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Crazy? They called me crazy. But I proved it!


OK, here’s the thing. Our legislature accidentally set up an economic time-bomb, years and years ago, and while that seems like a Bad Thing, this time bomb had a big snooze button that kept it from going off. Oh, and all they would have to do is pull the plug on it and it would stop. But pulling the plug would have meant bending over and showing the American people their asses, so they just kept hitting the snooze button, and everything was OK.

Now, I make it seem like our representatives in Congress are idiots, but in fact this is just one of those artifacts of a representative democracy. Not a great thing, sure, but the cost of it was just hitting the snooze button every now and then, and there was always plenty of warning, and the snooze button thing provided an opportunity for harmless political grandstanding, so that’s all right. So on it went for a few decades, hitting the snooze button and going on with our lives.

As for the economic time-bomb, I should state that I think that economists, particularly in macroeconomics, are quite like the famous six blind men of Hindustan (to learning much inclined), who prate about an elephant that they have never seen. That said, all six of them were of the opinion that it would be bad to let the time bomb go off. This was not a matter of controversy. Yes, people would now and then object to hitting the snooze button, largely as a protest against the way we kept packing more explosives behind the detonator, but these objections were, as I say, political grandstanding. One of the amazing flexibilities of our system is the way it lets our representatives take turns voting against things that they want to have passed. And everybody wanted to have the Snooze Button Pressing Act passed. Because, as I say, all six of the blind economists could at least agree on that.

Well. Then there were the elections of 2010. Remember those? Our Party lost a bunch of seats, and lost a majority of the House, lost the Speaker’s gavel, lost lost lost.

I should at this time acknowledge a couple of brothers making good points: Jon Bernstein reiterates his point that the policy disaster (from a liberal point of view) we are currently experiencing is a direct result of the electoral disaster of November 2010. We should not have allowed ourselves to forget that elections have policy results—while I don’t actually think that’s the whole point of democracy, it’s usually considered a feature, not a bug. At any rate, the election happened, and this is one of the results, and not the last one, either. Meanwhile, Jon’s brother David Bernstein, in conversation, made something clear I hadn’t really thought of in quite that way, that is worth passing along to those of you in deep blue districts like YHB’s. You know those people who the Other Party nominates in hopeless districts like ours? Crazy people who nobody takes seriously, who get nominated because nobody is paying attention—the people who have some crackpot theory that animates them (in Mass 8, back when Joe Kennedy was the Rep, it was a fellow who was convinced that time-sharing jobs would solve all the world’s problems) (in some of the Other Party’s safe districts, Our Party used to wind up with a follower of Lyndon Larouche; that’s how safe districts work) and get a sufficiently large bee in their proverbial that they decide to run for office. Well, there are at least a couple of dozen of those in the House of Representatives right now. These are people who don’t actually understand political grandstanding, and that it is different from, for instance, governing. Think of Jack E. Robinson, Bay Staters. About 5% of the House, or maybe more, are Jack E. Robinson-level politicians. Whew.

Anyway, there’s this economic time-bomb, see, and it came time to hit the snooze button again, only this time (a) every member of the Other Party seems to believe, probably correctly, that they are thisclose to losing a primary to Jack E. Robinson, and (2) the Jack E. Robinson caucus disagrees with the blind Hindustani economists (who are, at least, to learning much inclined, unlinke the Jack E. Robinson caucus) about the whole bomb-is-bad thing. Excellent. Elections have results.

So, the solution, and you may believe this or not, but you should really try, is that we agree to press the snooze button on the time bomb only if we agree to build another time bomb. The idea (and at this point the details are not settled, but the outlines seem to be secure) is that we will hit the snooze button a couple more times, and then we will have massive spending cuts that nobody wants (OK, for each individual cut there are lots of people, voters even, who want them, but the whole purpose of this deal is that no Senator would ever vote for these cuts and survive reelection) unless the Congress agrees to some other, unspecified deal by the deadline. In other words, another time bomb.

Digression: People have taken the Question of the Day to be, as Greg Sargent puts it, Did the president surrender, or did he do the best he could? I have been attempting to write an essay trying to define the potentials of rhetoric in this sort of situation. I don’t think that any particular speech act or lack thereof (including negotiation) would have changed this deal very much, and in that sense the rhetoric is irrelevant to the short-term outcome. On the other hand, we have a moment where people are paying attention to legislating, and those come around only once or twice a year, which means that these are rare opportunities to shift long-term thinking. And I do think that a President can shift long-term thinking, can make or popularize phrases and ideas that people rely on over time. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell if that is happening—it was obvious that Ronald Reagan, for instance, was taking advantage of a moment to shift the mental framework of a substantial wedge of the country, but it wasn’t obvious that, f’r’ex, Our Previous President was not. I don’t think that Our Only President is really communicating effectively, and the substance of what he is communicating doesn’t seem to be very liberal, but again, it’s hard to tell when you are in the middle of it. Still, I admit that I am disappointed, deeply disappointed, in Our Only President over the last few months, I don’t think that he could have improved The Deal much, or even made much of a difference in the next set of elections—but in ten years, we might well have looked back on his presidency as a shifting point in the conversation, and I don’t think we will. I’m not sure, mind you, but I don’t think so. End Digression.

I’m not saying this is a Bad Deal—I mean, it’s bad policy, clearly, and it is very bad for a lot of people, but as a deal it may well be about as good a result of those 2010 elections as is reasonable to imagine. But the idea that we are responding to this time bomb by deliberately setting up another time bomb… it’s insanity.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


It's insanity for Your Party; it makes perfect sense for the Other Party, who have now got concrete evidence that if they shout "TIME BOMB" loudly enough, Your Party will bend over and let the Other Party plant its boot in their asses. :^( So of course they want to have another time bomb to use in a few years; why wouldn't they?

Yes, it's insanity for our party. We elected a guy who was obsessed with post-partisanship, at a time when we already knew the other party contained any number of crazy wingbats who wanted to drive the country over a cliff. At the time, this was more like "vote Democratic because, all things equal, you'd rather not invade Iran in the next four years" rather than "vote Democratic because, all things equal, you'd prefer the U.S. continue to be a major economic power".

But, if you'd asked me in 2008, i would have said i didn't want to invade half of Iran either! I had honestly no idea that post-partisanship was Obama's most important governing principle, nor that, when left to his own devices, he would consider post-partisanship to entail meeting the wingbats halfway as a starting point to negotiations. It's taken a couple of years to get used to the idea that we really are never going to hear the president say, "Reasonable people can now agree that these assholes are yanking us all around. Screw 'em."

Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference at all if the president had said (y'know, months ago), "You're proposing holding the economy hostage, and i refuse to talk about that. Put the gun down and cast your vote," rather than, "Deficit reduction, yeah, that's a good thing. Everyone likes deficit reduction. Sure, let's deal." Maybe the wingbats really do have that much power.

But i'm dubious. I think if Obama's goal were actually to do better than this, he could be doing better than this.

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