Are We Past Race in Obama's America? Are We Past the Stimulus Bill Yet?


A few weeks before Barack Obama's inauguration, Slate's Christopher Hitchens attacked the "tsunami of drool" he saw emanating from the pro-Obama media and asked, "Are we not in danger of emulating [Obama's senatorial opponent Alan] Keyes' insane mistake every time we bang on about the senator's pigmentation?" I tend to agree, and have said that one hope for an Obama presidency is that it ends the worst sort of racial discourse in America.

Judging from the mini-flap surrounding economist and Reason.com contributor Arnold Kling, I'm starting to think I've been way overly optimistic. Readers of Kling's work at places such as Econlog know him as serious Ph.D. who comments on all sorts of issues from a free-market libertarian perspective. That is, he generally thinks that people should control most aspects of their lives and be allowed to live however they want.

Readers of sites such as Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, James Wolcott's blogThe American Prospect's Tapped, and Patriot's Quill might know him as either "a race-baiter or 'fatuously clueless.'" Kling's ostensible crime? Figuring the $800 billion stimulus package and ongoing TARP bailout thus at a Heritage Foundation event:

"I think about the stimulus as an economist but I feel it as a father. Barack Obama is destroying my daughter's future. It is like sitting there watching my house ransacked by a gang of thugs. That's how I feel, now back to how I think."

That was enough to get folks to call Kling a racist—mention a black president, a white daughter, and a home invasion robbery and well, as Wolcott puts it, "If Kling can't comprehend the implication of racial menace encoded in daughter-gang-thugs/home invasion, he's either fatuously clueless—too innocent for this wicked world—or weaselly disingenuous, and a drama queen either way."

I don't doubt that Wolcott is an insightful arbiter of drama queens, but it turns out that things aren't quite what they seem. Wolcott poses the rhetorical question, "Did he picture marauders smashing cherished mementoes when Hank Paulson introduced TARP?"

Well, yeah, writes Kling:

The event was taped, and I hope that Heritage will post the video. Here is what I remember saying:

I complained about Henry Paulson's $700 billion bailout, and I said that I felt as a taxpayer as if my house had been ransacked by a gang of thugs. I then said that we have a new gang of thugs, and there I was referring to the Obama Administration, although I did not cite the President by name.

The original live-blogging transcription of the event was done by Heritage itself, and the blogger has written:

Kling is correct that he did begin his statement by criticizing Paulson before criticizing the Obama Administration. We only left out the mention of Paulson because of space. Believe us, we have had plenty of criticism of Paulson and Bush ourselves. Kling also claims he did not refer to Barack Obama by name but was referring to his administration when he said "like sitting there watching my house ransacked by a gang of thugs." We have corrected the quote accordingly. We apologize for the error.

More here.

Kling's real affront was his consistent, thoughtful, and empirically and theoretically informed criticism of the Democrat's stimulus package, which was taken as a sign of overt right-wing hackery. Indeed, Patriot's Quill pointed to a 2000 column by Kling in which he offers incoming President George W. Bush advice on how to properly design a stimulus (advice, it should be pointed out, that Bush manifestly failed to heed in either of his useless stimulus packages):

So this CATO Institute economist who depicts Barack Obama's simulus plan as akin to a gang of thugs ransacking his house, and who worries for his daughter's future, is the same guy who back in 2000 was urging Bush to go on a Keynsian spending spree?

Give me a break, people!

To which Kling himself posted the first comment:

I have changed my views some since the year 2000. But I remain a bit of a Keynesian. I just don't think that Obama's policies are Keynesian. They are not what economists would come up with if asked to design a stimulus.

Kling might as well have been outed for his praise of Paul Krugman's Nobel Prize: "Even for those of us who disagree with his political views and see little value in his recent work as a columnist, this award brings neither surprise nor disappointment." What an asshole!

I really hope that we don't get into a situation where criticisms of Obama's policies are routinely turned into prima facie evidence of racial animus, coded or uncoded. Especially when it comes to the stimulus, which like TARP is genuinely unpopular. In any case, I think conservatives, liberals, and libertarians can all appreciate the fact that Obama's race did not seem to factor into the election in any of the ways that people worried about. That is, there was no Bradley or Wilder Effect.

To bring it back to Kling, a former economist at Freddie Mac, and his view on TARP and Bush and Paulson, I recommend you watch this brief interview Reason.tv did with him during the big bailout brouhaha of last fall: