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For a Few Billion Dollars More

The national nervousness regarding the Ebola virus seems to have gone up another notch with the latest case, but rest assured that the leading experts are all hard at work to limit the potential political consequences.
At first glance the disease’s introduction to the United States would seem a problem for the Democrats, who for multi-cultural rather than medical reasons have resisted a ban on travel from the countries where the Ebola virus has become epidemic. This and other missteps also undermine the Democrats’ argument on behalf of letting government handle every aspect of American life, bolster the Republicans’ argument that the government is a gargantuan fool, and distracts attention from free contraception and the recent availability part-time jobs and anything else the Democrats might prefer to talk about. Despite these obvious disadvantages, however, the Democrats are still hoping to score a few points with the Ebola virus.
The first small effort came from Van Jones, the former Obama administration “green czar” and a self-professed communist, who told his fellow panelists on the Cable News Network’s “Crossfire” program that “We can’t let the Republicans get away with some of the stuff they’re doing this week, just trying to bash Obama. Hey, you know, government is always your enemy until you need a friend. This Ebola thing is the best argument you can make for the kind of government we believe in.” We take this to mean that it is a legitimate function of government to protect the country from the outbreak of deadly diseases, which is such a reasonable argument that only the conservative straw men of Jones’ demented imagination would dispute it, and that the country should therefore rack up further debt to pay for the cell phone bills of Cleveland crack addicts and the phony-baloney “green energy” scams of the administration’s big contributors and all the rest of the pernicious nonsense that comprises the kind of government Jones believes in, which is complete non sequitur. The argument clearly needed some refinement, so the non-profit and allegedly non-partisan Agenda project has unveiled an advertisement in several states with close election races that explains how Republican budget-cutting is responsible for the Ebola virus’ arrival in the United States. The smart folks over at Reason persuasively makes the case the that funding for a variety of agencies devoted to preventing epidemics is hardly stingy, and we’d question the advertisements premises in any case. No evidence is presented that a few more billion would have made these programs any more effective, nor is the magic amount that would have kept the disease out of the country ever stated, and there’s always a conservative counter-argument that any necessary amount should have come out of the budget for the Cleveland crack addicts’ cell phones and those phony-baloney “green jobs” scams.
The argument that just a few more billion dollars of government spending would have the difference is growing less persuasive with each passing day and every billion added to the national debt, and is especially weak made on behalf to he current efforts to control an Ebola virus outbreak. A timely ban on travel from the infected countries would have prevented a brave young nurse from battling this usually deadly disease, and it would have been cost-effective.

— Bud Norman

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Five Long Years of Stimulation

Monday marked the fifth anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as “the stimulus,” but we did not observe the occasion with a celebration. What with the economy the way it is, and having failed to apply for any available federal funding, we could ill-afford a fancy party or a bottle of fine champagne.
There was a warm rush of nostalgia, however, as we recalled the giddy optimism that attended President Barack Obama’s lavishly ceremonial signing of the law. We were told that the law would cost a mere $800 billion, already a insignificant sum by Washington standards, and yet keep the unemployment rate from topping 8 percent and bring it down to 5 percent by 2013 with “shovel-ready jobs” while lifting two million Americans out of poverty and saving the world from global warming by creating a new “green energy” industry. Since then the cost has grown to $2 trillion, the unemployment rate hit 10.1 percent and stayed above 8 percent for four years before enough people finally gave up looking for a job to push it down to the current 6.6 percent, the poverty rate has risen to a 50 year high, the president has joked that the shovel-ready jobs were “not as shovel-ready as we expected,” and the “green jobs” that survived the bankruptcies of the subsidized companies turned out to cost about $5 million apiece. This winter’s wicked weather suggests some success in combating global warming, but otherwise an objective observer might reasonably conclude that all the optimism seems have been unfounded.
Still giddy after all these years, the law’s indefatigable apologists offer two lines of defense.
One is that even if the stimulus did not live up to its promises it did at least prevent the country from sliding into another Great Depression and the earth from sliding out of its orbit and into the sun. The White House economists did overstate the stimulative effect of the stimulus, according to this popular theory, but only because they had generously underestimated the damage done by the stinginess and de-regulatory zeal of that free-market-crazed cowboy George W. Bush. This ignores that only months before signing the stimulus into law Obama had criticized Bush’s “irresponsible” and “un-patriotic” budget deficits, and fails to name a single regulation Bush eliminated that might have caused the financial downturn, and conveniently omits any mention of the Clinton-era “affordable housing” policies and their sub-prime shenanigans that did in fact cause the crash, but it has the emotionally satisfying appeal of blaming Bush.
The other argument is that the stimulus failed to achieve its stated goals only because it was far too small. One might expect that a $2 trillion infusion of freshly-printed cash would be sufficient to stimulate some economic activity, especially if you throw in a third trillion from the Trouble Assets Relief Program passed just a few months earlier, but apparently not. The theory that if what you’re doing only seems to be making things worse you should do far more of it is not new, having been around at least since it informed the Roosevelt administration policies that prolonged the actual Great Depression for nine years before the massive stimulus program that was World War II came along, and its temptation to those handing out the money has not diminished over the years.
Neither of these arguments can be definitively disproved, as economics does not allow for the sorts of controlled laboratory experiments that would settle such questions in the harder sciences, but there does seem ample reason for a healthy skepticism. The notion that handing out a couple trillion dollars of Monopoly money to reliably Democratic constituencies is the only logical way to revive an economy has an inherently suspicious ring to it, and much of the stimulus money was spent in ways that are remarkably unproductive even by government standards.
Those cheeky iconoclasts at The Washington Free Beacon chose ten especially outrageous expenditures that illustrate the point. One program spent $389,357 to find why young men drink malt liquor and smoke marijuana, when we could have told them for a far more economical sum that it’s to in order to get drunk and high, and another spent $8,408 to find out if mice can get drunk, which could have been learned for the price of a mouse and a beer. Another spent $1.2 million on a University of California-San Francisco study of erectile dysfunction in overweight men, while Yale University was given $384, 949 to study duck penises. (This genital pre-occupation reminds of us an old bureaucracy joke too blue to repeat here, by the way, but if you’re interested shoot us an e-mail with proof that you’re of age in your state and we’ll pass it along.) Yet another $100,000 went to fund anti-capitalist puppet shows, a particularly peculiar way of promoting economic growth, and still another $600,000 was spent to plant trees in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Denver, which presumably offset the benefits to the hated rich with commensurate benefits to beloved and impoverished Mother Nature. If such wacky use of public funds does not convince you of the wisdom of the stimulus, perhaps the $1.3 million spent on signs advertising the benefits of the stimulus did the trick. Judging by the amount of Obamacare’s budget spent on advertising its blessings, the government seems quite convinced that you’ll fall for it again.
Which is not to say the apologists aren’t quite right, of course. Perhaps such spending did save the country from breadlines and a return to the hit parade for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” and perhaps it would have worked better yet if only we’d be willing to shell out a cool million for even more duck penis revelations, and there is no denying that the earth hasn’t slipped out of its orbit and into the sun. We can’t quite shake a nagging suspicion that Keynesian is bunk, and that like global warming it’s a scam to legitimize the government’s ravenous appetite for power, but if we could afford a fine bottle of champagne we’d drink it.

