The Pasty Little Putz and Krugman

I was hoping that we’d be spared the worst of Monday on this Labor Day, but alas that is not to be.  The Pasty Little Putz is here to cast a pall over the day.  In “Paranoid About Paranoia” he babbles that obsessing about extremists and conspiracy theories, on the right and on the left, is often a way for the elites to gloss over their own failures.  Typical.  Prof. Krugman, in “1938 in 2010,” says the inadequacy of the Obama administration’s initial economic stimulus has landed it — and the nation — in a political trap.  Here’s The Pasty Little Putz:

Last Wednesday, a man named James Lee entered the headquarters of the Discovery Channel with explosives strapped to his body, took three hostages at gunpoint, and waited for his demands to be met.

A foe of population growth, Lee had apparently decided that shows like “Kate Plus Eight” and “19 Kids and Counting” were pushing the planet toward destruction. “All programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants,” he decreed, before moving on to demand solutions for “global warming, automotive pollution, international trade … and the whole blasted human economy.”

By the end of the day, the hostages were safe, Lee had been killed by police, and TLC’s fall lineup was preserved. But the debate about the hostage-taker’s politics was just beginning.

Conservatives and libertarians dubbed Lee a “liberal eco-terrorist” inspired by a “green climate of hate.” They pointed out that he traced his political “awakening” to Al Gore’s apocalyptic rhetoric. They cited an F.B.I. statement calling eco-vigilantes America’s “No. 1 domestic terrorism threat.”

This was all a little ridiculous. But of course it was really an attempt to turn the tables on liberals, who have spent the last two years linking conservative rhetoric to hate crimes and antigovernment maniacs. (It’s a hard habit to break: the liberal site ThinkProgress.org quickly suggested that James Lee was actually a right-wing extremist, because his hostility to “parasitic human infants” extended to the children of illegal immigrants.)

To some extent, partisans persist in these arguments — “your side encourages extremists!”; “no, your side encourages extremists!” — because America really is rife with wild and crazy sentiments. The belief that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim (apparently held by nearly 20 percent of the country) gets the headlines. But as the George Mason law professor Ilya Somin has noted, national opinion polls reveal support for numerous far-out or noxious-seeming notions.

There’s the 32 percent of Democrats who blame “the Jews” for the financial crisis. There’s the 25 percent of African-Americans who believe the AIDS virus was created in a government lab. There’s support for state secession, which may have been higher among liberals in the Bush era than among Republicans in the age of Obama. And there’s the theory that the Bush White House knew about 9/11 in advance, which a third of Democrats endorsed as recently as 2007.

So are we a nation of potential James Lees, teetering on the brink of paranoid violence? Not necessarily. As the libertarian writer Julian Sanchez has pointed out, it’s worth taking all these polling responses with a substantial grain of salt. For all but the hardest-core conspiracy theorizers, they may express what Sanchez calls “symbolic beliefs.” These are “propositions you profess publicly” but would never follow through on, because they’re adopted as a kind of political and cultural statement rather than out of deep conviction.

Consider the apparently widespread notion that George W. Bush knew about 9/11 in advance. If true, it would suggest that Bush was not merely a bad man or a bad president, but an evil genius on a shocking scale. But as Sanchez notes, “you did not really see a lot of behavior consistent with millions upon millions of people being seriously convinced that their president was a treasonous mass murderer.” Nobody planned an insurrection; few people fled to Canada. Instead, liberals organized for Democratic candidates, as though Bush were an ordinary opponent rather than a stone-cold killer.

The same is true of conservative conspiracy theorists today. Tuning in to Glenn Beck or joining your local Tea Party seems like a woefully insufficient response to the possibility that Barack Obama is a Manchurian candidate groomed from birth to undermine democracy and impose Shariah law. But if we understand those paranoias to be symbolic beliefs, rather than real convictions — an attention-grabbing way of saying, “I consider Obama phony, dishonest and un-American” — then conservative behavior makes a lot more sense.

Such beliefs can still be dangerous. The line between what’s symbolic and what’s real isn’t always clear, and a determined demagogue can exploit symbolic beliefs as well as real ones.

But obsessing about the paranoia of the masses is often a way for American elites to gloss over their own, entirely nonsymbolic failures. In the Bush era attacking the conspiracy theories of the “angry left” made it easier for conservatives to avert their eyes from the disaster the Iraq war had become. Today, establishment liberals would much rather fret about the insanity of the Republican base than reckon with the unpopularity of Barack Obama’s domestic program.

