Economic Pragmatism vs. Conservative Religion

There are two responses to the column by David Brooks which I quoted from earlier. Many conservatives, having come off a campaign which was based upon distorting Obama’s words to make him appear much further to the left than he actually is on economic issues, must be delighted by the turn of events. Although Obama has actually been influenced by the economic views at the University of Chicago far more than many conservatives will admit, current events have led to Obama’s support of much more government spending than he would support under normal circumstances. There are views on this from both the left and right.

Greg Sargent writes in response to David Brooks:

My first reaction to this was to wonder: Why are Obama aides reacting so defensively to criticism from the right? Poll after poll after poll has shown that substantial majorities are comfortable with the Obama administration’s dramatic expansion of government’s role and support the scale of Obama’s ambitious agenda and the speed with which he’s enacting it. Conservatives will call Obama a wild-eyed radical nut-job no matter what he does.

And why the fear of offending Reagan’s ghost? A new poll yesterday found that by a sizable margin the public thinks Obama-nomics, not Reaganomics, is what the country needs right now.

On second thought, though, maybe what we’re seeing here is more of the Obama team’s efforts to redefine the moderate center. What Obama advisers are saying is that they’re undoing the radicalism of the Bush years.

Yes, the Obama team is attempting an expansion of government activism not seen since Lyndon Johnson. But they’re redefining this type of government action as not radical at all, as the sensible and even moderate course, given the circumstances. And they’re saying this because that’s really how they see it.

Andrew Sullivan once again breaks from the right wing in having a similar reality-based view of what Obama is doing, acknowledging the difference between what one might generally do based on principle as opposed to actions during a crisis:

Much of the reaction on the right and center-right to Obama’s budget has been a recourse to abstract principles. There’s nothing wrong with such principles – low taxes, balanced budgets, small and limited government. I share them. But no self-respecting conservative would ever defend such principles without considering the full context in which we now find ourselves.

To give a blindingly obvious example: to treat the stimulus package as just another expansion of government, a reckless lurch to the left, as Fox News has done, is absurd. As unemployment spikes, stocks crash, and deflation looms on the horizon, deficit spending means something else. It’s a pragmatic, not a liberal decision.

Now look at some less clear-cut contexts. The last thirty years have seen historically low tax rates for the successful. But they have also seen a sharp, globalization-fed increase in inequality.

If your goal is to keep a polity in one piece during an economic crisis, raising some taxes on those who have had a relatively low-tax couple of decades, is again pragmatically defensible. If I thought Obama’s goal was to redistribute for the sake of it, I’d be appalled. But that isn’t what he’s said and it isn’t what he believes. Ditto cap-and-trade. I don’t think it’s the best way to tackle climate change, but I do see it as a legitimate, practical response to climate change – not some expansion of government for its own sake. It’s also a real, if flawed, attempt to wean us off oil after a decade in which we learned the hard way what oil-fueled fanaticism can do to us. Again: this is about reacting to changes in the world. It seems to me to be within the conservative mindset to adjust to practical necessity and a changing world.

This is true even of healthcare. Even private sector enthusiasts like yours truly can see there’s a resilient problem here – of costs soaring, of de facto universal coverage without any of the economies of scale that a more coherent universal coverage would allow, of unaccountable private agencies rationing irrationally and unaccountably. I don’t think it’s radical or super-liberal to ask how we can tackle these questions – or to accept that the past couple of decades have not proven the superiority of the status quo.

I’m not sure what the answers to all these questions are. But I am sure that a good faith effort to tackle them is what we need. We have a new president who’s a liberal but open to suggestion and debate. I don’t believe going on and on about what a big liberal he is, and how we’re all about to turn into France, moves this debate constructively along. If the right wants to return as something more than a populist gabfest on radio and cable, we’d better join that debate. And even have a few constructive ideas.

The problem with the extremists dominating the conservative movement at present can be seen in Sullivan’s comment that, ” It seems to me to be within the conservative mindset to adjust to practical necessity and a changing world.” Unfortunately the conservative movement has become a religion. Policy decisions are made based upon whether they fit into their religious views, in this case on the economy, regardless of the actual circumstances and regardless of the facts.

As Rod Dreher also pointed out, the segment of the conservative movement which follows Rush Limbaugh has no room for changes based upon changing situations. Instead they believe, to quote Limbaugh, “Conservativism is what it is and it is forever.” No amount of evidence will change their mind because they do not want to change their religious beliefs. This leads to the view that they would rather have Obama fail, and have the economy worsen as opposed to risk being worshippers of false gods.

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3 Comments

  1. 1
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Yes, exactly.

  2. 2
    Fritz says:

    I’m not impressed by the n0tion that gargantuan spending on top of large deficits is a “pragmatic solution”.  It smacks of desperation to me.  One economist was asked what should be done if stimulus didn’t work.  His answer “Borrow and spend more money!”.    That does not sound like a rational, reasoned response.

    I am tired of the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress running to Republicans for cover.  They should do what they are going to do and be judged in the next election.

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    This may or may not work, but “borrow and spend more money” is a gross over-simplification of what is being done.

    The Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress are not running Republicans for cover. That is just another talking point from the far right which makes zero sense.

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