Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hey, Democrats: Layoffs Are Bad

I have to agree with Steve Benen about the politics of spending federal money to prevent state and local government layoffs:

I don't mean for that to sound snarky; I mean it quite literally. If Dems pass the spending measures the president is pushing, they'll be saving thousands of jobs and prevent broader economic hardship during a fragile recovery. These lawmakers can go back to their home districts and arrange nice photo-ops in front of schools with teachers who would have been laid off, and police stations with officers who would be out of a job were it not for their "aye" vote in Congress for more spending.

In what universe do Democrats think they'll be better off politically with "massive layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters"?
Here's the thing.  It's generally a good idea for politicians to listen to what their constituents are saying.  Sometimes, however, pols need to realize that polls are misleading.  I think the current polling on spending and deficits -- even in marginal districts -- is almost certainly an example where politicians need to use more sophisticated political judgment than just reading simple polling. 

On two counts.  One is about what people really believe and act on.  It's certainly possible that people care more about deficits and/or government spending than they do about unemployment, well-staff schools, and fully staffed local government, but I'd be very, very, wary of believing that without quite a lot of evidence.  A simple question about spending or deficits, one that doesn't discuss trade-offs, is weak evidence indeed.

The second is that sometimes politicians do, in fact, know a bit more than their constituents, and should act on that information.  Now, I do think this is dangerous territory...a pol who always thinks that she knows what the people "really" want is going to find herself an ex-pol very rapidly.  It takes, in other words, careful political judgment.  Here's what I'd say.  If voters in marginal districts are against government spending because they actually want smaller government, then I think it makes sense for their representatives to listen to that preference.  On the other hand, if they oppose deficits because they believe that deficits are bad for the economy, and if experts are convinced that deficits right now are, to the contrary, good for the economy...well, then, spend away!  Again, I think this is, in fact, dangerous territory -- ideologues on all sides are always convinced that the people "really" support whatever they want, or at least would if they payed attention, or were educated enough, or if it wasn't for the horribly biased press, or whatever.  Still, I think on this one polling and political history make it fairly clear that whatever people say to pollsters when prompted, what most voters really want is good economic policy that produces growth and jobs. 

I should say that this is one thing that I'll own up to being completely wrong about, by the way.  I hadn't started blogging a year ago, but if I had I would have suggested that the difference in the size of the stimulus between when Congress produced and what economists said was needed was not all that important, because there was nothing to prevent Congress from going back and adding new stimulus spending at any point -- and since the policy people were telling us that there were real constraints on how fast the money could be spent, it didn't really matter whether the initial package included everything that was needed.  Well, I was wrong.  I'm surprised, and have been surprised for some time, at the lack of enthusiasm for more stimulus spending from the White House and from liberals in Congress, and at the apparent willingness of marginal Democrats to buy the deficit hype.  I think Benen's logic is exactly correct, and I am, in fact, baffled about why marginal Dems don't agree. 


  1. Living in California right now, I don't know a single person for whom concern about deficits even comes up in conversation, let alone as amajor concern, and I talk to a lot of people about this, from community agency clients to clerk typists to PhDs and professional degree-holders. All we talk about is the unemployment rate, who's next to be furloughed or laid off, the destruction of the social safety net and how these people are going make it through. We mainly blame it on our incompetent governor and the gridlock in Sacramento. If you bring up deficits, people are like --"Oh, yeah, deficits, I'm worried about deficits" but I suspect a lot of that is because they feel like they are supposed to be concerned about deficits. It's most definitely not our top concern in Cali. Neither is the generic "terrorism" either. Sure, if it is presented on a list, but it doesn't come up in conversation at all. The unemployment rate and jobs, layoffs and all, yeah, people are deadly concerned about that in my little world. That is definitely the topic of the day.

  2. Not to mention the fact that the increase in concern about spending and the deficit is almost completely concentrated among Republicans and conservative independents, people who aren't going to vote for Democrats anyway. This should not be a shock to anyone because this is an effect of the alternate universe conservative media.

  3. Unemployment will be high in November; nothing is changing that.

    If the Democrats pass a stimulus to avoid state and local layoffs unemployment will be somewhat lower than otherwise.

    If Dems pass the stimulus Republicans will tear into the irresponsible Democrats who are spending us into the poorhouse, blah, blah. They will claim that the stimulus did not help unemployment at all.

    So which is better (electorally) in Nov? High unemployment and another Republican attack vector, or higher unemployment but fewer angles of attack from the right?

    It is clear to me that passing another stimulus is best for the country; it is not clear that it will help elect Democrats in November. On balance it may hurt.

  4. Tom,

    The GOP will attack the Dems on those grounds regardless of what they do -- certainly, regardless of what they do from this point. And while unemployment will be high either way, it will be lower if the Dems save state & local gov't jobs. Plus, the gov't services will be better run, and as James says above, the Dems could take credit for that (in fact, credit for specific teachers or cops saved from job loss might be more believable than the generalized benefits of the big stimulus from last year, to the extent those sorts of things matter).

    I agree with William -- there aren't really any people who would vote for the Dems without further stimulus, but would switch and vote GOP with further stimulus.

  5. Jonathan,
    Linking the stimulus to cops and teachers helps. The lack of help to local gov't was a weakness in the first stimulus. Preventing layoffs is more effective stimulus than re-hiring laid off workers. The work already exists in the economy, so there is no start-up delay, etc.

    My sister, a school librarian, faces potential layoff. That makes no sense in a recession.

    And yet, as you say, there is no political wind behind another stimulus.


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