Stimulus Money Has To ACCOMPLISH Something

Via The Washington Note, a fascinating – and, in my opinion, dead-on – take on the central weakness of the Obama administration’s recent stimulus package (and its concurrent strategy on stimulating the economy in general), from James Pinkerton of the New America Foundation, writing in The Politico:

Obviously the “stimulus” was a a dud–and the rate that things are going, the next “stimulus,” too, will be a dud. Deficit spending is valuable only if you get something more valuable in return for that spending. Otherwise, stimulus spending is just a ticket on the Argentina Express.
During the New Deal, we deficit-spent and in return, we got bridges, roads, dams, and entire power systems. And unemployment fell. Today, we are getting the promise of such systems, but not the results–the money is not being spent on tangible things, nothing is being built. Why?
Because the process simply is not designed to go fast, because the environmental-impact-statement-writers and NIMBYs block everything–and the cap-and-traders stand ready to kill off the rest of the energy economy. So of course unemployment is rising. There’s no stimulus, except for Yale Law grads, and, of course, Goldman Sachs.

If President Obama wanted the nationwide economy to recover, he would have had to rethink America’s basic approach to infrastructure and energy, with an eye toward more, not less, sooner, not later. That was the legislation he should have sought back in January; instead, he made the narrow pipeline connecting inputs and outputs even narrower. That’s a formula for slow-motion disaster, as we are seeing every day now.

My thoughts after the jump:

This seems right to me: any high school civics student (OK, any of them that aren’t sleeping in class) can rattle off the names of programs started by FDR during the New Deal which were literally the instrument of putting Americans back to work, and not just putting them to work but putting them to work creating vital infrastructure projects within our country. Many of those programs still exist today, and the legacy and visible works – actual physical things – of even more of these programs are still with us, providing benefits to the citizens of America almost eighty years later.

Stimulus money, used the way FDR understood that it must be used, provides a triple-benefit: first, at a time when the private sector is near-powerless to step up to the task of being the engine of job-creation and economic backbone of the country, the federal government stops the bleeding by hiring out-of-work citizens itself. Second, the jobs the federal government hires people for are what’s being referred to these days as “shovel-ready” projects – initiatives which begin building or producing tangible products right away. These products are themselves often vitally needed; highways, park systems, sewer projects, the list goes on and on. And third, the jobs often provide the citizens they hire with training which these citizens then take with them the rest of their lives, often into productive and lucrative careers in the private sector long after the federally-funded public works projects are completed.

As pointed out here by Pinkerton but also elsewhere by various people including Paul Krugman and others, in order to work, any such stimulus has to actually accomplish at least the first two of these things (putting people to work so they have money they can spend which in turn stimulates the private sector, and providing desperately needed infrastructure items for the benefit of the public). This can’t be done by half-measures. If the Democrats are too timid, even with sixty votes in the Senate, and wind up allowing the Republicans to either significantly weaken, water down or outright obstruct the concept of the stimulus, then as Pinkerton says, it will have been merely more spending for which the taxpayers who funded it got yet another large pile of debt and very little benefit to show for all that money. In other words, it will be worse than nothing.

Obama desperately needs to recognize this – if he doesn’t already – and realize that this is like any large and potentially fraught-with-risk endeavor, like jumping off a high-dive, or buying your first house. As Yoda says, “either do, or do not…there is no ‘try’.” Obama and the in-power Democrats simply cannot rely upon “bi-partisanship,” at least not as long as the opposition party continues to simply dig in their heels, stuff their fingers in their ears and shout “la-la-la-la, I can’t he-e-e-e-ar you!!” Bipartisanship is indeed an admirable object, and a goal worth pursuing. But here’s the rub: bipartisanship is not now (and never has been) more important than actually passing good legislation.

Democrats do not own a monopoly on good ideas or good legislation, any more than Republicans do. But compromise, or “bi-partisanship,” can only result in the resultant policy whole being greater than the sum of its partisan, er, parts when both parties involved in negotiations come to the table with good intentions, and in negotiate in good faith. If either party – whether they’re the minority OR the majority – simply want to obstruct or prevent anything their opponent proposes from working, and is unwilling to compromise (unless the other side agrees that “compromise” works out in practice to “you do it 100% our way,” LOL), then better results are far more likely to be achieved if the party which is dealing in bad faith is recognized as such by the other party: recognized as an obstacle, rather than a partner, on the road to a solution.

