How to Sell a Mess

What "stimulus" advocates learned from the push for war with Iraq

When Washington makes a big decision—to pass the PATRIOT Act, to invade Iraq, to bail out Wall Street, to spend hundreds of billions "stimulating" the economy—the most important stage of the debate isn't the final agreement on what to do. That's just a bunch of details about portions and timing. The key stage comes in the initial rounds, when the acceptable radius of disagreement is established. Your sharpest critics are often your most radical critics, so it's important that their arguments be confined to the foreign press, the blogosphere, and other backwaters.

Once those boundaries are ratified, you must police them without pity. This is harder than it sounds. If you argue with those outsiders, you've made them a part of the debate. But you can't shut them up either. The goal then is to persuade everyone else that the dissidents simply don't deserve attention: that they're extremists, partisan flacks, or just not "serious." In 2003, "serious" people were willing to debate the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but they considered it settled that such weapons were reason enough to invade his country. In 2009, "serious" people will debate the best ways to stimulate a slumping economy, but the arguments against a so-called stimulus itself are beyond the pale.

Not everyone will respect the borders you've established. As it became more and more obvious that the Iraq war was a bad idea, for example, critics outside the serious zone started mocking the insiders' pretentions; the term Very Serious Person became an in-joke on antiwar blogs. The left-wing pundit Matthew Yglesias was especially fond of the phrase, particularly when criticizing liberal hawks. But such mockery doesn't make the tactic any less attractive. When House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) opposed the use of stimulus money to keep state budgets in the black, it was Yglesias who declared that Boehner wasn't part of "the serious-people universe." I don't think he was being ironic.

In an even more telling moment this month, the prominent Berkeley economist Brad DeLong blogged a list of economists making, for the most part, normal free-market objections to stimulus spending: that "Congress typically spends according to its political priorities, not economic priorities," that the government "can only shift jobs from one part of the economy to the other," that "the stimulus plan will most probably turn quickly into pork spending," that Obama should "allow the marketplace to correct the errors made by the last 8 years of misguided intervention." Then DeLong informally anathematized everyone on his list, writing them off as "ethics-free Republican hacks." Setting aside questions of ethics and hackery, several of the economists he accused aren't even Republicans. But it's easier to dismiss someone when you've reduced his arguments to a matter of partisan loyalty. That's another trick you may remember from Iraq. "They're not anti-Keynesian—they're just on the other side."

On one level, the stimulus crowd hasn't been as successful as the GOP was during Bush's first term: The Democratic leadership cravenly fell in behind the PATRIOT Act and the Iraq war, but every Republican in the House voted against the Democrats' bill yesterday. On another level, the Democrats don't need to be as successful as the GOP. The bill passed the House without the Republicans' help, and it will probably pass the Senate. And in the meantime, the Dems defined the debate, excluding alternative perspectives almost as effectively as the Bushians did.

Do you doubt that? Consider the following argument:

The recession is a necessary correction. It is forcing ill-conceived and poorly run companies to collapse or restructure, and it is compelling consumers to save again. Protecting those overgrown institutions and encouraging more unsustainable consumption will only delay doomsday and make it worse. It's better to endure some pain now than to endure even more pain tomorrow.

There's two things you should notice about that counternarrative. The first is that it sounds pretty radical. The second is that it isn't as radical as it sounds. It doesn't require you be a thoroughgoing libertarian opposed to all intervention in the economy. An ordinary liberal Democrat could accept it, arguing for federal efforts to ease individual pain—unemployment insurance, retraining subsidies, even direct income grants—while refusing to shore up failing institutions. You might think that would be a common position on the left: help for the dispossessed, not one dime for corporations.

But as far as Washington is concerned, it's invisible. The only Democratic legislators who broke with the bill were conservatives. Meanwhile, many Republicans have accepted the premises behind a Keynesian stimulus effort; they're just debating scale, means, and methods. Alternative ideas are out there, but Washington doesn't take them seriously.

In other words, the Dems have learned a lot from the administration they deposed. As the St. Lawrence University economist Steve Horwitz wrote this week, "Accusing your opponents of being 'ethics-free Republican hacks'...means you don't have to argue for the merits of the individual pieces, just scare the public and demonize the opposition. Of course, that's exactly what these same folks complained about after 9/11. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss indeed."

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.

