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Archive for June 10th, 2020

There are plenty of people on the left who write serious and substantive articles about fiscal policy. For instance, I strongly disagree with many of the policy prescriptions from the IMF and the OECD, but those international bureaucracies are reasonably rigorous with data.

Heck, they even use real data when they’re being dishonest.

Some people, though, churn out analysis that is utterly disconnected from reality. I’m even thinking of creating a Fiscal Fantasyland Club to commemorate their fact-deprived writings.

  1. In a column for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank blamed the “disastrous philosophy” of “anti-government conservatism” for leaving the federal government without the resources to fight the coronavirus.
  2. In an article for the Atlantic, George Packer told readers that the federal government screwed up because it has been subjected to “steady defunding” by right-wing ideologues intent on “squeezing it dry.”
  3. Another columnist for the Washington Post, Dan Balz, claims that the botched response to coronavirus was caused by “underinvestment” and “hollowing out” of the federal budget.

The reason we may need a special club (akin to my collection of “Poverty Hucksters“) is that all of these writers are wildly wrong.

Even a cursory look at budget data confirms that the federal government has been getting bigger over time.

Much bigger.

As such, only someone who is completely ignorant or totally dishonest is capable of writing an article based on the notion that there have been reductions in the burden of federal spending.

If I create this club, I know who will be fourth member.

Writing for the Bulwark, Richard North Patterson argues that President Trump’s personal shortcomings are somehow connected to Reagan-type opposition to big government.

He starts with one of my favorite quotes from The Gipper and then tells us that this type of hostility to statism is no longer appropriate or desirable.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan cheerfully gibed: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Then it seemed amusing. But 34 years later, the convergence of COVID-19 and a racial conflagration makes Reagan’s quip sound myopic. …Only government can ensure the safety of our food and drugs and protect our natural environment. And government can help navigate our racial fissures, and provide the economic and public health interventions indispensable to combating a deadly pandemic.

Given that Washington’s response to the coronavirus has been spectacularly incompetent, well beyond what even libertarians would have predicted, it’s remarkable that Patterson thinks this is a moment in time when people should embrace big government.

And let’s not forget that today’s racial unrest was triggered by government misbehavior, enabled by corrupt deals between local politicians and government employee unions.

But the real problem with Patterson’s rhetoric is that he seems to assume that an argument for some government is the same as an argument for lots of government.

He’s obviously not familiar with the Rahn Curve, which is based on the insight that some government may be good for growth (assuming the outlays are for core public goods) but that lots of government (particularly when spending is for consumption and redistribution) is bad for growth.

To be fair, I understand why Patterson, who is mostly known for being a very successful novelist, isn’t familiar with the academic research on the growth-maximizing size of government.

But since he’s decided to pontificate on these issues, he should feel an obligation to know some basic data.

For instance, he’s a wealthy man and presumably has traveled the world. Hasn’t he noticed that nations with big governments don’t do a better job of providing public goods – even if we use an expansive concept of what government should be doing?

Let’s look at some more of his article.

Patterson not only rejects the notion of smaller government, he seems to embrace bigger government.

What was once a philosophical preference for limited government has degenerated into phobia. “Long before Trump,” GOP strategist Stuart Stevens observes, “the Republican Party adopted as a key article of faith that more government was bad. But somewhere along the way, it became ‘all government is bad.’ Now we are in a crisis that can be solved only by massive government intervention.” …Witnessing so much death and disturbance, one cannot but ponder how poorly Reagan’s casual nostrum has aged. Farhad Manjoo nails it: “The most comforting words I can think of now, amid so much uncertainty, chaos and confusion, are these: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

There’s a lot of nonsense in those few sentences. Regarding Manjoo’s quote, I’ll simply repeat my earlier observation about how the federal government has hindered rather than helped the fight against the coronavirus.

The quote from Stuart Stevens is even stranger, at least the the latter part, because it is so completely contrary to real-world data.

While it is true that Reagan briefly reoriented Republicans and did a good job of controlling spending while he was in office, every other Republican in recent history has been a big spender.

They’ve even increased domestic spending at a faster rate than Democratic presidents.

Yet Stevens wants people to believe that’s the track record of a party that thinks “all government is bad.”

I also want to debunk the notion that there’s been a “decades-long gutting of government,” as asserted in the subtitle of Patterson’s article.

Here’s a chart that I shared back in April, which shows that federal spending has tripled since 1980 – and that’s after adjusting for inflation.

If you read Patterson’s entire article, you’ll find that he mostly focuses on President Trump’s chaotic management of the executive branch.

Since I’ve gone on TV and referred to Trump as being akin to the crazy uncle you deal with during family holidays, I’m certainly not going to argue with his criticisms of the White House’s governing style.

But surely it should be possible to criticize the president without relying on make-believe budget analysis.

P.S. I wonder if Patterson and other members of the Fiscal Fantasyland Club have been tricked into thinking that there have been budget cuts.

P.P.S. If Patterson decides to learn and use real budget data, I hope he’ll join me in criticizing Trump for being a big spender.

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