Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Economics 101"

Our local paper prints syndicated conservative cartoonists from Cagle Cartoons. It was a reprinting of this cartoon that furrowed my brow (for copyright reasons you have to click the link to see it, I can't repost it here). The picture shows Congress on the day of the reading of the Constitution (last week). The word bubble reads "Today in the House the members will be reading aloud the text of... ECONOMICS 101!"

The cartoon strikes me as problematic for a couple of reasons.
1. It assumes everyone has the same idea about Economics 101-- as if it's common sense.
2. It implies that a now Republican-led House will reinstate economic principles as they purportedly wish to do with the Constitution.

First, what was the idea behind reading the Constitution? The Tea Party made repeated statements about returning to the ideas of our founders--as written in the U.S. Constitution. This is problematic for several reasons, as outlined by Michael Lind of in his piece "Let's stop pretending that the Constitution is sacred." He points out that most countries, and our own 50 states, have either greatly amended or even replaced their their constitutions completely over the last 250 years.
"The U.S. Constitution is not the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, and James Madison and John Adams were not Lycurgus and Solon."
Lind later pointed out that many Republicans were violating the Constitution that very day by taking the floor without being sworn in.

I forwarded the article to a friend who is a conservative House staffer with a history degree. He agreed with almost all of Lind's outline.

Conservative David Frum pointed out that the House didn't read all the portions about slavery in the Constitution (because they've been amended irrelevant). If the Tea Party really wants to get back to the ideas of our founding fathers, then slavery has to be included.

Begin to see the problem with worshiping a man-written document? The Constitution was written in an America of quite a different context than today. Legislatures and courts have struggled to make it work as America has changed for over 200 years. The argument that we should "go back to the Constitution" is the same as saying "we should get rid of everything on written our books after 1787," and it's just not very intelligent.

Now, what about a reading of Economics 101? Given that our newspaper is conservative in its leanings, I purport that to mean Economics 101 supports conservative economic principles. But we can learn a lot in Economics 101 that sounds like socialism to some Tea Partiers:
  • Government has an obligation to correct negative externalities. That means subsidizing things like education and the National Science Foundation while taxing things like gasoline and carbon. Subsidies and taxes are transfers of income and wealth, anathema to the Tea Party.
  • It's okay for governments to run deficits during economic downturns. If it cuts spending and lays off workers during a recession it will create an even worse downturn by increasing unemployment and further decreasing tax revenue.
  • It's okay for a central bank to boost the money supply during a downturn. Milton Friedman would have supported the Fed's efforts.
  • Free trade is better than some trade which is better than no trade. But Republicans, and Tea Partiers in particular, are more anti-trade than Democrats now.
Conservatives controlled the legislative branch from 2000-2006 and greatly increased the deficits and debt and expanded the role of government by creating new agencies and entitlements. They either killed or made trade treaties worse and subsidized plenty of pork and agriculture. They did so under full rights of the Constitution and claiming that economic principles were on their side. The Democratic-led legislature of recent years has done little different. To think that reading the Constitution or "Economics 101" is going to change anything is pretty silly.

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