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  • SpongePaul||

    The goal, as in the current "stimulus" debate, is to establish that dissidents just don't deserve attention: that they're extremists, partisan flacks, or just not "serious."
    ______________________________________________
    And we know, sadly that the GOP and the Dems both are very very good at making those who diagree with them look crazy whacky etc. for examples see Dr. Paul, who doesnt sound crazy anymore does he? nader that little guy from texas who ran. just because someones views are dif, does not make them extremist etc. in my mind the above peole are goo dpeople, with good ideas, not all good ideas, but then no one is perfect. If the demopubs listened more to others, we would not be in this damn mess to start with

  • SpongePaul||

    nader that little guy from texas who ran
    _________________________________________-
    should have been nader, and that guy from Tx oh yeah Perot, know i rem. i knew that nader was not a texan, lol

  • Elemenope||

    Michel Foucault had written ad nauseam about the function of establishing acceptable alternatives in a socio-politcal environment with the goal of defining away actual opposition. This surely is nothing new.

  • MAX HATS||

    To be fair - most of the dissenters in congress are in fact partisan flacks.

  • ||

    "Accusing your opponents of being 'ethics-free Republican hacks'...means you don't have to argue for the merits of the individual pieces, just scare the public and demonize the opposition. Of course, that's exactly what these same folks complained about after 9/11. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss indeed."

    Thank you Steve. And thank you Jesse for quoting Steve. Here's hoping I'll live to see the day we don't get fooled again.

  • Debbie||

    God Bless the Republicans (and the few patriotic Democrats)in Congress for standing up to this socialist mess!

  • ||

    Hi, Debbie. Let me be the first to welcome you to Hit & Run.

  • ||

    The national, state and county GOPs are all starting to issue condemnations of the bailouts and stimulations. Where the hell where they last October?!?! Oh that's right, don't make waves until AFTER the (R) president leaves office. Sigh.

  • ||

    God Bless the Republicans (and the few patriotic Democrats)in Congress for standing up to this socialist mess!

    Whoever posted this, you are a genius. It's like Neil with good spelling and grammar.

  • ||

    I miss Neil.

  • ||

    The concept of framing the debate in terms that favor your own side is not novel and was around long before the Iraq debate, Jesse.

  • ||

    Don't forget "You have to agree with me and vote for my bill" being spun into "reaching across the aisle and trying to get consensus", I have 'principles' but you only have 'ideology', etc.

  • ||

    If only we had more republicans like those in Congress who voted against this bill, then we could return to a smaller government and a more humble foreign policy. We'd fix this country in no time.

  • Mike M.||

    Both parties now fully understand that, in the words of Rahm Emmanuel, "you should never let a good crisis go to waste".

  • George W. Bush||

    "Debbie | January 29, 2009, 4:19pm | #
    If only we had more republicans like those in Congress who voted against this bill, then we could return to a smaller government and a more humble foreign policy."

    Vote for me!

  • ||

    I miss Neil.

    We all do. Cesar, where art thou?

  • mikej||

    Jesse's parsing of the narrative is about right, as is the observation of various commentators that there's nothing new about this tactic. At the same time, there's something odd about writing an article that sagely points to the use of rhetorical rigamarole to avoid substantive debate and then...doesn't contribute to the substantive debate. In other words, yes, the counternarrative doesn't sound that radical. But neither does the narrative -- crudely put, for better or for worse, some institutions are too big to fail. The question is which narrative is likely to be substantively true on the merits. Even confining the debate to the econosphere, it is clear that there is a debate playing out among experts (Recent reference ) that is certainly ideological but also substantive -- it involves principles of macro-economic theory. It would be nice if someone parsed that debate -- particularly from the contrarian side. I'm getting tired of blogs whose discussion of the stimulus package is limited to periodically proclaiming "This Famous Economist Agrees with My Opinion" or, worse, "This Republican Flack is Actually a Man of Principle Because He Agrees with My Opinion". Not to point any fingers or anything.

  • Neu Mejican||

    mikej,

    Nice link.
    Thanks.

  • ||

    Yeah Debbie, the republicans voted unanimously against all the stimulus bills in the last 8 years.

    Not enough republican flavored pork, and they want to make the dems look bad.

  • Paul||

    from the link:

    Paul Krugman: There seems to be an amazing amount of misunderstanding of the basics of fiscal policy, even among people who should know better.



    Irony? You decide.

    But seriously,

    Mike J. Interesting point. But please consider:

    I'm getting tired of blogs whose discussion of the stimulus package is limited to periodically proclaiming "This Famous Economist Agrees with My Opinion" or, worse

    We need to reel ourselves back in for a second. Blogpost. What is a blogpost, and who's posting on the blog?

