Not just wrong but harmful Wrong question, wrong time

Yesterday on Super Bowl Sunday, in a fit of pique, we lambasted the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorial of the day. We may have left the impression our principal complaint was the tone-deafness of such an editorial on America’s sacred wintertime blowout festival day of foodbawl and fun…

That was part of it.

Yes, the editorial was tone-deaf, but also, we asserted, it was “wrong”.  And yet wrongness isn’t even exactly at the heart of our objection either. It’s that the message was and is harmful, and not for the first time. The State Journal has been publishing variants of this same bad advice ever since conservatives pivoted from merrily building up the national debt (the Bush II years) to suddenly weeping and rending their garments at the thought of debt accruing during the Obama years. Literally, the pivot to new talking points began the very day that Obama put his hand on the Bible and ‘W’ flew off to Houston.

Now, there is a time for a nation to address its level of debt. The time for that is when the national economy is booming. Need it be said that “booming” does not describe the current American economy? There’s still plenty of slack. We are still struggling to get back to job and wage levels that existed before the housing/financial collapse of 2007.  We have lost somewhere around 5 trillion dollars of potential economic progress by letting people, equipment, talent and potential go unused.

All that scaremongering about debt and deficit since 2007 has been harmful. To the tune of trillions. Much of the scaremongering was a conscious political strategy by Senate and Congressional Republicans intending to prevent anything good from occurring on Barack Obama’s watch. And, of course, additional hand-wringing was provided in the usual peanut galleries and echo chambers. (This may describe the State Journal editorial page. There’s no way to see inside the motivations.)

In either case, millions of people have been hurt. We don’t ever like to say, “lives were ruined…” because is any life ever truly ruined? But bad results were widespread. How do you characterize it? Does losing a job when you’re 50 years old and never really finding another job “ruin” your life? [Note: none of this is self-descriptive… we are fortunate.] Let’s just say that a LOT of lives have been damaged. It shouldn’t have happened, and it shouldn’t have lasted as long as it has.

We should have been rebuilding roads and bridges and mass transit. We should have been putting people back to work. The recession was the time for stimulus, and when the stimulus showed itself to be inadequate – and it did show that – exactly – then it was the time for more stimulus (yes, more debt… just like in the 1930’s), not more pulling back.

But of course fiscal stimulus was blocked whenever possible by the Republican congress. For political reasons nothing good for the middle- and lower-working classes would be allowed to happen on the Obama watch.

Even things that had long been in place — automatic stabilizers like unemployment insurance and food stamps — came under conservative attack. Conservatives insisted on austerity, on fiscal ‘rectitude’, on fears about debt, on angst about “debasing the currency”, on balancing the budget, on trimming the social safety net, on “reforming entitlements”, on getting the unemployed out of their “hammocks”, on “encouraging the job-creators”, and on and on… a litany of strategies and slogans that were either useless or actively harmful in a time of recession.

Regular readers of the Wisconsin State Journal will recognize how often these terrible memes were repeated and reinforced on the editorial page.  The bad memes were handed out all during the great recession, and they were handed out yet again yesterday. For the umpteenth time.

We are exhausted and frustrated with this run of incompetence. There have been multiple natural experiments in the real world comparing Keynesian and austerian policies for rescuing capitalist democracies from economic bubble-deflations. If the State Journal is going to weigh in on this kind issue, they need to study up and get right.