And this holds true no matter what the relative positions of the two parties are: if the party dealing in bad faith and unwilling to compromise is the dominant, in-power party, then the minority party┬ádesperately needs to recognize that if they attempt to compromise or work together with this particular party which is demonstrably dealing in bad faith, they will only be giving that other party an excuse – if the results turn out bad – to say “well, it wasn’t just our fault; we all thought this way/supported __X__” (or: “we achieved this in a bipartisan way”). So if a minority party thusly reaches out in good faith for genuine dialogue and compromise, but eventually comes to the conclusion that the party in power wants things done their way or no way, then the best thing the minority party can do is refuse to cooperate on that ersatz basis. Because the truth is, it won’t be cooperation in any commonly-understood definition of the term; it will be capitulation. And yes, the minority party will run the risk in so doing of opening themselves up to charges by the party in power to the effect that they are “obstructionist” or various other unflattering things.

But the benefits, again, are threefold: first, the minority party don’t wind up compromising their core principles and getting nothing in return. There is an old bit of wisdom to the effect that saying you stand for certain things requires you to actually stand for those things occasionally, even if doing so is risky, unpopular or dangerous. That wisdom is very applicable here. Otherwise, the bit of wisdom has it (rather obviously), if you aren’t willing to stand up for the things you say you stand for, then you don’t really stand for those things…you just like the sound of them, and only when you don’t stand to lose anything. The second benefit is that, in the public eye, the results of whatever does get done without the participation or approval of the minority party will then be laid – as it should be – squarely at the doorstep of the party in power. If the minority party’s core principles tell them that this or that way of accomplishing something is not only wrong, but will result in bad outcomes – and if the party in power insists upon things being done in such a fashion (with no input from the minority desired and no true compromise possible) – then the party in power will be left “holding the bag” if things work out as badly as the minority party believes they will. And the third is a sort of combination of the first two; if the minority party knows it doesn’t have enough power to force a compromise, and isn’t being offered any choices for true compromise, then by refusing to pretend to bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake, they not only get to retain their integrity by not compromising their core principles and ethics, but the public also gets to see a party which isn’t afraid to take a risky stand for something it truly, across-the-board, believes in.

And if the roles are reversed? If the party that’s intransigent and dealing in bad faith is the minority party instead of the party in power? The same calculation applies (though the effects are different). If the majority party would be willing to compromise some things (though not core values) with the opposition minority party – provided they both came to the table with a genuine, good-faith desire to craft the best legislation possible – but the minority party refuses to offer any genuine compromise, yet insists upon “bipartisanship” and tries to accuse the majority of running roughshod over them, then what good does it do the party in power to kowtow to the complaints of an intransigent minority dealing in bad faith? Again, it comes down to courage of convictions. But it’s (obviously) much easier to operate when you’re holding all – or most – of the aces. This latter situation is obviously the situation that Obama and the Democrats are currently in – they have a very popular President in the White House, and large majorities in both houses of Congress. Yes, even sixty Senators isn’t a “magic bullet,” and yes, simply attaining such a super-majority should not ever be taken by the party who achieves it as carte blanche to ignore the input and votes of the minority on every issue. Those people – even if they lack the power to do much of anything – were voted into office by a majority of their respective constituents, and it’s that very fact that ought to mean something to any elected official. It ought to mean that even if you CAN crush (or ignore) them, you shouldn’t…unless they demonstrate to you that they are not interested at all in compromise or working together, only in sabotaging your own efforts or in getting their own way.