    Most of the blog posters aren't economists, but have an interest or affinity for same. Most of us here are not economists-- I'm quite sure Neu isn't (for instance) but yet here we are, debating economic theory. Really, all we have is appeal to authority. It just depends on how one does it. Ie, do you understand the authority you're appealing to? Can you cogently make arguments that are original and poignant? I mean, what else would Jesse Walker do? Post graphs of his economic research formulae that he does in his off-time?

  • ||

    I forget: was the substance of the Patriot Act and Iraq AUMF substantively changed in a manner that Republicans objected to in an effort to gain Democratic support?

    Because both the TARP (removal of oversight provisions) and the stimulus bill (family planning funds, more taxes, cuts to infrastructure spending) were changed in ways that Democrats objected to in order to gain Republican support.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Matthew: I know that.

    Mike J.: That's a fair point, and all I can say in reply is that the article you're asking for isn't the article I set out to write. The next (April) issue of the magazine will include a good piece by Veronique de Rugy on the economic case against stimulus packages; keep an eye out for it, and for other coverage from different angles here on the website.

  • ||

    Because both the TARP (removal of oversight provisions) and the stimulus bill (family planning funds, more taxes, cuts to infrastructure spending) were changed in ways that Democrats objected to in order to gain Republican support.

    Tinkering with the edges my friend, just tinkering with the edges.

  • ||

    jsh,

    The point is not whether the changes were large enough to meet your standards, but that dissidents and opponents were not, in fact, treated the same way in the crafting and passage of the TARP and the stimulus bill as they were during the crafting and passage of the Patriot Act and Iraq AUMF. In fact, they had meaningful input, which resulted in substantive changes.

  • Kolohe||

    both the TARP (removal of oversight provisions)

    the various iterations of TARP had *more* oversight provisions at it went forward. And ulitmately, more House republicans voted against it than voted for it, in the same way that more democrats voted against the AUMF than voted for it (a stat you frequently cite)

    as for Patriot act, HR 3192 was passed 357-66* on a motion to suspend the rules and 'fasttrack' it. The two component pieces, HR 3004 to combat financing of terrorism** and HR 2975 for more general 'investigatory tools' and deterrence measures, passed 412-1 and 337-79 respectively.

    *to their credit 64 were dems, the other two were Paul and Ney.

    **imo, this bill is even worse than the FISA stuff in the other bill because it's even more subtle and pervasive. See for example that poker player in the other thread. You're not going to see an outrage over stuff like that on olberman.

  • ||

    Kolohe,

    the various iterations of TARP had *more* oversight provisions at it went forward

    That's not quite true. The initial version put forward by the Bush adminstration had none whatsoever, then the Democratic leadership's version had lots of oversight provisions, and the Republican leadership made watering them down a condition of their support.

    And ulitmately, more House republicans voted against it than voted for it, in the same way that more democrats voted against the AUMF than voted for it (a stat you frequently cite) This is relevant...how?

    as for Patriot act, HR 3192 was passed 357-66* on a motion to suspend the rules and 'fasttrack' it. The two component pieces, HR 3004 to combat financing of terrorism** and HR 2975 for more general 'investigatory tools' and deterrence measures, passed 412-1 and 337-79 respectively. Again, I don't see the relevance.

    My point is about the opposition having input into the final product, as opposed to being shut out.

  • ||

    Kolohe,

    I'm not talking about how good or bad the bills were, or whether the changes sought by the opposition improved or worsened them.

    Like Jesse Walker, I'm talking about process, and how dissidents and opponents were treated.

  • Paul||

    were changed in ways that Democrats objected to in order to gain Republican support.

    So they objected strongly during conference. It's good to know those Democrats are fighting the good fight.

  • ||

    It gets frustrating when people are so involved with their partisan bullshit that simple points elude them.

  • Kolohe||

    It gets frustrating when people are so involved with their partisan bullshit that simple points elude them.

    This is either ironic or another spoof.

  • Kolohe||

    I don't remeber any 'watering down' of the oversight in TARP, I'll have to look that up. The way I remembered it was Paulson's three page plan, then the 30 some odd page bill that was initially rejected because of a House Republican revolt, then a final signing of a 150 some-odd page bill after Senate passage and after it gave tax breaks to fletchers.

