Rooting for America rather than against its politicians

By Jayson Jacoby February 20, 2009 11:36 am

I hope the stimulus plan President Obama signed into law this week revives the American economy from its current bout of narcolepsy. And if it does, I won’t be bothered a whit when President Obama and the Democrats in Congress lay claim to the credit.

I understand this position brands me as unreliable, and possibly even a a traitor, in certain political circles.

Some conservative commentators — radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh is the most prominent of them — are rooting for Obama to fail.

But I care more about ending the recession than I care about which political party can present the more convincing case that its policies spared the country from a second Great Depression.

Of course I don’t have an audience of Obama opponents to impress.

What truly worries Republicans, it seems to me, is the possibility that the stimulus, which some define as socialism, could eventually be regarded as America’s savior.

That’s a reasonable fear.

If the economy reverses course in the next year or so, or at least makes significant progress in that direction, then it’s likely that a majority of Americans will conclude that Obama was largely responsible.

But that doesn’t mean most of us want our country to be more like, say, Sweden.

(If anything, America is becoming less Swedish — General Motors, for instance, is entertaining offers to scratch  Saab off its balance sheet.)

I don’t think the legislation that Obama signed Tuesday in Denver transformed the United States, through some nefarious political alchemy, into the western branch of the European Union. I doubt most Americans think it did, either.

For one thing the bill cuts taxes. This is not what politicians do with taxes if they want to get invited to socialists’ parties.

And so far as I can tell the stimulus doesn’t require that I ask the government’s permission before I get my toothache taken care of.

(I’m writing this two hours before I’m scheduled for a root canal, and the pain coming from just behind my left canine — tooth No. 12, I’m told — keeps barging into my thoughts about macroeconomics.)

But just so you don’t get the wrong idea (or conclude that I would vote for Nancy Pelosi if I lived in her congressional district), there are parts of the stimulus package that I, like Rush, consider ludicrous.

In that sense the bill is standard issue for Washington, D.C. Ludicrous, at any rate, is a handy adjective for a writer to have in his quiver when he’s commenting on the federal government spending a lot of our money. This is true even when the sum involved is quite a lot less than $787 billion.

After deliberating for some days about the stimulus I came down finally on what seems to me an island of sorts, a patch of dry land between a pair of partisan seas. I prefer it here, and would rather stand where the footing feels solid than bob about in water which is lashed often by fierce ideological gales.

I would be more sympathetic to Obama and the Democrats if they had written a bill that focuses solely on the awful dilemma we’re in now (the president himself calls it a catastrophe). But the architects of the stimulus also decided to tinker with matters which, though worthwhile, can be put off until our ledger looks a bit less like the accounts of a degenerate gambler.

To hear them tell it, our economy is akin to a car that’s running rough, and the stimulus bill is the basic tune-up needed to get it idling smooth.

But I’ve been poking around in the legislation, and it seems to me that what Obama wants to build is one of those 1970s American behemoths, tarted up with acres of chrome, a vinyl roof and useless opera windows.

I’ve yet to hear anyone explain, for instance, how adding $1 billion to the U.S. Census Bureau’s budget is supposed to jumpstart the economy.

We already know how to count the people on unemployment.

The stimulus also includes more than $100 million for “oversight of spending” for federal departments.

Statistics like that make it a lot harder to dismiss firebrands such as Limbaugh as simplistic buffoons.

I don’t expect much in the way of solutions from a government that has to spend $100 million to figure out how much it’s spending.

My bank tells me that for nothing.

Still and all, blatant waste makes up a trifling percentage of the $787 billion.

Which is why my disgust with those Democrats who refuse to admit that their bill is bloated, is balanced by my disappointment in Republicans who seem to believe that every dollar the federal government doles out disappears before it dips into the stream of commerce.

That might be the fate of some of the 787 billion dollars in the stimulus.

But not most.

About $288 billion, in fact — slightly more than one-third — is in the form of tax breaks for people and businesses.

Much of the rest of the money will go to build or buy things.

More to the point, for things that people, most of whom don’t work for the government, will get paid to produce.

This, as I understand it, is basically the point.

Nothing that involves $787 billion is as simple as that, of course.

We can argue — and we have been — about what we ought to build and buy with our money. We should debate whether we’re investing our wealth wisely or squandering it like a child who just busted his piggy bank.

Putting out $29 billion to repair highways, for instance, seems to me a worthwhile expense. Most construction workers earn a decent wage, plus I’m less likely to spill soda on my upholstery once they’re done with the job.

Loaning $17 billion to college students, on the other hand, is helpful if you’re a college student, but I doubt it’s going to impress Wall Street.

Republican critics argue that the government can print all the money it wants, but only the private sector can rescue America’s economy.

They might be right about that.

But about one thing I’m certain:

If you’re one of the millions who until recently earned a paycheck, you’d probably like to do so again.

And I’ll wager that you don’t care whether the pen that made it possible was wielded by a Democratic president signing a bill, or by a Republican entrepreneur adding your name to the payroll.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.