When Obama came into office, I think he put a good deal too much emphasis on bipartisanship. I may be wrong; obviously, I don’t know his mind or his tactics. But it appeared for a time as if he would go to nearly any lengths to be able to say that his initiatives were approved on a bipartisan basis. Again, as I said before, not an UNworthy goal…but not the highest goal, either. At least it should not be. Republicans dug in their heels and insisted that the stimulus bill contain almost entirely tax cuts (as opposed to spending programs)…and the Obama administration and Democratic leadership in Congress went along with it, because they thought that it was likely the only way to avoid a filibuster and also that by so doing, they would get genuine bipartisan support and cooperation on the bill, and that it might signal the beginning of a change from the bitterly partisan Bush years, in which the GOP routinely said “my way or the highway” when they had the power to do so, and even introduced wedge issues at strategic times – like near elections – to try to force Democrats to vote with them to avoid the inevitable Republican charges of “weak on terror” (or whatever) which would be leveled if the Democrats did not vote with them. I think the Obama team really thought they could pull off a return to genuine comity and respect even in disagreement in the halls of Congress.

But they quickly learned that the poison of the Karl Rove/Lee Atwater years went far too deep into the mindset and standard operating procedure of modern conservatism to be so easily excised. After 2006, when the Democrats did what literally almost no one (even on the Democratic side) was predicting by taking back not just the House of Representatives but the Senate as well, the Democrats all of a sudden started developing a newfound fondness for the idea of bipartisanship. All of a sudden, on the Sunday political shows, you started hearing formerly-bellicose GOP stalwarts speaking in much more measured tones in regard to their Democratic opponents. Suddenly, after six years of unilateralism and ignoring the opposition under Bush – and now that they could not simply force their way – “bipartisanship” was the new fad in Republican circles. Only it wasn’t long at all before it was obvious (or should have been) to anyone who cared to observe that this was still not a genuine call for bipartisanship, but rather merely the most-logical evolution of their desire to win as much of their own way (or its’ inverse: to lose as little) as possible. By talking up bipartisanship, the Republicans knew they put the Democrats in the position of either having to flatly state that they believed the Republicans were lying in their newfound desire for bipartisanship, which would make Dems look paranoid and churlish, or Dems would be forced into at least trying to compromise with a party which still had no interest in genuine compromise whatsoever. Clever. And difficult to deal with, since it’s a classic rock-and-hard-place dilemma.

However, as with all such dilemmas, it’s almost never true that the rock and the hard place are exactly equally bad choices. Usually, with a little foresight, it’s relatively apparent that one choice is at least somewhat – and often quite a bit – worse than the other. And that’s where Democrats so often fall down; after having gotten their asses handed to them so regularly during the Reagan/Bush Sr. years, Democrats of a certain stripe (and a certain longevity in the halls of power) developed what I can only describe as a more or less permanent tactical crouch, like a beaten dog that thinks if it just shrinks enough and tries to avoid the wrath, they’ll be spared the worst of it. And – just like that dog – it’s rarely if ever true. Democrats, until very recently, continued to enjoy shrinking support and also shrinking representation in government at all levels; federal, state and even local. Karl Rove was talking about a “permanent Republican majority,” and people weren’t laughing at him for it – at least not en masse, as they would have done had any Democrat began talking about a “permanent Democratic majority” at about the same point in time. And the reason this spiral continued for so long was because Democrats continued to make the wrong choice of the above two bad choices: they believed that if they just compromised with Republicans enough; they’d eventually get some reciprocity back from the GOP – you know, the “spirit of compromise,” and all that? So on every large issue (many of them ginned up by the GOP specifically for the purpose of decimating Democrats), Dems would cede a little ground, give away a little bit of their core values and positions, in order to look “bipartisan” and hopefully stave off the negative attacks and bad press, and every time, the Republicans would pocket the concessions and not even say “thanks” for the bipartisanship.

But since 2006, when the Republicans suddenly found themselves in the minority in both houses of Congress (and that has only worsened for them), they’ve still been running the same old plays; trying to squeeze-play the Democrats into this false choice between looking “un-bipartisan” and conceding legislative goals and getting nothing in return. To some degree, I can’t even blame the GOP for sticking with such a tried-and-true strategy. I mean, let’s face it: it’s WORKED for the last thirty years, why stop now? But what Obama and the Democrats need to realize – and fast – is that since 2006, the Republicans are “drawing dead,” as they say in the poker world. They’re bluffing. Oh, not that they don’t have any power at all…just that the Democrats hold most if not all of the good hole-cards. Obama tried bipartisanship on the stimulus and on his budget (as well as on many other things, including his current Supreme Court nominee, etc.), and he got literally nowhere. On the stimulus, which virtually every major economist and other leader agreed absolutely had to be done in order to keep the economy from collapsing altogether, only three Republicans voted to end the filibuster and allow passage. And one of those three – Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania – was so thoroughly beat up and reviled by his own party for “capitulating” that he felt compelled to switch parties because he knew he’d never win another Republican primary in his state or anywhere else again. And when it came to the budget itself – the large annual omnibus bill that allows government to function for the next year – not a single Republican voted for it even though it was not all that different from budgets proposed under George W. Bush in terms of overall spending…it’s just that it was now anathema to Republicans, because a hated Democrat was the one proposing it. That’s not to say that the GOP didn’t push hard for concessions and beat the drum of bipartisanship during debate about the budget – because they most definitely did, and wrung some concessions out of the Obama administration and Congressional Dems, too – but in the end, ZERO GOP VOTES.

