1) When a family runs into economic difficulty, suffering a loss of income or unexpected expenses, how should they respond?
2) When the national economy runs into difficulty, with millions suffering the loss of their jobs, how should the government respond?
Your answer to the first question probably doesn't have much to do with your political philosophy. When a breadwinner loses a job or unexpected medical expenses arise, all families do the same thing: they economize, they "tighten their belts."
But your answer to the second question has everything to do with whether you are a liberal or conservative, a Democrat or Republican. Most Democrats respond to tough economic times by arguing for increased government expenditures, both on social-welfare programs and on job-creating infrastructure projects. Republicans, on the other hand, argue for government belt-tightening when the economy takes a downturn.
Right away, you can see the problem for the Democrats. Their solution to economic crisis conflicts with simple common sense, as it is understood by millions of voters. Republicans naturally play on this contradiction, promising to "bring common sense budgeting to Washington D.C." Wisconsin Senate candidate Ron Johnson is a prime example, pointing to his business experience to reassure voters that "I know how to meet a payroll and balance a budget."
And what can we say about the Democrats, if their response to hard times is more spending? What would we say about someone who, after losing his job, went out and bought a new flatscreen TV in order to "stimulate the economy"? None of us would trust such a person with a handful of spare change, much less the management of the largest economy on the planet.
Yes, the Democratic policy is the economically correct policy. As the economist John Maynard Keynes first pointed out during the Great Depression of the 1930's, government must be the one component of the economy that does not cut back in hard times, if we are to avoid an endless spiral into even greater unemployment and poverty. When individuals and businesses cut back, less spending means less demand, which means more layoffs, which means even less spending, less demand, and still more layoffs, and on and on, until we're all huddled around burning trash barrels in the street. In short, what's responsible behavior in a family or business leads to economic mass destruction when practiced by government.
But economic correctness doesn't win elections. Just think about how the debate, such as it was, went in this election: The Republican accuses the Democrat of being an irresponsible big spender, and the Democrat says... well, what? Many Democratic candidates bought into the Republican line that government spending during hard times is irresponsible, and promised belt-tightening of their own. Losing Wisconsin Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett, for example, campaigned on a promise to "put Madison [the state capitol] on a diet." But if putting government on a diet is the answer, why not vote for the Republican, who's likely to offer an even more stringent diet?
Think back over all the campaign rhetoric you heard over the past several months, and ask yourself when you heard any Democratic candidate say, "Yes, families and businesses must cut back in hard times, but here's why government cannot..." Didn't happen, did it?
To be fair, anyone who's ever run a campaign will tell you that elections are not about educating the public. There's no worse time to plant a new idea in the public mind than during an election, when people are already being bombarded with conflicting claims and nasty personal attack ads. There's no room in a 30-second TV ad for John Maynard Keynes. Instead, successful campaigns rely on the ideas people already hold in their heads, ideas that only need to be poked and prodded to come to the fore and drive voters to support your candidate. Given the short window of opportunity when most people begin to pay attention to elections - the last two weeks of October, essentially - there's little time for anything else.
But what about in between elections? Is there time then for Democrats to explain to the public why budgeting for the government is not like budgeting for your family? Apparently not. Here, for example, was President Obama during his inaugural address, when there was still a full 21 months before the next election: "Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same."
Yes, that speech was followed by an "economic stimulus" bill that cost more than $800 billion, but how did the Democrats explain this to the public? When they weren't running away from this accomplishment -- and it was an accomplishment, albeit too small to make the needed difference -- they pointed to the good the stimulus had done, the projects undertaken, the jobs created. But this is akin to the unemployed man bragging about the high-def picture on that new flatscreen TV he bought on credit. Yes, it's a nice TV, but wasn't it irresponsible of you to buy it in the first place?
What was needed was not merely a list of the benefits of the stimulus bill, but an argument that spending more was actually the responsible thing to do, combined with just enough of Keynes' ideas to make that argument convincing. What was needed was mass public education about an idea so brilliant, so counter-intuitive, that it revolutionized economic thinking and still provides the basis for how most governments interact with the economy.
We can't blame people for not understanding something when we've never bothered to explain it to them. If people go into the voting booth armed with nothing but their own common sense, misapplied to a situation beyond their experience, what can we expect?