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Tilting at Windmills

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November 20, 2009

THE DANGERS OF ILLITERACY.... OK, so most Americans have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to the deficit. How are they when it comes to understanding stimulus efforts? Arguably, on this, they're even worse.

Rasmussen has a new poll showing a 51% majority believes cancelling the economic recovery efforts would "create more jobs." Derek Thompson, flabbergasted, characterized these beliefs as "insane."

It's one thing to say that canceling the rest of the stimulus money would help our deficit. That's arguable, even if I think it's dead wrong, since the best way to help our deficit is to put people back to work when demand is nonexistent so that they (1) receive taxable income and (2) spend that taxable income on products to help other people's taxable income. [...]

The idea that canceling the stimulus would create more jobs implies that passing the stimulus has actually killed more jobs than it's created, which is bonkers. Let's say you don't want to consider infrastructure spending or green technology spending or a single job that might have been created in the private sector. If nothing else, the tens of billions we've sent to state budgets have, without question, saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, like teachers, that are supported by state taxes. It's just a very basic fact.

So this is a crazy statistic, but I think it's important to ask why Americans think the stimulus is actually hurting job-creation.

It's a good question, and your guess is as good as mine. Chances are, it's not just one thing. Part of the confusion is likely the result of an electorate that doesn't quite understand the basics, and is therefore easily misled by the same people who got us in this mess. Part of it comes from a media that hasn't made much of an effort to explain the basics. And part of the problem has to be politicians -- one party believes Hoover was right about the Great Depression, and the other party is afraid to talk about how government spending and intervention prevented a wholesale economic collapse.

Regardless of the cause, the consequences of widespread confusion and ignorance can be, and may turn out to be, devastating. If most Americans believe government spending undermines job creation, and are convinced that short-term deficit reduction is more important than economic growth, they're more likely to vote for arsonists to put out the fire.

The surest way to make things even worse is to reward those who created the problem in the first place.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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My guess would be that the reasoning is that jobs are still being lost even with the stimulus underway.

Chances are that continuing losses are being confused with the stimulus preventing things from being even worse.

Posted by: Old School on November 20, 2009 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

It is sad, but more times than not ignorance either sets the agenda, or at least disrupts it enough to change any hopeful outcome! Too many Americans over too long of a period of time have been exercising their constitutional rights to stay stupid! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on November 20, 2009 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

The public never knew the difference between the bank bailout and the stimulus. There has never been a worse public relations effort than the choice to call the bill "The Stimulus". That means nothing to be people. They have no idea what that is. It was never sold in anyway that would clue them in.

We need to start realizing that the Obama administration is NOT succeeding in communicating with the public. This kind of poll shows it.

Posted by: Vicki Linton on November 20, 2009 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

Why oh why are the Murikan people so ignorant?
Don't they watch the teevee?
Don't they read the newspapers?

Uh, never mind...

Posted by: neill on November 20, 2009 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

They think that if the stimulus is canceled, businesses will magically also get tax cuts and then they'll use that money to hire people. That's false in at least a couple of ways, but it has the advantage of being a coherent thought.

Posted by: DonBoy on November 20, 2009 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Test after test shows that the Americans as a people have little knowledge of basic facts in subjects such as geography, arithmetic, civics, etc.
You expect them to get economics?
It is easier to become an ignorant cynic and just say everything the government does is wrong.
Makes it way easier to cheat you, too, but the one thing Americans never say is "I was wrong."

Posted by: JMG on November 20, 2009 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of illiterate buffoons, the religious right in India just attacked CNN's sister TV station IBN.

Watch out, MSNBC, it could happen here too.

Posted by: Ohioan on November 20, 2009 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Again, if anyone finds this surprising I would like to direct them here:


Posted by: Paul Dirks on November 20, 2009 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Agreed that President Obama needs to do some "fireside chats" on this topic. It's sad how many Americans -- poll responders, anyway -- seem rather simplistic.

That said, I think the majority of the public realizes we didn't get into this situation overnight, and that it will be a steep climb pulling out. What they say to either or poll questions might not capture that nuance.

