Monday, February 28, 2011


I don't know how often I've said this, but I feel I can't say it often enough: ordinary people don't look at the economy the way wonks and economists look at it. They look at it as, well, ordinary people. And Republicans have been much, much better at translating their economic talking points into Normal People Language, whereas Democrats and liberals don't seem to understand that they even need to do this (except, regrettably, when they're describing the economy in ways that actually repeat right-wing talking points almost verbatim).

To us lefties, this is crazy:

A Republican plan to sharply cut federal spending this year would destroy 700,000 jobs through 2012, according to an independent economic analysis set for release Monday.

The report, by Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, offers fresh ammunition to Democrats seeking block the Republican plan, which would terminate dozens of programs and slash federal appropriations by $61 billion over the next seven months.

Zandi, an architect of the 2009 stimulus package who has advised both political parties, predicts that the GOP package would reduce economic growth by 0.5 percentage points this year, and by 0.2 percentage points in 2012, resulting in 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of next year....

But ordinary people think a government job is a job they pay for, while a non-government job is a job they don't pay for. so they think it must be a good thing for government -- for themselves -- to pay for fewer jobs (fewer government jobs, that is).

People think this way because politicians encourage them to. Republicans (when it suits them, i.e., when Democrats are in power) say that government spending and personal spending should be handled pretty much the same way ... and then Democratic politicians frequently say they agree. This has disastrous consequences. A great effort needs to be made to explain that governments aren't like families, that government spending, done thoughtfully in a downturn, can reduce the pain of that downturn -- but Democratic politicians don't even try to do this.

(Or if Democrats can't shake off the government = your family frame, they need to say that sometimes impoverished individuals spend money to make money -- for instance, paying for schooling to qualify for a new job after losing an old one. But the key point has to be made: Yes, this is counterintuitive. But it works. And Democrats don't say that.)

And no, this is not a case of ordinary citizens glomming onto the economic notion that public investment sometimes crowds out private investment. That's way too wonky for ordinary citizens. They just think government jobs come out of their pockets and other jobs don't.

The upshot of this is that, no, ordinary Americans really don't fully grasp that a government job is a job -- not in the (seemingly) cost-free way that a private sector job is a job. They actually need for someone to tell them, "Look, if we lay these government workers off, they will spend less at privately run business establishments. They'll buy fewer clothes and groceries and cars. And that hurts the overall economy. All jobs are jobs, and yes, we have to have the right balance of public and private jobs. But a lost public sector job is a lost job."

Ordinary people are encouraged not to think this way. So we can harrumph when Indiana governor Mitch Daniels goes on the radio and says this to an interviewer:

INSKEEP: I want to ask something that a lot of people are confronting right now, as they deal with the federal deficit as well as state and local deficits that need to be closed. Are budget cuts -- government budget cuts -- worth it, even if they end up seriously costing a lot of jobs right now?

DANIELS: The answer is yes.

But here's his full answer:

DANIELS: The answer is yes. And in fact, I think, if we're gonna have more jobs in this country, now and in the future, we gotta get very serious about further significant reductions in the size of government. I very much think that -- and I'm hardly alone in this -- that substantial reductions in the size and cost of government at all levels is a part of a recovery plan. Let's not forget that government ballooned enormously in recent years, including the first couple years of the recession. While private -- while we were losing millions of private sector jobs, government employment was growing.

He's saying it's a zero-sum game -- public employment leeches money from the "real" economy. Like it or not, ordinary people believe this. And until Democrats and liberals start communicating our message in terms ordinary people grasp, starting by explaining how economic reality differs from what ordinary people think, we will continue to fail at selling that message.

No comments: