Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hope over Fear?

Bradley Schiller expresses his worries in the Wall Street Journal about Obama's fear-mongering. He's right in that the over-the-top rhetoric can't be good for confidence, but where was the WSJ over the last eight years of real fear-mongering, when Bush told us we were in for catastrophic attacks unless we passed every single one of his measures and continued to mock American justice by holding people in perpetuity without trial?
And it's pretty rich to single out Obama for calling this the worst crisis since the Great Depression without noting that people of all stripes in both political parties have been saying that for quite some time. Moreover, some of Schiller's points are just nonsensical. Yeah, there were far more bank failures in the Depression, but banks are much bigger now (or has the WSJ not noticed the consolidation in the financial industry it's been championing for years?). There are fewer bank failures now, but those that do happen are devastating. It takes a facile and petty mind to compare the failure of say, Jimmy's Corner Bank in 1931 to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

But the entire argument is nuts. He writes "as [Obama] tells it, today's economy is the worst since the Great Depression." And then he goes on to note how he thinks the Great Depression was worse. Well, it was worse. That's why this is the worst economy since the Great Depression, and not the worst economy ever.

Schiller almost actually tries to counter Obama's claim by suggesting that the 1982 recession might be as bad as this one, but he uses very selective statistics. He compares peak unemployment from the 1982 recession to current unemployment figures, even though we don't know if we've bottomed out yet in this one. But this crisis features massive bank failures as well (Schiller fails to mention that this didn't happen in 1982). In 1982 the entire financial system wasn't at risk. It seems to me that this recession is much worse than the 1982 crisis, and Schiller's really grasping at straws if his argument is that Obama shouldn't say this is the worst since the Depression because the 1982 recession might, by some metrics, be just as bad. The current situation might be closer to 1982 than 1932 — that's fair to postulate — but that wouldn't refute Obama's claim.

To say that Obama's claim was way out of line, you'd have to provide very convincing proof — far more convincing than the trite argument Schiller makes here — that 1982 was worse. Or, show somewhere in your article a quote where Obama says this is as bad as the Great Depression. As is often the case with journalists on the left and right, the headlines and paraphrases usually exaggerate the statements of the politician. See headlines about John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama on the Great Depression.

But Schiller does have a valid point in there. One worth making. It's not so noticeable amid WSJ's hypocrisy about fear-mongering, his selective statistics about 1982, his willful ignorance about the fact that most people are saying the same thing, and his embarrassing misunderstanding of the word "since." So I'll restate my own modified version of it here:

Talking about impending financial disaster will not boost confidence in a way that's needed to get people spending and lending again (nor, of course, will burying our heads in the sand and pretending nothing's wrong). Getting quick passage of a controversial bill with huge ramifications by threatening disaster is something we all hoped we were finished with, as well as loading up said bill with partisan policy and then calling the other body "obstructionist" for opposing it.

Now that the bill has passed, can we get back to Hope? Now that the bill has passed, can we get back to working with the John McCains of the world again?

1 comment:

Phutatorius said...

Well — one difference is that Bush's fear-mongering was channeled toward the end of arrogating more power to the Presidency. The effect (if not the purpose) of Obama's is to empower Congress.

I'm not terribly thrilled with either outcome, to be honest. But at least in this case we're not horrifying ourselves and destroying our moral authority in the rest of the world ("Buy American" aside, of course).

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