But people are losing their jobs, right and left; many of those jobs are not coming back at the expected salary, and we have a political system that can't even rationally discuss healthcare reform. Even in an economy where health insurance is tied to jobs. And see the first sentence in this paragraph.

Posted by: Elizabelle on November 20, 2009 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK



Posted by: Paul Dirks on November 20, 2009 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think anyone thought that Hoover was right before a wingnut recently planted that seed and it took root in the Republican talking points bulletin. I would have to believe that more of the 51% majority think Hoover was the Herb Kohler of vacuums rather than the President who led the country into the great depression. Ask that question if you really want to get depressed.

Posted by: dannyshenanigan on November 20, 2009 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Rasmussen has a new poll showing a 51% majority believes cancelling the economic recovery efforts would "create more jobs."

Ouch, apparently being bludgeoned in the head for eight straight years has left a mark.

Posted by: oh my on November 20, 2009 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Blame Obama's kowtow to Chinese concerns on Faux News. C'mon, Steve, all of a sudden he became a deficit hawk out of nowhere.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 20, 2009 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Obama and the Democratic Congress have done a terrible job of educating the public on the rationale for the stimulus package specifically and counter-cyclical spending generally. They need to crawl out of their policy-wonk cocoon and start doing some effective marketing -- like the Republicans do.

Posted by: Dr Lemming on November 20, 2009 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

A huge part of it is that we've had thirty years (at least) of the GOP repeating the trope that tax cuts increase revenue, combined with Reagan's "government is the problem" zinger. A substantial portion of the population, at this point, simply cannot grasp the notion that increasing government spending on anything other than defense can be a good thing, or that it helps the average Joe or Jane in the street.

I'm really beginning to wonder if the ARRA -- which I fully supported, and still do -- wouldn't have been both more effective economically and politically if it had simply directly created lots of medium-term jobs, like the CCC or WPA in the 1930s. Forget infrastructure improvements, forget green energy, just create a handful of legislatively-sunsetted agencies to hire massive numbers of people to whatever it is they're trained to do.

Posted by: Andy on November 20, 2009 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Isn't there a video clip of then-VP Dick Cheney claiming "deficits don't matter"? Or would that be just Republican deficits?

Posted by: FC on November 20, 2009 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

I think Vicky Linton is spot on. People are confusing the bank bailout and the stimulus. It's not that they think lowering government spending creates jobs--it's not that sophisticated or that closely tied to Repub talking points. People are watching the bankers take the money and run, and not making a distinction between bailout and stimulus.

Posted by: rabbit on November 20, 2009 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

These polls scare me. If the American electorate hands Republicans control of the house or senate in the '10 elections, then this country is hopelessly lost. To give power back to the party that almost caused a great depression, that cares only for business interests, that calls itself a god loving christian nation while waging endless war, then we deserve what we get and I am taking my family with me the fuck outta here.

We will be a third world country, similar to a feudal society where the working poor toils in squalor for the benefit of the privileged few. The rest of the middle class should have enough sense to get out while they can.

It's deeply depressing and sad that this once great nation of ours has devolved into the laughing stock it is to the rest of the world. Believe me I know because I talk to European relatives frequently and they are simply shocked that we have a political party that would rather destroy our country than see the democrats be successful.

I've been watching the History channel's WWII in HD, and have found myself wondering what these vets would think about the country they fought for and what it has become.

On behalf of all sane and truly patriotic Americans, I apologize to them, and everyone on down to the Founding Fathers, for the joke this country has become. You tried, and we failed.

Posted by: citizen_pain on November 20, 2009 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

A key requirement for a republic to survive is an informed populace.

The issue here is not that the populace is not informed, it's about how and with what they are informed.

That the Fourth Estate has been effectively usurped by those who would deny truth in favor of truthiness in pursuit of increasing the wealth of the few at the expense of the many is the reason we are where we are today and, if we don't do something about it, will be the reason that this grand old American experiment failed.

