Friday, November 25, 2011

Two Minutes Hate with Douglas Holtz-Eakin

It's easy to get all worked up about the crazies in the GOP (a faction currently, ludicrously, represented by Newt Gingrich), but occasionally you have to take a step back and remember the degree to which "reasonable Republicans" have acquiesced in the crazies' ascendance. There's a whole class of right-leaning DC technocrats acting as professional apologists and enablers, excusing the Tea Party's excesses by arguing that the current administration is somehow even worse. Something I was reminded of today, while reading this interview with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the right-leaning former head of the Congressional Budget Office.

Holtz-Eakin is quick to hammer the administration for putting economic growth last on the agenda:
[E]conomic growth is not a bill. It’s not a speech. Growth is a priority. So when we make policy decisions, we should put growth at the top, particularly right now. We shouldn’t let the health agenda or the labor agenda or the green agenda trump growth. And at every close call, the administration has gone the other way. It’s not that those other policy values are wrong. It’s that growth is coming in last place with this administration and now they’re paying for it.
Now it's true that his exact complaint seems to be pretty vague. He's not naming actual policies where the administration put the environment ahead of jobs, or labor ahead of jobs. (And it's not hard to think of counterexamples -- this is the administration that okayed offshore drilling and ditched EFCA.)

But what tips this from "largely pointless grousing" to "actually sort of insane" is that Holtz-Eakin himself has no real recommendations for how to fix the economy.

Oh, sure, he has a handful of suggestions. Fix Social Security. Lower corporate tax rates. Institute a consumption tax. But none of these things are responses to the current economic doldrums! They're just bog-standard Republican policy suggestions, no more germane today than in 2004.

In other words, Holtz-Eakin is criticizing the administration for pursuing a Democratic policy agenda without directly addressing the flagging economy. His proposed solution? Pursuing a Republican policy agenda without directly addressing the flagging economy!

His repeated insistence on entitlement reform is particularly wacky, because he literally just, two paragraphs earlier, blasted Democrats for prioritizing long-run health policy over short-term growth policy. He then turns around and prattles on about how reforming Social Security is essential -- even though Social Security is on sound footing through 2030! It's a ludicrous complaint: you simply cannot criticize this administration for not addressing the growth of entitlement costs. Whatever else you say about the health care bill, it is also the largest successful entitlement reform in the history of the United States. Obama pursued the bill even as political support for it collapsed, and its the crowning achievement of his policy agenda. Entitlement reform, it seems, only matters when it's the exact kind of entitlement reform that Douglas Holtz-Eakin already agrees with.

Nor is it exactly clear why favoring traditional Democratic policies in marginal cases should trump the administration's direct measures on the economy. In Holtz-Eakin's conception of the world, the economy sucks because Democrats have, in occasional obscure instances, addressed problems other than economic growth with its policymaking. But what about the administration's many, many attempts to pass bills and adopt policies with the express aim of fixing the economy? Well, they don't count, apparently.

So I guess he sort of have a point. If we exclude all the times when the administration attempted to fix the economy, the administration hasn't really done much to fix the economy.

Not that he'd actually do anything about the economy, either. When asked if he'd adopt any policies specially tailored to the current situation, this is the best he can come up with:
We already did them. We have crossed policy lines we never dreamed we’d cross. That sense of throwing anything at the wall and seeing what sticks, that’s what we did during TARP and stimulus. We have been growing for two years now. We’re not in freefall. Now we need to get back to our knitting and have better growth.
That's right: the economy will solve itself -- so get back to your knitting, America!

It's pretty clear what's actually happening here. Holtz-Eakin is concern trolling. He's pretending that he, by and large, shares the ultimate aims of the administration, but has some technocratic objections to its priorities. The content of his objections gives him away, though: his differences are over policy, not over priorities. His actual priorities are, if anything, much less growth-focused than the Democrats'. He's just annoyed that a Democratic administration has chosen to pursue left-center solutions to problems, because he himself is right-leaning and would prefer right-leaning solutions. That's a pretty good case for why Douglas Holtz-Eakin should vote Republican in 2012, but a pretty lousy case for why everyone else should. Of course, he can't say that out loud, so he's ginned up some reasonable-sounding, intellectually dishonest criticisms that probably sound pretty good to political independents.

You know the old saw about "all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing?" Well, I don't know if Holtz-Eakin is a good man, exactly, but he's certainly not a stupid man. And either way, he seems dead-set on doing absolutely nothing.

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