It’s been five years since the passage of President Obama’s stimulus bill (officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). Its successes are well documented: an increase in the gross domestic product of between 2 and 3 percent from late 2009 through mid-2011; six million “job years” created, which comes to 1.6 million additional people on the job each year through 2012; 44 months of uninterrupted job growth; and the reversal of an economy which was plunging into free-fall.
So why did only 37 percent of Americans support the Act three years later? Why has our political discourse become a political Theater of the Absurd in which the preternaturally uninformed Sen. Marco Rubio can proclaim, without perceptible embarrassment, that the stimulus “clearly failed”? Fox News even asked whether “the stimulus caused the recession,” despite the fact that the recession happened first.
Conservatism: a delusional force so powerful it can bend the space-time continuum.
Here’s one reason they can spout this gibberish: because people are still suffering. Rubio also said that “five years later, underemployment is still too high, the number of people who have dropped out of the workforce is astounding, unemployment remains stubbornly high and our economy isn’t growing fast enough” – all of which is essentially true. What’s more, inequality has become worse. For the first time since they began tracking the numbers a century ago, the wealthiest 10 percent of the country captured more than half its total income.
But even these figures didn't create a reality-distortion field powerful enough to let Republicans claim, as Rubio did, that we now have “proof that massive government spending ... is not the solution.” That took something else, something which might be described as a combination of diffidence and tone-deafness on the other side of the aisle.
Those qualities could even be found in the White House’s final report on the Recovery Act, released this week, which concluded that “considerable evidence suggests the Federal Government’s efforts to jump-start the economy were successful.” While technically true, that statement will ring false in the ears of millions of Americans struggling with poverty, un- or underemployment, and stagnating wages.
For reasons that remain unclear, the White House has often been unwilling or unable to explain why additional spending is necessary to heal the economy – an economy that was broken by precisely the kind of ideology that Marco Rubio and his party represent. Instead it chooses to proclaim victory too early and too often. As a result they’ve been unable to pass further spending measures, and the very concept of government spending is vulnerable to greater attack.
That’s especially bad news for the Democrats in Congress who'll have to face the voters in November. They’ll be forced to campaign with the economy we have, not the economy they wish we had.
Here’s an analogy: An addict believes his drugs can cure any illness, only to wind up in the hospital with a massive overdose. The doctor knows it will take at least a week to detoxify and heal him, but he checks out after four days. The patient walks to the curb and collapses. Then he announces that “clearly medicine doesn’t work, so it’s time for more drugs.”
Clearly, our hypothetical patient is either a madman or a fool. But if the doctor hasn’t explained the dire consequences of partial treatment, then she hasn’t done her job either.
The 2008 financial crisis was caused by the very deregulation and plutocrat-friendly policies Republicans are still pushing today (and which too many Democrats also supported, especially during the 90s). But Republicans are nothing if not consistent in promoting their beliefs. The tried-and-true tools for ending recession, on the other hand, never received a full-throated endorsement from this president.
The course of sanity has had too few defenders while, as the poet said, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
To be sure, there have been voices speaking out for a higher level of investment. While the rest of Washington was gripped with an irrational deficit-reduction fever, the Congressional Progressive Caucus came forward with the budget that could have both helped our stagnating economy and reduced the deficit more effectively. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) had an equally productive proposal. (We did, too.)
The lack of support for proposals like these now presents Democrats with an immediate political problem. It also bodes ill for the long term. Sound economic policy hasn’t been credited for its successes. The constructive power of government social investment has been tarnished – not because it doesn’t work, but from a lack of boldness and commitment.
Here’s a reminder of what happened with the Recovery Act, via John Quiggins: Economists, including White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers, agreed that a $1.8 trillion stimulus was needed. But Summers made economist Christina Romer reduce that number to $1.2 trillion, and then reduced it even further to between $600 billion and $800 billion before presenting it to President Obama. And somewhere along the way, a significant amount of that stimulus spending turned into tax cuts instead. Some of those cuts undoubtedly did have a stimulus effect, although not as direct or as strong. Others likely had less effect.
In the end, the Recovery Act provided less than half of what economists believe was necessary, and roughly one-third of that came in the form of tax cuts rather than expenditures. And yet, inexplicably, President Obama and his team were unwilling to explain that more was needed. Instead they pivoted to a tone of premature celebration that was jarringly out of touch with the day-to-day reality experienced by most Americans. (Perhaps the most famous example of this was Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s New York Times op-ed of August 2010, which the newspaper's editors rather unhelpfully entitled “Welcome to the Recovery.”)
It’s true that there has been an extraordinary recovery in the stock market and on Wall Street. But that doesn’t mean much to the vast majority of Americans, who have lost ground as the wealthy have advanced. It doesn’t mean much to the middle class, which has endured decades of wage stagnation and the collapse of the real estate bubble.
How do we restore the good name of government spending, which is especially important during periods of high unemployment and slow growth like these? First, by supporting those politicians who are unafraid to make the case. Second, by demanding that the reluctant ones take a bolder stand – without mixing their messages between spending and premature austerity. Third, by rejecting the insanity that today’s Republican Party represents. Some in the GOP are even opposing infrastructure spending – as America’s bridges, schools, highways and dams decay around us.
If political concerns are holding anyone back, they should remember: Polling has consistently shown that jobs are the public’s top priority. Voters will reward politicians who speak honestly about what's needed to restore employment, boost wages and promote economic growth. They’ll reject the mumbo jumbo of the right as long as they’re given a coherent alternative.
It’s never too late start fighting for the jobs and growth this nation deserves – which nowadays means fighting for reality itself.