Posted by: terraformer on November 20, 2009 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, stop talking about polls. When surveying the American public, you're treading headlong and fast into murky water.

agreement on evolution:

Scientific community- 99.9%

American public - A plurality believe God created man "as is" about 10,000 years ago.

agreement on cause and existence of global warming:

Scientific community - 99.9%

American public - Only 36% believe the earth is warming because of burning fossil fuel and 33% don't believe there is any evidence of global warming at all.

Posted by: tempered optimism on November 20, 2009 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

H.L. Mencken-"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public".

Seems to apply perfectly here.

Posted by: Gandalf on November 20, 2009 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Yes to most of the above - and yes, a majority of Americans oppose the bill of rights if you read the Constitutional guarantees one at a time and ask them if they like it.

But I have seen only one poll that asked respondents for their reasoning, and found that many Americans who oppose the "stimulus" actually mean the bailout. They don't know the difference between the TARP for the investment bankers and the stimulus package that came later. And the media have done - WHAT? - to make the difference clear.

That would be the same media that announce A MAJORITY OF AMERICANS OPPOSE HEALTH-CARE REFORM, but do not explain that half of the naysayers oppose reform from the right - it goes too far - and a third oppose it from the left - it does not do enough - and the rest are confused and don't know what health care reform is about.

If we as a people are ignorant, it's because the knowledge we need is so hard to dig out of the morass.

Posted by: Brownell on November 20, 2009 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

WaPost article yesterday on new coffeehouse in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, rebuilt on site of 18th century coffeehouse, and its potential in educating a new generation.

"Dwindling civic life

It is fitting, perhaps, that a building that once served as a site of Colonial-era discussion and debate is the first major reconstruction of the narrative-driven era of Williamsburg. The roots of Charlton's Coffeehouse go back to the 18th century, but the roots of the reconstruction reflect deep concerns about growing social anomie over the past few decades.

In museum circles, the shorthand for this is "Bowling Alone," a reference to Robert Putnam's 1995 book, which claimed that Americans were becoming increasingly disengaged from civic participation and social engagement.

[Jim] Horn [Colonial Williamsburg's VP for research and historical interpretation] rattles off a litany of worries that everyone in the history business is facing: "The decline of civic awareness and school education; the decline of quality newspapers; voting every four years, or not at all . . . ."

Schoolchildren, he says, are arriving at Williamsburg with very little knowledge of the basics of American history. And in the age of endless electronic blandishments, from online gaming to iPhones that can immerse you in enhanced realities, reengaging kids without a narrative and emotional component is seen as impossible."


Posted by: Elizabelle on November 20, 2009 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans are bound and determined to test the maxim - You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.

We'll see......

Posted by: wtf on November 20, 2009 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

The Republicans are winning the propaganda war!

Posted by: edr on November 20, 2009 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

I think it's even simpler than the confusion of "bank bailout" with "stimulus." I'm guessing there are huge numbers of people who hear either one of those, think, "government," and then say, "We don't want it, it gets in the way."

When people say they want the government to do something about "jobs," they don't mean that they want the government to pay them to do something, they (somehow) mean that they want the government to do something that makes already-existing employers hire more people. (For instance, by cutting taxes.)

People have been made very ignorant and resentful of the idea that "government" should ever do anything directly for anyone. And, no, I don't know how to fix that.

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on November 20, 2009 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

TARP and the stimulus are two different beasts. But since we haven't significantly reformed the financial sector, much of the stimulus measures are not very effective as the banks continue to be stingy with credit.

We gave them tons of money for their greed, and then didn't clamp down on fiscal sanity, so much remains the same.

Meanwhile, money from the stimulus isn't getting "down" into the
lower wage stratas of our economy; the financial shenanigans continue.

So, I can understand folks' frustrations and lack of clarity about what a stimulus is versus the bank bailouts.

By not fixing the financial flaws, rewarding incompetence and greed, no stimulus will work. And, I'm afraid we're seeing the reality of that with low wages, massive foreclosures, and ever-rising unemployment.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on November 20, 2009 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK
I'm really beginning to wonder if the ARRA -- which I fully supported, and still do -- wouldn't have been both more effective economically and politically if it had simply directly created lots of medium-term jobs, like the CCC or WPA in the 1930s

It would have been a.) better and b.) died in committee.