This is the GOP way of doing business: do it our way, or you’ll get no support whatsoever from us. In some ways, you almost have to admire the intra-party discipline it takes to accomplish such a feat as holding so many legislators from so many different areas of the country with (presumably) such diverse backgrounds together to accomplish such a feat…but it’s a bit like admiring the will and organization it takes a dictator to create an empire: admirable in the abstract, perhaps, but not nearly so much in practice. And Obama and the Congressional Democrats had – for their own sake, as Pinkerton points out in the above quote – start realizing that at least for the time being, and likely for the foreseeable future, the GOP is going to be ruled by men who practice – and the idea itself, of – never giving an inch, on anything, at any time. There IS no compromise with such an attitude. If you’re out of power and dealing with someone in power who has this attitude, the best you can do is try to protect what you have, and be willing to make hard choices about which hills you’d be willing to die on if necessary – i.e., which principles and values you won’t abandon for nothing, or for tiny crumbs of compromise. And if you are – as Obama and the Democrats currently are – the party IN power who has to deal with a minority party like the current GOP, that seems content to watch the entire system burn if they do not get their way, then it behooves you to understand, as quickly as possible, that it is far, FAR better to run the risk of hubris and take the criticism of being high-handed in order to have a (good) chance of passing truly worthy legislation that helps people at a critical time in our history, than it is to continue to give concessions to a party which no longer is calling the shots, while still getting nothing in return – save a smirky “we told you so,” when their attempts at obstruction and sabotage are effective enough to render your initiatives failures. Sad to say, but anything else is simply a way to delay or thwart any meaningful relief from the multiple problems facing our country, as well as a near-certain ticket back into the minority, as the public starts to recognize that even WITH the overwhelming lead in real power, you can’t – or are too timid and spineless to – get anything accomplished.

And the sooner Obama and Reid and Pelosi realize that, the sooner we’ll have health care which includes a strong public option to “compete” with private insurers and covers the uninsured without fear of them losing their coverage if they get sick or change jobs, and the sooner we’ll get the Employee Free Choice Act passed, and the sooner we’ll address the possible need for yet more stimulus in a way that actually gets the money to programs which benefit the entire country….the list is endless. But because the Republican party has shown repeatedly, both when they were in power and now that they are out of power, that they are nearly completely uninterested in comity or compromise and are only using “bipartisanship” as a club with which to beat the Democrats into listening to their demands, before any of that vital, necessary legislation can happen, Obama and the Democrats are going to have to get used to – and comfortable with – the fact that they are going to have to do it themselves, with virtually NO Republican support or compromise; in fact, likely WITH violent, disingenuous GOP opposition, every step of the way. Does that make it much harder? Yep. But it doesn’t make it any less vital…though it does mean that, if successful, the Democrats just might swing the last thirty years of rightward-drift in the political orientation of the American public back to a sense of appreciating the word “Democrat” and even “liberal” in a positive manner. And it will be only then, if the GOP spends quite a bit of time indeed out of the halls of power – and simultaneously lives to see their hold on the public imagination (which after all has been one of their greatest successes AND greatest weapons of the last thirty years) diminished and their legacy and tactics justly derided – that we may see a rise within the GOP itself of the kind of leaders who I likely will still not agree with, but who I will feel comfortable will come to the negotiating table in good faith and with the best interest of their country, not their party, in mind. That is a day to truly look forward to.

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