is meet and proper that they should attempt to enact the policies they promised when they were running for office. The same is true for the new president. Obama, too, owes his electorate that much.

The only thing wrong—aside from the policies themselves, in my view, but that is not what is under discussion here—is the intellectually dishonest effort to subsume the agenda items of the liberal Left under the pleasing rubric of the word “stimulus.” The decision to do so led to a false premise. One might call it a statist adaptation of the view expressed by Charles Wilson, the chief executive of General Motors, in 1953. Wilson had been named Secretary of Defense, and during his confirmation hearing was asked whether he had enough independence of mind to make a decision that might not be in GM’s best interest. Wilson said he could, but that it would be difficult for him to conceive of an occasion on which he would be called to do such a thing, since “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”

Obama and Pelosi might pay lip service to the notion that there are expansions of government spending that might not be good for the common weal, but it is far from clear that there is an extant government social program he does not think should be enlarged, or a long-desired but never-enacted program he does not think, all things being equal, should be attempted. A larger government is good for the country, of that they have no doubt; and the country itself will be better for having a larger government, they believe. But neither Obama nor Pelosi nor anyone else has given us reason to believe the true purpose of their extraordinary conduct in the first weeks of the new liberal era is to make the economy grow. It is, rather, to use the government to cure what ails America, to make things better. History and common sense suggest that such cures are ineffective at best and iatrogenically catastrophic at worst.

—John Podhoretz

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