Ben Nelson and Susan Collins rule your world.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on November 20, 2009 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

this is of a piece with the articles on the deficit versus job creation.

under Raygun, the public didn't care about the defecit. under Bush II, the public didn't care about the deficit. why does the public care about the deficit now? the public hasn't gotten dumber just this year (they voted for the simplistic "Contract on America" and for W, twice, after all).

no, the sad, simple explanation is that both in the long-term (since 1980) and the short term (this week/month/year) the otherwise incompetent rightwing is simply handing us our collective left-wing asses when it comes to messaging and marketing. no, the media is no help at all, but even that is a matter of the right winning a communications battle over time. and knowing that, we can't use it as an excuse, we have to work around it.

Obama is not a panacea. Good policies are not a panacea. Winning the blogging war has not been a panacea. The visible, national party and affiliated organizations just freaking suck at playing the game, and it happens to be the only thing the right is good at.

Until we get better, nothing else will matter much.

Posted by: zeitgeist on November 20, 2009 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

Doesn't Rasmussen skew wingnut anyway?

Posted by: Vicente Fox on November 20, 2009 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Read the comment section if you really want to get sad. There are a quite a few pseudo-intellectual people who disagree vehemently with Thompson.

I think part of the issue is that a lot of really relatively smart or college-educated people start with the wrong set of facts - they read the Wall Street Journal editorial pages; as that is what business leaders all do. Despite the fact that WSJ is always wrong as Krugman would say, those people think what they write is true and cite it.

For a prime example, look no further than the Chamber of Commerce ads that are out there against the health care bills. Despite the fact that the entire idea of insurance reform is that it reduces employer health care costs and therefore increase profitability for their members, the Chamber of Commerce is actively arguing against their member's interests. In the business I work for, the principals would rather pay $100K to an insurance company than pay $30K more in taxes and keep the $70K out of principle.

This is truly "insane" but we have decision makers acting against their own interests all of the time and this will happen as long as the elites don't treat the WSJ Editorial writers as the clowns that they are.

Posted by: DBaker on November 20, 2009 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

I believe the "electorate" does get it. One does not need to be steeped in the theories of Jevons or Keynes to understand the economic realties around them -- while others proclaim it, they live it.

Posted by: m on November 20, 2009 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

I blame the media.

People understand their own household finances. They understand that credit card interest rates will eat you alive. They are being eaten alive by them.
They also understand that you have no choice but to go into debt to buy a car if you intend to keep your job.
When they apply their understanding to the national situation it is had to tell which is which between the other guy's careless spending habits and your own need to buy that car to keep that job.
What the corporate media is doing to confuse and conflate the issues is exactly the same thing the corporate media did 100 years ago to maintain the gilded age.

Posted by: thebewilderness on November 20, 2009 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

I read the comments on Thompson's blog entry. It was amazing to see intelligent people arguing about pure economic theory without relating it to the real world. For all the criticisms they leveled at Thompson's "stunted, Keynesian perspective," they have no real-world solutions. Eliminating the national money supply and restructuring American industry so that the country can start over, with people buying goods in line with their income and American manufacturers supplying most of those goods, etc., is a political fantasy and treats the rest of the world as if it's irrelevant. Refusing to address the current problems would create political and economic crises that their preferred systems would be unable to handle. Anarchy isn't a system.


Posted by: Steven R. Stahl on November 20, 2009 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

They also understand that you have no choice but to go into debt to buy a car if you intend to keep your job.

And everyone should understand that if you have an idea for a profitable business but no money on hand, you can try to get a loan from the bank: thus you go into debt, use that seed money to do something you couldn't otherwise do, and then get out of debt again. Car loans, home loans, business loans: these aren't hard concepts to grasp.

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on November 20, 2009 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

Car loans, home loans, business loans: these aren't hard concepts to grasp.

Being in the legal tax field, you would be shocked about the shear number of people who do NOT understand any of these concepts; go to any bank branch and ask how many customers come in there asking for someone to help them balance their check books because they are unable to conduct simple math. The only people who do understand these concepts are the independently wealthy; that's how they are independently wealthy in the first place.

