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Runaway Stimulus

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By George F. Will
Thursday, February 12, 2009

The president, convinced that the only thing America has to fear is an insufficiency of fear, has warned that "disaster" and "catastrophe" are the certain alternatives to swift passage of the stimulus legislation. One marvels at his certitude more than one envies his custody of this adventure.

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Certitude of one flavor or another is never entirely out of fashion in Washington. Thirty years ago, some conservatives were certain that their tax cuts would be so stimulative that they would be completely self-financing. Today, some liberals are certain that the spending they favor -- on green jobs, infrastructure and everything else -- will completely pay for itself. For liberals, "stimulus spending" is a classification that no longer classifies: All spending is, they are certain, necessarily stimulative.

At Yale's 1962 commencement, President John Kennedy expressed Washington's recurring confidence in the ability to supplant politics with expertise. As is traditional, Kennedy deplored "traditional labels" and insisted that "differences today" involve not clashes of principles but only "matters of degree." Kennedy argued that "the practical management of a modern economy" is "basically an administrative or executive problem." Congress need not intrude. Because policy issues are "sophisticated and technical questions," demanding "technical answers, not political answers," laypersons could hardly participate in the debate.

In December 1965, John Maynard Keynes, although 19 years dead, was, as today, enjoying one of his recurring resurrections as vindicator of government management of the economy by manipulating "aggregate demand." Keynes's visage was on Time magazine's cover, and the accompanying story said that happy days were here again and here to stay.

President Lyndon Johnson was embarked on building the Great Society, assisted by policymakers who, wrote Time, "have used Keynesian principles" to smooth the moderate business cycles and achieve price stability: "Washington's economic managers scaled these heights by their adherence to Keynes' central theme" that a modern economy can operate at "top efficiency" only with government "intervention and influence." So, "economists have descended in force from their ivory towers and now sit confidently at the elbow of almost every important leader in government and business, where they are increasingly called upon to forecast, plan and decide." Ten years later, the "misery index" -- the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate -- was 19.9, heading for 22 percent in 1980.

Today, again, we are told that "politics" has no place in the debate about the tripartite stimulus legislation, which is partly a stimulus, partly liberalism's agenda of social engineering and partly the beginning of "remaking" the economy. Gary Wolfram of Hillsdale College notes that the size of the stimulus -- the House-Senate compromise bill is $789 billion -- is just slighly less than the amount of all U.S. currency in circulation and is larger than the entire federal budget was until 1983. Yet it is said that in the debate about this encompassing legislation -- which concerns what government can and should do, and ultimately what kind of regime America shall have -- people should "transcend" (so says Larry Summers, the president's economic adviser) politics. What, then, would be left for political argument to be about?

It is said that the negligible Republican support for the stimulus legislation means that bipartisanship is dead. But what can "bipartisanship" mean concerning legislation that concerns almost everything?

John McCain probably was eager to return to the Senate as an avatar of bipartisanship, a role he has enjoyed. It is, therefore, a measure of the recklessness of House Democrats that they caused the stimulus debate to revolve around a bill that McCain dismisses as "generational theft."

The federal government, with its separation of powers and myriad blocking mechanisms, was not made for speed but for safety. This is particularly pertinent today because if $789 billion is spent ineffectively or destructively, government does not get to say "oops" and take a mulligan. Senate Republicans have slowed and altered the course of the "disaster! catastrophe!" stampede. Still, as Anthony Trollope wrote in one of his parliamentary novels, "The best carriage horses are those which can most steadily hold back against the coach as it trundles down the hill."

Not yet a third of the way through the president's "first 100 days," he and we should remember that it was not FDR's initial burst of activity in 1933 that put the phrase "100 days" into the Western lexicon. It was Napoleon's frenetic trajectory in 1815 that began with his escape from Elba and ended near the Belgian village of Waterloo.

georgewill@washpost.com


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