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Why did the GOP turn against stimulus? Ask a psychologist.

By Ezra Klein,

Bill O'Leary The Washington Post Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, displays a copy of the pledge that he encourages politicians to sign. At left is a Guy Fawkes mask given to him by an acquaintance. Fawkes was famous for attempting to blow up the English House of Lords in 1605. Want to know why President Obama is going to have such a hard time persuading Republicans to support his jobs proposals this week? Don’t ask a pundit, or a politician, or a pollster. Ask a psychologist.

It has become common for Republicans to deride the very concept of stimulus as absurd, to mock Keynesian economics as an ivory-tower fantasy, and to oppose temporary tax cuts as a recession-fighting measure. But during the Bush administration? All that was orthodox conservative policy.

In 2001, Grover Norquist called a national sales-tax holiday “exactly the kind of immediate stimulus our shell-shocked economy needs now.” Norquist went on to quote George W. Bush’s chief economist, Glenn Hubbard, saying we needed stimulus “sooner rather than later.” Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced a bill to that effect.

Around the same time, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) held a hearing in which he invited Kevin Hassett, a conservative economist based at the American Enterprise Institute, to make the case for a fiscal stimulus. “The economists who studied this were quite surprised to find that fiscal policy in recessions was reasonably effective,” Hassett testified. “It is just that folks tried a first punch that was too light and that generally we didn’t get big measures until well into the recession.”

Ryan was delighted by his answer. “That is precisely my point,” he replied. “That is why I like my porridge hot. I think we ought to have this income tax cut fast, deeper, retroactive to January 1st, to make sure we get a good punch into the economy, juice the economy to make sure that we can avoid a hard landing.”

So not only was it non-controversial that deficit-financed stimulus spending was an effective and desirable way to fight economic downturns, but it was taken as obvious by Paul Ryan — Paul Ryan! — that the big danger was that you did too little. Now, of course, Ryan takes the initial stimulus’s inability to fully combat the recession as evidence of the policy’s failure, even though we now know the recession was deep enough that standard calculations — the sort of calculations Hassett was referring to in his testimony — would have argued for a stimulus of more than $2 trillion.

So what happened?

Some say the explanation for all this is obvious: Republicans want the economy to fail because that is how they will defeat President Obama. After all, didn’t Sen. Mitch McConnell say, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”? How much clearer can it be?

I don’t believe this sort of behavior is quite that cynical. Psychologists and political scientists talk often of a phenomenon known as motivated skepticism. The idea, basically, is that we believe the evidence and arguments we want to believe, and reject ideas and information that undercut our preferences.

My favorite study (pdf) in this space was by Yale’s Geoffrey Cohen. He had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. As expected, liberals preferred the generous plan and conservatives favored the more stringent option. Then he had another group of liberals and conservatives look at the same plans, but this time, the plans were associated with parties.

Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with their preferences. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along. Three scary sentences from the piece: “When reference group information was available, participants gave no weight to objective policy content, and instead assumed the position of their group as their own. This effect was as strong among people who were knowledgeable about welfare as it was among people who were not. Finally, participants persisted in the belief that they had formed their attitude autonomously even in the two group information conditions where they had not.”

I tend to think there’s much more motivated skepticism in politics than outright cynicism, much less economic sabotage. But it’s a distinction without a difference, at least so far as policy outcomes go.

The bottom line is this: Until quite recently, both parties supported the idea that you combat bad economies with stimulus spending. Now, during an extremely bad economy, the Republican Party has completely abandoned that position. That has left them without plausible solutions — the GOP talks now of things that have very little role in boosting short-term demand, such as deficit reduction and regulatory reform — and has left the Democrats without the votes to pass anything. And that’s left the country deep in the hole.

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