The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Monday, January 25, 2010

Maddow on Spending Freezes: 1937 Redux? Um, not so fast...

I had to record the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, and so I'm late commenting on her Monday show. And I'm sad to say my comments aren't as glowing as they normally would have been. I love her just tons and tons, but I have to say she jumped the shark on the interview with Jared Bernstein at the top of the hour regarding President Obama's announcement of spending freezes (the details of which we still don't know, I might add).

She was too upset to listen to her guest, who kept trying to explain how the spending would (a) not take effect until 2011, (b) was targeted to non-productive and wasteful areas of the budget that had languished for years without pruning, (c) that areas of the budget that PRODUCED jobs would be, if anything, bolstered (including especially green jobs and energy initiatives), and that (d) they were well aware of the Hoover mistakes and were taking pains not to repeat them.

If she'd not been so focused on her own anger and upset, she might have heard these things, but instead just kept arguing her original position. In doing so, not only did she continually interrupt her guest (which sadly made her sound a lot like a certain other host in a nearby timeslot on MSNBC), but also did a disservice to her viewers, who were unable to get a good explanation from Mr. Bernstein and were instead fed a continual course of "this is bad, horrible, terrifying, disgusting, baffling, what are you people thinking!?!?" from Rachel.

As I love Rachel and her intellectual approach to these kinds of things, it was actually kind of painful to watch. I was a bit embarrassed to see her so... un-Rachelly.

I'm not saying she's not right to closely question this announcement, nor to approach it with great skepticism (as we all did when we first heard of it... trust me, my first reaction was to echo Rachel with "what are they thinking!?!?"). Especially troubling to me was the ban on cutting defense spending, which every breathing soul knows is chock-full of waste and contractor abuse. But her apparent black/white understanding of what happened in 1937 shows either that she doesn't really have a good grasp what happened back then, or that she has completely bought in to the overly simplistic idea that "any spending cuts or freezes during a downturn are a bad idea" (which is, in fact, what she said).

So I'll offer a bit of history; I apologize for over-simplifying in advance, but it's really just a simple point that Rachel should have known: The 1937 debacle that returned a recovering country back to the Great Depression was caused by ACROSS THE BOARD spending cuts and freezes, and worst, among these were the job-creating programs that had helped put so many millions of people to work.

The public sector employed millions of folks, and though it seemed that the private sector was recovering, they were not yet ready to hire back all those millions of people; when programs like WPA and CCC were trimmed, folks were tossed out of jobs that had no recourse but to return to the breadlines.

So that's the lesson of 1937. What it tells us is that if you cut spending across the board, including in areas that are proven job-producers, you are shooting yourself and your fellow citizens in the collective foot.

But targeted, surgical cuts to programs that do nothing to bolster jobs... that basically eat up money but don't produce anything other than paperwork (and perhaps the jobs of a few Miltons and their red staplers)... and then turning some of that money over to reducing the deficit (which makes conservatives happy) while turning the rest of it on investments in current and future jobs (which makes liberals happy) is actually quite helpful to the economy.

It's trimming the deadwood while planting new trees. It works in forestry, and it works in economics. The only thing you have to be careful about is how many trees you plant and how fast they grow. The very real danger here, to further extend my woodland metaphor, is that if you don't plant the new trees quickly and in great abundance, the soil will erode and the whole thing will turn into a mudslide that'll swallow the entire landscape.

Rachel is right to be concerned, and it's not that her questions to Mr. Bernstein weren't called for; it is that she entered into the interview with a one-sided, limited point of view and then proceeded to cut him off during his explanations, and worst, completely ignored what he was saying simply to reiterate her own point. And her repeated comment that "responsible economists" say that the stimulus wasn't enough and that spending freezes or cuts during a downturn are generally a bad idea came across (perhaps only to me) as a not-so-subtle personal insult to her guest, who is himself an economist.

Of course, this is all just my opinion and others may have a much different reaction to that segment than I did, but if Rachel, after she's had time to further study this and get "talked down" about it, agrees then I sincerely hope she issues some kind of retraction, apology to her guest, or both. Or at least maintains her skepticism, but returns to her usual "I'm willing to listen" approach to things. Because in my view, tonight she wasn't willing to listen to anything but her own preconceptions. And frankly, she's a hell of a lot better than that.

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