Friday, April 2, 2010

Debt'n'flation Dumbness

Debt’n’flation hawks like David Brooks have renewed their call over and over for…well, what, exactly? Action, I guess, on debt and inflation. And yet they always call for this, no matter what situation it is. They’re like the guy who carries an umbrella with him everywhere and every time, no matter what weather conditions it is…If he opens the door and a hurricane confronts him, he’ll say to himself, “I knew it might rain.”

Focusing on debt’n’flation at this moment is like focusing on the rain in a hurricane: it’s a very serious problem, with no question; it can do plenty of damage, no question. But there’s an even more serious problem: the whole gale-force wind aspect. That would be, what? Jobs and wages. Some people (like, I don’t know, Barack Obama) have hailed the latest jobs report, but I’d say it’s more good than bad. Of the 160,000 jobs created, 48,000 are census jobs; wages didn’t budge at all; the long-term unemployed rose; the unwilling part-timers rose; you need to create about 150,000 jobs just to keep pace with population growth; we’re 8 million jobs in the hole relative to the “boom.” That’s a bad labor market, and that’s the first priority.

It’s tough to tell how serious David Brooks is about this. I mean this particular column. He addresses the column to you, dear reader, who happens to be a political consultant at a high-end bondage-themed strip club. Because you’re “swept up in a spirit of gratitude” you decide to fight the fiscal debt problem. And how do you propose to fight this? Norms. Let’s repeat this again: you are a political consultant throwing around campaign bribes at a strip club and you’re deciding to care about norms. “The heart of the problem, you figure, is that unlike yourself, Americans have grown complacent and careless,” and “This whole mess, you repeat to yourself, is caused by democracy and moral decay. What’s needed is a moral revival. And who better to lead it than you? God put you on this earth to manipulate voters for the good of the country.” So I’m pretty sure David Brooks is joking at least a little bit.

The problem is—and since you’re a political consultant, dear reader, you’ve resolved to do this anyway—that David Brooks is manipulating his case. We’ve heard politicians declare over and over “As Americans tighten their belts, their government must tighten it too,” and we know that’s false. We know that firing teachers, police officers and cutting Medicare and Social Security and not building fancy military toys means less money in the economy, means less services in the economy…means a smaller economy, which means more pain, which means a smaller economy…you see where this is going. Brooks pulls the same trick: he focuses on American’s personal debts going up to 133% of the economy; he focuses on personal, not public virtue (e.g. we’re a Billy Mays nation); he focuses on things tangential to the fiscal problems of government. These things are, of course, different, and David Brooks knows this. Personal debt doesn’t equate to public debt. The problems and the causes are different: the former has to do with the gale-force winds we were talking about earlier—i.e. the weakness of the labor market for the past decade (remember, the median family made $1,000 more in 2000 than in 2010.)—while the latter is a combination of temporary recession-spending, military spending, and rampant health care spending growth. But Brooks is being misleading. On purpose. And he’s let you know he’s being misleading—that’s the whole Billy Mays thing, and his idiotic plan to have a secret group of Congressional folks meet up to give the deficit commission people a plan who will then give Congress a plan and huh?—which is why the article has a wry and ironic tone and is actually somewhat amusing It all makes for some plausible deniability, also, which is why it’s a bad column. Let’s just try and be straightforward here, and deal with distinct problems distinctly.

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