— Bud Norman

A Pregnant Per Se

A most interesting quote from President Barack Obama appeared in the news on Thursday.

Asked by the host of National Public Radio’s “Marketplace” program about Solyndra, the cylindrical solar panel manufacturer that received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal loans and was touted by the president as a “model” for the new “green economy,” Obama replied that “Obviously we wish Solyndra hadn’t gone bankrupt. Part of the reason they did was the Chinese were subsidizing their solar industry and flooding the market in ways Solyndra couldn’t compete. But understand, this was not our program per se.”

The statement is remarkable in part because it was prompted a tough question from someone at National Public Radio, a famously genteel news organization usually disinclined to bring up such embarrassing matters to this president. The question was framed as delicately as possible, delivered with that soothing public radio voice, and there was no derisive snort at the answer, but by NPR standards it was a remarkable act of lese majesty nonetheless. We wish the host much luck with his next employer.

It is obvious that Obama wishes Solyndra hadn’t gone bankrupt, given that even Jon Stewart couldn’t resist mocking him about it, and not at all surprising that he would blame the Chinese. What’s striking about the statement, however, is that “per se” affixed to the end.

“Per se” is one of those phrases that immediately arouses the suspicion of an alert listener. One usually hears it at the end of such sentences as “I don’t think you’re fat, per se,” or “I didn’t run over your dog, per se.” Some clarification of what the speaker means by “per se” should always be demanded, except apparently by members of the news media.

Obama helpfully explained that “Congress, Democrats and Republicans, put together a loan guarantee program because they understood, historically, when you get new industries, it’s easy to raise money for start ups, but when you want to take them to scale oftentimes there’s a lot of risk involved, and what the loan guarantee program was designed to do was help get start up companies to scale.” So he apparently means by “per se” that it was actually a program of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, and they should be the ones that even Jon Stewart is ridiculing. He might as well have noted that it was also a program of the Department of Energy, an agency established during the administration of Jimmy Carter, and that his already much-maligned predecessor should therefore bear the blame.

Such a “per se” obscures a few key points. The funding for the Solyndra loans came not from some long-ago act of Congress but from the stimulus package that Obama was once eager to claim as his program, a point that he reiterated when he gave a much publicized speech at the Solyndra factory in happier times and told the adoring crowd that “Through the Recovery Act, this company received loans and expanded its operations. This new factory is the result of those loans.” The funding was also approved by Obama’s appointees at the Department of Energy, over the objections of the career civil servants there, and had been wisely rejected by the previous administration. Also, while it might not have been his program, per se, those were definitely his campaign bundlers who were getting the loans.

There’s no wondering why Obama would want to distance himself from the Solyndra fiasco, but it remains a mystery why he stubbornly clings to the rest of his failed “green jobs” policies. Solyndra is but one of several heavily-funded “green” projects hat have gone bust, from Ener1 to Beacon Power to the Chevy Volt, and it’s going to take a lot of per se to revise that history.

— Bud Norman