Posted by: DBaker on November 20, 2009 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

The electorate does not have a problem with "government debt" ... they have a problem with certain "government spending". Specifically, spending geared to rent seeking big business (Banks, Automakers, etc.) and politically connected constituencies (Labor Unions, Military Industrial Complex, etc.) looking for a handout from tax payers -- friends and neighbors ... the "electorate" that does not seem to get it.

Trust me, they get it. The stimulus has not worked as intended because it was mostly largess. TARP worked only to restore confidence because leadership failed (but at tremendous expense and substantial moral hazard) -- Bush AND "the 535" Senators and Legislators so quick to point their fingers outward. Consumers have lost confidence in government and all the spending in the world can not repair this ... leadership may. Let's see.

Posted by: m on November 20, 2009 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

I can understand why so many Americans don't understand the jobs/stimulus bill thing. Just this afternoon I had to turn off NPR because my head was going to explode -- they were airing an interview with an "expert" who was explaining that the stimulus "only grows government and does not create private-sector jobs." What was he advocating? Complete elimination of the capital gains tax. That will fix everything, he said. At that point, given I was driving at 65 mph, I decided it would be safer to listen to something else.

We suffered through eight years of the press doing public relations on behalf of the Bush administration. Apparently no one at NPR, or anywhere else in the media, has updated their rolodexes.

The older I get, the less I understand human beings.

Posted by: karen marie on November 20, 2009 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK

Karen, you are mostly correct. Government spending does have a multiplier effect on the overall economy and a generic "capital gains tax" argument is unpersuasive. However, deficit government spending will fall flat (as it has) unless it also encourages private investment and consumption. Currently, consumers and businesses are sitting on the sidelines waiting for the dust to settle. This will not change until they have confidence in the path government leadership will choose to take.

That said, targeted tax breaks -- including certain capital gains reductions -- should not be ruled out to stimulate private investment in infrastructure and jobs.

Posted by: m on November 20, 2009 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

The stimulus has not worked as intended because it was mostly largess.

It has not worked because it was not large enough and consisted of tax cuts because Ben Nelson and people like him believe that they have a stimulative effect when all empirical evidence says it has a limited one, while sticking to a magical pony $800 billion figure that just sounded like a nice figure but had no basis in fact.

We have too many people in this country spouting off from the gut (= out of their ass) and using selective memory, such as you sir, to make the wrong point.

Posted by: DBaker on November 20, 2009 at 5:33 PM | PERMALINK

DB -- of course I may be wrong, it certainly would not be the first time. However, you lose much credibility when you suggest I speak from my arse, when you lack the context to make that judgement.

Posted by: m on November 20, 2009 at 5:42 PM | PERMALINK

I'm curious what % of Americans believe that there were no tax cuts in the stimulus package.

I bet it's around 75%, so the Republicans can hammer the Dems for not cutting taxes, even though Dems cut taxes. We really need to sell this stuff instead of relying on Americans to become well informed from tv news.

Posted by: Owen on November 20, 2009 at 10:33 PM | PERMALINK

Stimulus without reform of FIRE sector corruption and regulatory capture is pissing up a rope. The problem is the reductive econ blathering of all you one-course wonders who ignore the micro holes in your macro plans. More bullshit forced-choice questions for the lemmings.

Posted by: 3rdworld on November 21, 2009 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

The article itself and nearly all of the comments serve mainly to confirm the ignorance and insanity that encompasses two-thirds of our population. Almost no one has any idea of what the real underlying problem is, or is articulate enough to express themselves. The problem is the monetary system itself, the fiat money system has nearly run its course. The people who control our money are the real government, with absolute control over our elected and appointed government officials. Most of these moneyed elite are not U S citizens, and none of them have a care in the world for the well being of this nation. They also own the mainstream media, so we never even get a glimpse of the truth of what has been done to us, or the economic calamity that is now inevitable, as it was with every debt based money system in the world's history.

Posted by: rolse on September 9, 2010 at 8:27 PM | PERMALINK
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