Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hysteron proteron, or leading from behind (temporally)

The hysteron proteron (from the Greek: ὕστερον πρότερον, hýsteron próteron, "latter before") is a rhetorical device in which the first key word of the idea refers to something that happens temporally later than the second key word. The goal is to call attention to the more important idea by placing it first.

The standard example comes from the Aeneid of Virgil: "Moriamur, et in media arma ruamus" ("Let us die, and charge into the thick of the fight"; ii. 353).
In yesterday's presser,  Obama's hysteron proteron approach to leadership reached a kind of apotheosis.  Check out the temporal transposition in the president's peroration. Here he's explaining why he's agreed to address the long-term debt problem before the jobs problem:
This is how do we operate in a smart way, understanding that we’ve got some short-term challenges and some long-term challenges.  If we can solve some of those long-term challenges, that frees up some of our energies to be able to deal with some of these short-term ones, as well.
That is standing Krugman on his head (logically or not), with a vengeance.
There are times when Obama is surprisingly open about his priorities, strategies and thought process. This was one of them. He admitted twice that he's let the GOP set the agenda; the logic was, 'they won't move on my agenda, so let's move on theirs."  That is, he's calling their bluff, since, as Jonathan Bernstein never tires of reminding us, Republicans don't care about deficit reduction.

He put the deficit cart before the jobs horse on two planes: a) political:  the GOP won't let him move on jobs, and b) substantive: a long-term deficit reduction plan would open fiscal space for spending on infrastructure and other stimulus. The two bleed together, because the second argument is basically a psychological one, a kind of political variant of the confidence fairy.  Here's the political argument:
...my strong preference would be for us to figure out ways that we can continue to provide help [to provide and stimulate employment] across the board.  But I’m operating within some political constraints here, because whatever I do has to go through the House of Representatives.

        What that means then is, is that among the options that are available to us is, for example, the payroll tax cut, which might not be exactly the kind of program that I would design in order to boost employment but does make a difference because it puts money in the pockets of people who are then spending it at businesses, large and small.  That gives them more customers, increases demand, and it gives businesses a greater incentive to hire.  And that would be, for example, a component of this overall package.

        Unemployment benefits, again, puts money in the pockets of folks who are out there knocking on doors trying to find a job every day.  Giving them those resources, that puts more money into the economy and that potentially improves it -- improves the climate for businesses to want to hire.

        So as part of a component of a deal, I think it’s very important for us to look at what are the steps we can take short term in order to put folks back to work.  I am not somebody who believes that just because we solve the deficit and debt problems short term, medium term, or long term, that that automatically solves the unemployment problem.  I think we’re still going to have to do a bunch of stuff -- including, for example, trade deals that are before Congress right now that could add tens of thousands of jobs.
        Republicans gave me this list the beginning of this year as a priority, something that they thought they could do.  Now I’m ready to do it, and so far we haven’t gotten the kind of movement that I would have expected.

        We’ve got the potential to create an infrastructure bank that could put construction workers to work right now, rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our vital infrastructure all across the country.  So those are still areas where I think we can make enormous progress.

        I do think that if the country as a whole sees Washington act responsibly, compromises being made, the deficit and debt being dealt with for 10, 15, 20 years, that that will help with businesses feeling more confident about aggressively investing in this country, foreign investors saying America has got its act together and are willing to invest.  And so it can have a positive impact in overall growth and employment.

        It’s not the only solution.  We’re still going to have to have a strong jobs agenda.  But it is part of a solution.  I might add it is the primary solution that the Republicans have offered when it comes to jobs.  They keep on going out there and saying, “Mr. President, what are you doing about jobs?”  And when you ask them, well, what would you do?  “We’ve got to get government spending under control and we’ve got to get our deficits under control.”  So I say, okay, let’s go.  Where are they?  I mean, this is what they claim would be the single biggest boost to business certainty and confidence.  So what's the holdup?

There are two components to this argument: 1) the deficit deal is his best and probably only shot at getting substantial stimulus through a Republican House and filibuster-prone Senate; and 2) the deal itself will bring the confidence fairy.  He elaborated on the latter at the close. And note that his fairy wears somewhat different dress than the GOP's. Following a laundry list of enacted and proposed stimulative measures, he ended thus:
So we’ve been looking at the whole menu of steps that can be taken.  We are now in a situation where because the economy has moved slower than we wanted, because of the deficits and debt that result from the recession and the crisis, that taking a approach that costs trillions of dollars is not an option.  We don’t have that kind of money right now.

         What we can do is to solve this underlying debt and deficit problem for a long period of time so that then we can get back to having a conversation about, all right, since we now have solved this problem, that’s not -- no longer what’s hampering economic growth, that’s not feeding business and uncertainty, everybody feels that the ground is stable under our feet, are there some strategies that we could pursue that would really focus on some targeted job growth -- infrastructure being a primary example.

        I mean, the infrastructure bank that we’ve proposed is relatively small.  But could we imagine a project where we’re rebuilding roads and bridges and ports and schools and broadband lines and smart grids, and taking all those construction workers and putting them to work right now?  I can imagine a very aggressive program like that that I think the American people would rally around and would be good for the economy not just next year or the year after, but for the next 20 or 30 years.

        But we can’t even have that conversation if people feel as if we don't have our fiscal house in order.  So the idea here is let’s act now.  Let’s get this problem off the table.  And then with some firm footing, with a solid fiscal situation, we will then be in a position to make the kind of investments that I think are going to be necessary to win the future.

        So this is not a right or left, conservative-liberal situation.  This is how do we operate in a smart way, understanding that we’ve got some short-term challenges and some long-term challenges.  If we can solve some of those long-term challenges, that frees up some of our energies to be able to deal with some of these short-term ones, as well.
When last night I read Greg Sargent noting that "this is at least partly an endorsement of several tenets of conservative economics — that deficits feed business “uncertainty” and so on," I wanted to say no, that's not right -- he's focused here on political uncertainty.  I looked again, and realized I was wrong: Obama does indeed make the business confidence argument. But I do think that business confidence is conceptually subordinated here to political confidence -- that the core argument is that following a grand bargain over long-term spending, the GOP will no longer be able to claim that "we can't afford" the short-term measures we need now.

Personally I'm not sure that that matters. Republicans will bitterly oppose any stimulative measures that are not rolled into the deficit reduction bargain.  Perhaps the subtext is that Obama and Democrats will be free to hammer home the case for, say, major infrastructure spending once they've agreed to trim entitlements and won cuts in defense with strong cover against the charge that they are big government big spenders. Or: if they get this deal and it has a stimulative effect, they will win big in the next election and be in a position to pass major infrastructure investments.

Of course, most Democrats doubt there's any chance in hell that the GOP will agree to any tax hikes or are capable of negotiating rationally or in good faith.  But to posit that the GOP can't be negotiated with is to posit that all Democrats can do is advocate policies that cannot now pass and hammer the Republicans for blocking them.

But if these premises are correct, that is exactly what Obama is doing now -- highlighting GOP intransigence on taxes, highlighting their unwillingness to compromise, and highlighting the stimulative measure he would take if not blocked by "political constraints."

Update 7/18: See also On trusting Obama, revisited

1 comment:

  1. That's much better than yesterday's attempt to suss out what Obama's up to! As you say, "better late than never."