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.