Sunday, June 17, 2012

In which Timothy Egan completes Tyler Cowen

Methinks that there's a circularity to Tyler Cowen's argument that lack of trust in government would undermine the effectiveness of traditional stimulus measures to boost public employment:
Various policies that are being put on the table, including forms of fiscal and monetary stimulus, try to accelerate this repair process. They would all be likely to underperform, partly because the public, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t see them as ways to rebuild confidence. We have become skeptical of our own macroeconomic authorities and abilities, and that, in turn, makes successful policy harder to pull off. 

For instance, there is a good case to be made for monetary expansion, given the current low rate of inflation and high rate of unemployment. But if fear of inflation puts off the American public, such a policy will again underperform, relative to what we have learned in textbooks. There won’t be a credible commitment to see the monetary stimulus through, as people panic that resulting inflation will be used to redistribute wealth. (Although Sweden and Switzerland have had effective monetary policies recently, both of those countries have especially high rates of trust in government.)

First, lack of trust stems in part from lack of effective government. Timely and sufficient stimulus would (or would have) demonstrably improved the economy and so boosted trust that government can act effectively.

Second, what's undermining trust in government? For the most part, a sustained and relentless disinformation campaign on the part of Republicans, who have convinced most Americans, contrary to fact, that the too-small stimulus of 2009 did not improve the economy, and who more generally have so demonized government that they've won widespread support for cutting vital services.

Also writing in today's Times, Timothy Egan provides the context for 'lack of trust' that Cowen omits:
Elections are about narrative; as such, money and partisan reporting are vital to shape a story line that moves a majority of voters. A central Republican message is that government spending is out of control under Obama, and most of those outlays are wasteful. Do the facts have a chance?...

Certainly, there are perennial abuses that feed public distrust. Not just the clown, but municipal workers who get outsize benefits. It erodes support for helping the poor when the director of the Los Angeles Housing Authority can get $260,000 a year in base salary.

But for every bureaucrat living in a McMansion while doling out vouchers for people in leaky trailers, there are honest cops, hardworking teachers, gutsy firefighters and tireless enforcers of laws that protect our air, water and public lands.

In Romney’s view, these public servants are dishonorable, and maybe even less American. “We have 145,000 more government workers under this president,” Romney said in Colorado last month. “Let’s send them back home and put you back to work.”

Again, this is simply not true. Under Obama, public sector employment has fallen by more than 600,000 workers. Obama has tried to increase these rolls — adding teachers, cops and firefighters under federal grants used for the last 50 years — but has been stymied by a Congress that wants to end his presidency by sabotaging the economy. And so long as people believe government money is more likely to be spent on a clown instead of a cop, the Congress can act without consequence.

What Cowen seems to regard as a force of nature is in fact embrace of an ideology that ensures national decline.  Elites who don't want to pay for a decent society are using ever-more effective propaganda vehicles to convince a critical mass of voters not to pay for essential public investment. 

Egan's piece begins with a snapshot of typical all-in-a-days news disinformation from Fox News about wasteful government spending. Has anyone ever attempted to take the full measure of the extent to which Rupert Murdoch has undermined democracy throughout the English-speaking world?

UPDATE 6/18: Ezra Klein cites poll data showing that Americans have high levels of trust for state and local government -- and also for teachers and police. He concludes:
Amidst all this, it’s certainly the case that Americans have been losing faith in their institutions, and in Washington in particular. But I’d say Cowen has the causality backwards: He says policy is following the declining trust Americans have in their political institutions. I’d say the trust Americans have in their political institutions is declining in part because policy is doing so little to follow their preferences.

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