Monday, February 09, 2009

Idiocy Dies Hard

Last week, Bob Rae wrote an open letter to the prime minister: "I am writing you in my former role as Deficit Poster Boy and Punching Bag," the letter read. "This title was bequeathed to me by Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney when I became premier of Ontario, and I have been carrying it around on my back since 1990."

It was time, said Rae, to pass the torch; for Harper -- even though he inherited eight years of surpluses -- was about to enter a time warp. "You will learn, as I did," wrote Rae, "that the estimates of Finance officials are never quite on, that as the layoffs and bankruptcies pile up, government revenues collapse and expenditures grow. . . . You will regret that your every prior thought is in print. Your old copies of Milton Friedman and Hayek's Road to Serfdom will somehow seem less relevant and helpful."

Yet, surprisingly, as Friedman and Hayek become less and less relevant, modern conservatives continue to quote chapter and verse from these sacred texts. When we learned on Friday that Canadians had lost over 129,000 jobs in January, Mr. Harper stoutly proclaimed that his government would not be "blown off track." This from the man who also stoutly proclaimed in October that there would be no recession in Canada -- and who foresaw slim surpluses in late November.

And south of the 49th parallel, Republicans -- under the banner "The New Deal Didn't Work" -- have railed at President Obama's stimulus package. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman is furious -- particularly at the centrists who have managed to cut $100 billion from the Senate version of the legislation. The proposal was already too small, he wrote in today's New York Times. "Even if the original Obama plan -- around $800 billion in stimulus, with a substantial total of that given over to ineffective tax cuts -- had been enacted, it wouldn't have been enough to fill the looming hole in the U.S. economy, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will amount to $2.9 trillion over the next three years."

But, taking their cues from Friedman and Hayek, those who crafted the compromise bill made cuts precisely where they were not needed -- at the bottom. "The original plan also included badly needed spending on school construction -- $16 billion of that spending was cut. It included aid to the unemployed, especially help in maintaining health care -- cut. Food Stamps -- cut. All in all, more than $80 billion was cut from the plan, with the great bulk of those cuts falling precisely on the measures that would do the most to reduce the depth and pain of this slump." And, railing against the cost of the bill, "36 out of 41 Republican senators voted to replace the Obama plan with $3 trillion, that's right $3 trillion, in tax cuts over 10 years."

This was the approach John McCain advocated. He advanced a plan which would cost a little more than half the Obama plan; and most of that would be devoted to tax cuts. Clearly McCain still doesn't understand why he lost the election. It's worth remembering that his chief economic guru, former Senator Phil Gramm, confidently asserted six months ago that America was in a "mental recession." That conclusion surely must soothe the suffering of those two and a half million Americans who have lost their jobs since he made his pronouncement.

The problem, however, goes beyond Phil Gramm. As Jeffrey Simpson reminded his readers three weeks ago, Republicans have been in office for 20 of the last 28 years. They ran deficits for all 20 of those years. The exception was Bill Clinton's presidency. He spent his first five years digging out of the hole the Republicans left him; and then he piled up surpluses for the next three years. His successor started digging again -- and he left Mr.Obama an even deeper hole.

Mr. Harper disposed of the proportionately larger surpluses he inherited. He surely deserves the award which Mr. Rae assures him "is on its way." Modern conservatism has always been a faith based movement. Facts cannot dent its armour. In the late 19th century, British political philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that Great Britain's Conservative Party was "the stupid party." Modern conservatives appear to have returned to form. They offer proof of an age old maxim: Idiocy, like the cockroach, dies hard.

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