There was one post on Saturday, and none yesterday. Saturday’s post was “The Donald and the Veg-O-Matic:”
I’ve written on a number of occasions about the Veg-O-Matic temptation — the urge to claim that your preferred policy solves all problems — it slices! It dices! It purees! It creates jobs! It raises productivity! It takes off weight without diet or exercise! There’s also the reverse version, in which a policy you dislike does everything bad — It’s inflationary! It’s contractionary! It causes acne!
When you see Veg-O-Matic claims, you should always be suspicious. Sometimes a policy does kill two or more birds with one stone — there’s a very good case that infrastructure investment under current conditions, with interest rates very low and economies still under capacity, would create jobs now, enhance long-run growth, and even improve fiscal prospects. But conclusions like that shouldn’t be accepted without a lot of hard thinking and self-criticism; you need to bend over backward to avoid falling into wishful thinking.
That consideration in itself should have flashed warning signs about, to take one important example, the embrace by Very Serious People of the doctrine of expansionary austerity — it was all too obvious that the austerians wanted a reason to cut government spending, and they should have been extremely wary of studies purporting to say that doing so would actually create jobs in a depressed economy. The fact that they instead seized on those studies was a very bad sign.
In modern America Veg-O-Matic economics has tended to be a right-wing thing, for a couple of reasons. One is that if your party’s central mission is to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted, you need to claim that all kinds of wonderful side effects will take place from what might otherwise look like a combination of greed and cruelty. Another is that the parties are different; the monolithic GOP has, until just now, been able to get all its followers declaring that we’re at war with Eurasia, or Eastasia, with no awkward challenges from independent-minded wonks. The Democrats are a coalition in which the wonks have a fair bit of autonomy, and at least believe that they have a professional ethos to uphold.
That said, the Veg-O-Matic temptation exists for everyone. Yes, we see some of it in the populist uprising within the Democratic party, where anyone questioning the happy talk can be dismissed as a corrupt tool of the corporations. But the big example of Veg-O-Matic reasoning I see right now — in this case the anti-VOM version — is coming in what we might call the mainstream critique of Donald Trump.
I come here not to praise Trump — God no — and would be happy to see his political ambitions buried, with maximum ignominy. He would destroy American civil society; destroy our hopes of containing climate change; destroy U.S. influence by trying to bully everyone in sight. It’s very scary that there’s any chance that he might end up with his (long) finger on the button.
But too many anti-Trump critics seem to have settled on one critique that happens not to be right: the claim that a turn to protectionism would cause vast job losses. Sorry, that’s just not a claim justified by either theory or history.
Protectionism reduces world exports, but it also reduces world imports, so that the effect on overall demand is a wash; textbook economic models just don’t say what conventional wisdom is asserting here.
History doesn’t support this line of attack either. Protection in the 1930s was a result, not a cause, of the depression; the early postwar years, when tariffs were still high and exchange controls were pervasive, were marked by very full employment in many countries.
Why, then, focus on such a weak argument against a truly despicable candidate? I think I know the answer: it’s an argument that doesn’t involve taking on bad things in the Trump agenda that differ from the agenda of other Republicans only in degree — as Matt O’Brien says, on tax policy Trump is just Paul Ryan on steroids.
But bad arguments are bad arguments, even if used against a bad guy. And the choice of this argument is telling us something about what’s wrong with a lot of people beyond Trump.