Thursday, February 18, 2010

Running on a counterfactual

The big story this week seems to be the stimulus bill, which just celebrated its first birthday.  According to independent studies, it's been a great success, employing roughly two million people who would otherwise be unemployed right now.  And yet you wouldn't know that to hear people talk.  Most Americans oppose the stimulus, thinking that a lot of it was wasted money.  Almost no one seems aware that it involved tax cuts or that it helped create jobs.  This is being attributed to poor salesmanship by the Obama administration, but really, with ten percent of Americans out of work, they could hardly be blamed for thinking that a job-creation bill hasn't done much for them.

The political problem for Obama and the Democrats is that they're making a counterfactual argument.  They're not claiming that things are great, but rather than things would have be worse if the nation had not followed their plans.  Or, as Barney Frank famously said, "You don't get reelected by saying, 'Things would've been worse without me.'"

Actually, can't you?  The Bush administration spent a good deal of time boasting that it had protected the country after 9/11, and that we hadn't been hit again.  This was a major component of the 2004 reelection campaign.  Isn't this, in some way, a counterfactual argument?  After all, they weren't saying that we were actually safe -- we were always advised to be on guard, especially at airports, and we were reminded constantly that sacrifices had to be made to protect us from further attacks -- they were just saying that we were safer than we would have been under another course of action (no Iraq war, no warrantless wiretaps, etc.).  That's why electing John Kerry in 2004 was purported to be a bad idea; it might make us less safe.

Now perhaps the war on terror is a different sort of issue than the economy.  People have a pretty good sense of how much disposable income they have and how much more or less of it they had last year.  With terrorism, we're pretty dependent on the government telling us how we're doing.  Nonetheless, shouldn't it be possible to make these arguments?

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