12 July 2011

'Magic Levers:' the new voodoo economics

After last week's jeremiad against congressional Republicans, what could David Brooks do for an encore? Presumably a Republican himself, the New York Times columnist had condemned the taxophobic core of the party for a lack of economic understanding and moral decency during the debt-ceiling crisis. This week, Brooks aims to be more evenhanded, but his critique of "magic lever" thinking again seems directed mainly at the Republican dead-enders.

Belief in a "magic lever," in Brooks's account, is another way of describing voodoo economics. To believe in such a lever is to assume that, if you do one thing right as defined as your favorite dogma, the economy must improve. Brooks accuses Keynesian economists of behaving as if deficit spending was a magic lever that would lift an economy out of recession every time. As practiced by the Obama administration, a deficit-funded stimulus "must have done some good to cushion the recession," Brooks concedes, "but either through a failure of theory or a failure of implementation, their lever was not as powerful as they promised." While some Keynesians argue that Obama simply did not borrow and spend enough, Brooks is unlikely to entertain such an argument when "the world is awash in oceans of debt." Rather than disprove the existence of a magic lever, Obama's apparent failure has only inspired Republicans to propose their own lever. Economic recovery, these people propose, depends entirely on keeping tax rates low, if not on further reducing them.

"[U]nacceptable [tax] increases would be worse than the threat of national default, worse than a decade of gigantic deficits," Brooks writes of this faction, who represent no more than 20% of Americans according to a Gallup poll. Despite that apparent fact, "the G.O.P. is now oriented around this 20 percent. It is willing to alienate 80 percent of voters and commit political suicide because of its faith in the power of tax policy."

Brooks takes a pragmatic stand against blind faith in magic levers on anyone's part. He claims to write on behalf of a pragmatic majority ("you might call us conservatives") who " believe that even if you are theoretically right [about a magic lever], your policies will be distorted by human frailties and special interests." This "silent" and "astonishingly passive" majority stands between two factions, the "tax cut brigades" and the "Medicare/Spending brigades." Some of the people in these factions are fanatics, some are arrogant wonks, and others are "political hacks who don’t want to lose their precious campaign issues." In describing this last category Brooks briefly touches on a problem of party politics. To justify their perpetual existence, parties must differentiate themselves from each other as dramatically as possible. They must choose defining issues and promise uncompromising stands in their support. A tendency toward ideology and the monomania of "magic levers" is inevitable, or else it is determined by an imperative to sustain parties that in turn is driven by making the existence of parties the standard of democratic health. How would multiple pragmatic parties differentiate themselves, after all? It could be done, but it would certainly take more political imagination than today's partisans possess, and it wouldn't necessarily ensure the permanence of any party. The real problem may be that the Republican and Democratic parties are as committed to perpetuating themselves infinitely as is any Communist party in a dictatorship, and are in some ways just as dogmatic and intolerant. The debt-ceiling debate is only further evidence that a party-oriented polity is bad in the long term, whether there's only one party or two.

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