Some fretting is justified. (Just ask the Discovery Channel.) But over all, Americans still have more to fear from the folly of establishments than from the paranoia such follies summon up.

TLC (The “Learning” Channel) actually airs those shows Mr. Lee objects to.  Any organization that pollutes the airwaves with crap like Kate what’s-her-face and her litter and that other creature (it’s a uterus, not a clown car, you know) should fret.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Here’s the situation: The U.S. economy has been crippled by a financial crisis. The president’s policies have limited the damage, but they were too cautious, and unemployment remains disastrously high. More action is clearly needed. Yet the public has soured on government activism, and seems poised to deal Democrats a severe defeat in the midterm elections.

The president in question is Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the year is 1938. Within a few years, of course, the Great Depression was over. But it’s both instructive and discouraging to look at the state of America circa 1938 — instructive because the nature of the recovery that followed refutes the arguments dominating today’s public debate, discouraging because it’s hard to see anything like the miracle of the 1940s happening again.

Now, we weren’t supposed to find ourselves replaying the late 1930s. President Obama’s economists promised not to repeat the mistakes of 1937, when F.D.R. pulled back fiscal stimulus too soon. But by making his program too small and too short-lived, Mr. Obama did just that: the stimulus raised growth while it lasted, but it made only a small dent in unemployment — and now it’s fading out.

And just as some of us feared, the inadequacy of the administration’s initial economic plan has landed it — and the nation — in a political trap. More stimulus is desperately needed, but in the public’s eyes the failure of the initial program to deliver a convincing recovery has discredited government action to create jobs.

In short, welcome to 1938.

The story of 1937, of F.D.R.’s disastrous decision to heed those who said that it was time to slash the deficit, is well known. What’s less well known is the extent to which the public drew the wrong conclusions from the recession that followed: far from calling for a resumption of New Deal programs, voters lost faith in fiscal expansion.

Consider Gallup polling from March 1938. Asked whether government spending should be increased to fight the slump, 63 percent of those polled said no. Asked whether it would be better to increase spending or to cut business taxes, only 15 percent favored spending; 63 percent favored tax cuts. And the 1938 election was a disaster for the Democrats, who lost 70 seats in the House and seven in the Senate.

Then came the war.

From an economic point of view World War II was, above all, a burst of deficit-financed government spending, on a scale that would never have been approved otherwise. Over the course of the war the federal government borrowed an amount equal to roughly twice the value of G.D.P. in 1940 — the equivalent of roughly $30 trillion today.

Had anyone proposed spending even a fraction that much before the war, people would have said the same things they’re saying today. They would have warned about crushing debt and runaway inflation. They would also have said, rightly, that the Depression was in large part caused by excess debt — and then have declared that it was impossible to fix this problem by issuing even more debt.

But guess what? Deficit spending created an economic boom — and the boom laid the foundation for long-run prosperity. Overall debt in the economy — public plus private — actually fell as a percentage of G.D.P., thanks to economic growth and, yes, some inflation, which reduced the real value of outstanding debts. And after the war, thanks to the improved financial position of the private sector, the economy was able to thrive without continuing deficits.

The economic moral is clear: when the economy is deeply depressed, the usual rules don’t apply. Austerity is self-defeating: when everyone tries to pay down debt at the same time, the result is depression and deflation, and debt problems grow even worse. And conversely, it is possible — indeed, necessary — for the nation as a whole to spend its way out of debt: a temporary surge of deficit spending, on a sufficient scale, can cure problems brought on by past excesses.

But the story of 1938 also shows how hard it is to apply these insights. Even under F.D.R., there was never the political will to do what was needed to end the Great Depression; its eventual resolution came essentially by accident.

I had hoped that we would do better this time. But it turns out that politicians and economists alike have spent decades unlearning the lessons of the 1930s, and are determined to repeat all the old mistakes. And it’s slightly sickening to realize that the big winners in the midterm elections are likely to be the very people who first got us into this mess, then did everything in their power to block action to get us out.

But always remember: this slump can be cured. All it will take is a little bit of intellectual clarity, and a lot of political will. Here’s hoping we find those virtues in the not too distant future.

Yeah, right…  When pigs fly.

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