    My point is the Dems did provide a lot of input to the products when they wanted to. For instance, the whole idea of a DHS was initially rejected by the Bush adminstration. Then, the concept of TSA was only signed onto by Bush after people like Daschle were saying 'if you want to professionalize, you must federalize'.

  • mikej||

    Whoa. Sorry my link went all wonky there.

    And yeah, Jesse, I appreciate it wasn't the article you set out to write. But I thought my point was worth making, and your article provided a convenient opportunity. And look, an opportunity to plug an upcoming issue of Reason! So it all works out in the end.

    Paul, you act as if only a Ph.D. in economics can attempt to formulate an argument for why the stimulus will or won't work. That's just not true. If anything, our recent crises have revealed that there are plenty of good economics commentators with all variety of backgrounds -- from sub-prime touts to Wall Street insiders. The simplest thing any of them can do is provide the metrics they are using for assessing the economy. For example, Matt Welch harped on how the unemployment rate wasn't so bad (See here, though I think there's a better link somewhere). Since I am skeptical of comparing the unemployment rate across several decades (since it has been tinkered with), since I think the underemployment effect is real, and since I consider unemployment rate a lagging indicator, I considered Welch's focus on this statistics misguided. I feel recent events support my skepticism. Maybe Welch disagrees and will counter with other evidence. This is how debate works. There is plenty of groundwork to be laid before jumping to appeal to authority.

  • ||

    Yes, they learned it from the Iraq debate. As opposed to thousands of years of prior political history.

    Idiot.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I would indeed be an idiot if I thought such tactics were invented during the Iraq debate. Fortunately, I do not believe that.

    Perhaps I should have made it more obvious that I was describing a broader pattern of how people in Washington often do business. Maybe I should have mentioned it in, say, the very first sentence of the article.

    Oh, wait. I did.

  • Kant feel Pietzsche||

    I agree that the Patriot Act was a good example, but an even better one (IMHO) would be how the AWG scare-mongers have conducted themselves for 15+ years.

  • Kant feel Pietzsche||

    Well, longer than that, actually. Ever since their predictions of world-wide permafrost made in the 70's came up painfully short.

    "If we just keep predicting that global temps are going up (or down) and that it is Industry's fault, eventually we will look prescient."

  • Dave W.||

    Comments section here works the same way.

  • Some Guy||

    God Bless the Republicans (and the few patriotic Democrats)in Congress for standing up to this socialist mess!

    How about only the ones who didn't vote for the bailout? And extra scorn for those who voted against it first, only to vote for the porked-up version later.

  • dhex||

    "It gets frustrating when people are so involved with their partisan bullshit that simple points elude them."

    sportsbar diplomacy strikes again.

  • ||

    How about only the ones who didn't vote for the bailout? And extra scorn for those who voted against it first, only to vote for the porked-up version later.

    I confidently predict that many Republicans and virtually all Democrats who voted against this version of the bill will support a porked-up "compromise." That's what they did with the last one, why would this one be any different?

  • ||

    You know what the best way to piss off someone who invented a new "witticism" is?

    Never ask him about it.

    Hi, dhex.

  • Neu Mejican||

    mikej/Paul,

    Paul, you act as if only a Ph.D. in economics can attempt to formulate an argument for why the stimulus will or won't work. That's just not true.

    I think this is relevant here:

    Even if we were to concede these predictive/empirical successes to economics, the force of the preceding argument would not be vitiated. The crux of this argument has not been that economics generates no successful predictions, but only that (a) the quality of its predictions (their precision and reliability), and (b) the growth of its predictive power over time, are not of scientific quality. They do not live up to the standards that economists themselves claim for them. Generating true generic predictions is not the hallmark of science. All of us, drawing on common-sense psychological assumptions, do that all the time. Genuinely scientific theories must anticipate the future with a degree of precision and consistency greater than that realized by common-sense.



    I am certainly not an economist, but I do science on complex systems and know something about the challenges. Economics is studying one of the most difficult to study entities that exists primarily because its underpinnings are a web of common sense assumptions about how humans function. Most other fields studying complex systems (psychology, climate, etc...) can point to an underpinning of harder science that supports their assumptions about how the basic units work. In economics, the basic units are themselves complex systems...and psychology, the study of those complex systems, is far from a hard science.


  • Neu Mejican||

    Above blockquote from

    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2004/10/is_economics_a_.html

  • Ian P||

    "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back... soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil"
    -John Maynard Keynes

    Does anyone else find this quote to be ironic?

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