Sunday, November 14, 2010


An essay by David Frum appears in today's New York Times Magazine -- and damned if he doesn't offer a better defense of the social safety net than just about any D.C. elected Democrat has offered in the past two years (or possibly twenty years). This is what Democrats need to be saying; they need to say it this way because Fox/Limbaugh/more-Reagan-than-Reagan Republicans have set the terms of the debate, so these are the terms we all have to use when discussing such programs, like it or not:

G. K. Chesterton observed that you should never take a fence down until you understand why it had been put up. We should remember why the immediate post-Depression generations created so many social-welfare programs. They were not motivated only -- or even primarily -- by "compassion." They were motivated as well by the desire for stability.

Social Security, unemployment insurance and other benefits were designed as anti-Depression defenses, "automatic stabilizers" as economists called them. When people lost their jobs, their incomes did not drop by 100 percent, but by 30 percent or 40 percent: they could continue to pay rent, buy food and sustain society's overall level of demand for goods and services. State pensions created a segment of society whose primary incomes remained stable regardless of economic conditions. The growth of the higher-education sector and of health care had a similar effect.

This shift to a more welfare-oriented economy helps explain why business cycles in the second half of the 20th century were so much less volatile than they were in the 19th century. And fortunately enough, this shift put a floor under the economic collapse of 2008-09. Retirees who lost their savings had to cut back painfully. But at least their Social Security checks continued to arrive. People who lost their jobs might lose their homes. But they continued to buy food and clothing. And the industries that sold those basic necessities continued to function -- unlike in 1929-33, when the whole economy collapsed upon itself.

Those who denounce unemployment insurance as an invitation to idleness in an economy where there are at least five job seekers for every available job are not just hardening their hearts against distress. They are rejecting the teachings of Milton Friedman, who emphasized the value of automatic stabilizers fully as much as John Maynard Keynes ever did.

Barack Obama, this rendered in poetry, was the speech you needed to give at some point in the past eighteen months, as your popularity slipped and the very notion of affirmative government came under fresh assault. Or maybe you needed to give it the day after the shellacking. Somebody has to stand up for the core idea of not going back to government minimalism, of partying like it's 1773 (which, given the nature of our economy, would be partying like it's the Gilded Age).

Yes, Frum does go on to say that conservatives "should want a smaller welfare state than liberals in order to uphold maximum feasible individual liberty and responsibility." That's what you'd expect him to say. But he's not talking about tearing everything down. On this issue, at least, a Republican Party with more Frums would be a Republican Party less likely to destroy America just so it can rule over the rubble.


Elsewhere in Frum's essay, he's a bit naive, if (again) well-intentioned. Here he is writing about the economic collapse and TARP, and warbing of "the danger of closed information systems" to the right:

Well before the crash of 2008, the U.S. economy was sending ominous warning signals. Median incomes were stagnating. Home prices rose beyond their rental values. Consumer indebtedness was soaring. Instead, conservatives preferred to focus on positive signals -- job numbers, for example -- to describe the Bush economy as "the greatest story never told."

Too often, conservatives dupe themselves. They wrap themselves in closed information systems based upon pretend information. In this closed information system, banks can collapse without injuring the rest of the economy, tax cuts always pay for themselves and Congressional earmarks cause the federal budget deficit. Even the market collapse has not shaken some conservatives out of their closed information system. It enfolded them more closely within it. This is how to understand the Glenn Beck phenomenon. Every day, Beck offers alternative knowledge -- an alternative history of the United States and the world, an alternative system of economics, an alternative reality. As corporate profits soar, the closed information system insists that the free-enterprise system is under assault. As prices slump, we are warned of imminent hyperinflation. As black Americans are crushed under Depression-level unemployment, the administration's policies are condemned by some conservatives as an outburst of Kenyan racial revenge against the white overlord.

He's right -- but he's ignoring the obvious fact that this works for Republicans politically. For all their current claims that they always hated the spending levels of the Bush years, Republicans were awfully quiet about those alleged sins in real time. They're not like the left, which isn't holding back in its criticism of President Obama and congressional Democrats.

Talking up Bush at the time kept the pro-GOP flame alive among the Republican end-timers in the Bush administration's waning days, and probably prevented a lot of swing voters from truly developing a revulsion toward the GOP. Since then, yes, talk of GOP failings in the Bush era has been common among teabaggers, but never remotely to the extent of the criticism of Democrats. There's vastly more of the kind of Beck talk Frum describes. It works -- having a closed information system wins elections for Republicans. That's all that matters.

There's a similar bit of naivete in a Times editorial that urges incoming Republicans to govern rather than relentlessly hold show-trial investigations:

Inevitably, the White House is reported ready to add a platoon of lawyers to defend against the kind of endless harassment the Clinton administration suffered in the last Republican ascendancy. Surely Republican leaders must know that their past Inspector Javert binge helped snuff out their majority, even though it was abetted by President Clinton's personal misbehavior.

Excessive investigation in the Gingrich years "helped snuff out [Republicans'] majority"? Really? What, in 2006?

Republicans lost a few seats in '98 -- but they kept both houses, and did so again in three straight election cycles, and they kinda-sorta won a presidential election in 2000 that, based on peace and prosperity, should have been a Democratic blowout. And they won the White House again in 2004. Do I really have to recount all this? Excessive investigation did very little damage to the GOP in the Gingrich years -- and creating a sense of multiple scandals (involving Gore and money as much as Clinton and sex) surely helped keep Gore out of the White House.

Did it have anything to do with governing? No. It didn't have to. For Republicans, that's not the point.

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