People say things all the time, but how can you tell if they even believe what they’re saying? Of course out here in Hollywood that’s a meaningless question. The industry, as they call it out here, is built on the premise that what you believe is rather irrelevant. Your job is to give a commanding performance, expertly portraying some hypothetical person, who is not you at all, but who really believes this or that or the other thing. And if you can fake that absolute sincerity well enough they might even give you an Oscar. As they say, if you can fake sincerity out here you’ve got it made. The best actors become someone else for a time – the villain who really does want to destroy the world or the cold heartless temptress – and then go back being quite ordinary folks who drive the kids to the soccer game or putter about in the garden.
And everyone else out here is on the hustle, trying to close the deal and claiming all sorts of nonsense, which, if you asked them, they’d admit even they don’t believe – while the young people come and go, each pretending they’re the next big thing. This apartment building, like many in the neighborhood, is filled with these hopeful young folks who come and go over the months. Some girls try for the Paris Hilton look, or the wholesome look of the kids down the street at Nickelodeon, doing the Carley or Hannah Montana thing. Can you fake that well enough? It’s a struggle. The young guys are all stubbly and surly – everyone is still trying to perfect James Dean perhaps. And you can chat with them. They seem sincere, but that’s always a work in progress. What are they really like? No one will ever know. It doesn’t matter now. The immediate task at hand, if you can’t get an audition of American Idol, is to land an agent, who will market you as the next Taylor Swift or the James Dean for a new generation. Who you really are and what you actually think isn’t all that marketable.
But Hollywood isn’t all that odd. It’s always hard to tell if people actually believe what they’re saying. It happens in politics all the time. There are people who say that they do believe, with every fiber of their being, that we can restore prosperity if we just dismantle government, refund everyone’s money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own. They call that freedom. And they were elected by people who believe, with every fiber of their being, the exact same thing. And some of them presumably do believe that, while others are along for the ride – for power or fame or maybe just because it’s fun to be outrageous. And how do you sort that all out?
Jacob Weisberg gives that a go in Republicans vs. Economics – and the question is whether Republicans oppose Obama’s new jobs plan for ideological reasons or political ones, or for other reasons:
You can’t stop President Obama from reaching out to Republicans; it’s what he does. In Thursday night’s speech, he tried two separate maneuvers – reminding them of their support for stimulus measures in the past and accepting the good faith of their opposition. “Now, I realize that some of you have a different theory on how to grow the economy,” he said. “Some of you sincerely believe that the only solution to our economic challenges is to simply cut most government spending and eliminate most government regulations.”
As a rhetorical tack, this was effective. You could see Republicans squirming uncomfortably at the president’s calls for them to behave reasonably and help him get the economy moving. Based on House Speaker John Boehner’s mild response, some of them seem likely to support at least some aspects of his $447 billion plan to stimulate the faltering economy. They may accept his corporate and payroll tax breaks, if not his proposed infrastructure spending.
But was what Obama said actually true? Are Republicans, in fact, sincere in their belief that the way to restore economic growth and lower unemployment is to cut spending and regulation? Or are they – as Democrats generally assume – pursuing a cynical strategy of trying to keep the economy as weak as possible into 2012 in hopes of defeating Obama?
What do they really believe? Are they just convincingly faking sincerity? Do they really, really, really believe that the way to restore economic growth and lower unemployment is to cut spending and regulation?
Weisberg wonders how the hell they could believe that nonsense:
Pick up any standard economics textbook, and it will explain how governments respond to cyclical downturns with temporary deficit spending. In Keynesian terms, boosting aggregate demand increases GDP growth and reduces unemployment. Conversely, cutting government spending during a slowdown tends to make matters worse. There may be circumstances in which temporary spending isn’t possible, or where cutting government spending does not have the typical contractionary effect.
And Weisberg points to a comprehensive IMF study – that was from last year and concluded that “fiscal consolidation” always seems to have the same quite predictable impact – you get a shrinking GDP and raising unemployment. It happens all the time. And oddly, there’s no real controversy:
This is received wisdom among economists, including many conservative ones. Mark Zandi, the Moody’s chief economist who was John McCain’s economic adviser, judged that the Obama stimulus passed in 2009 kept unemployment from rising two percentage points higher. He says that the president’s new proposal would boost GDP by 2 percent and reduce unemployment by 1.9 million jobs. Economists argue about the multiplier effect of different forms of government expenditure but not about whether there is an effect. The only people who claim that stimulus doesn’t stimulate the economy are Republican politicians.
That is odd. Washington isn’t Hollywood. They don’t hand out awards for someone’s masterful performance at portraying what just isn’t so and never could be so. So something else must be going on here, and Weisberg decides to group conservatives who reject the overwhelming economic consensus into three categories, which he calls the fundamentalists, cynics, and sheep:
The fundamentalists are ideological and come in several varieties. The more primitive prefer Hoover to Keynes, or in some cases God to Hoover. Rick Perry, the Texas governor and presidential candidate, believes that the purpose of the economic crisis is to bring us back to “Biblical principles.” Asked on the campaign trail how he would create jobs if he were in office, Perry responded: “You won’t have stimulus programs under a Perry presidency. You won’t spend all the money.” This is a pretty good summation of the Tea Party’s know-nothing view that all government spending makes all things worse, always.
And Perry seems sincere – a bit dense and blissfully unaware of basic economics, but sincere. But Weisberg offers another set of folks for us to consider:
That’s not to say that everyone who rejects Obama’s stimulus spending is a default-welcoming ignoramus. Libertarians or libertarian-leaners don’t necessarily think stimulus won’t grow the economy; they just worry that it will grow the government at the same time and that it won’t ever shrink back. But they don’t mind stimulus tax cuts, which reduce the resources available to government. Rep. Paul Ryan, for instance, the government-slashing chairman of the House budget committee, has argued that stimulus spending is an evanescent sugar high that produces no lasting economic benefit.
Yes, that was the metaphor – people could get a quick sugar high, on things going well, because the government did something useful, but it’s not real. Things going well because the government is doing next to nothing at all is what you really want. It’s more wholesome. Refined sugar is bad for you, you see – or something. That’s another form of fundamentalism.
But then there’s another group:
The cynics, by contrast, don’t offer any economic analysis at all. They simply reject whatever President Obama proposes. In the now immortal words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” McConnell, like Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, happily voted for the stimulus bill George W. Bush proposed in 2008, which cost $152 billion.
Yes, back then, in another world, Weisberg seems awed that they actually might have felt some responsibility for the economy, but not now:
Now it’s Obama’s problem. Mitt Romney knows enough about finance to understand that shrinking spending would raise unemployment. But he also knows that running against Obama with a 9 percent unemployment rate is a better bet than running against Obama with an 8 percent unemployment rate.
And then there are the sheep:
In reality, the economic views of most Republicans are not driven purely by ideology or politics, but by the herd imperative – to stay in line and obey their leaders. Of those who were in Congress in 2008, 85 percent voted in favor of the Bush stimulus bill, which was smaller but no different in principle. To assume that these people have a view about whether Obama’s jobs plan would work gives them far too much credit. The only jobs they think about are their own.
This is a neat and clean summary. But as John Dickerson notes, Obama has put them on the spot:
The president was aggressive in a way he has never been in speeches to Congress. He charged those who opposed his plans with threatening “the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.” Later in the speech he said he would fight against Republican policies that would make people chose between their job and their safety.
After the speech was over, Speaker John Boehner clapped twice – the statutory minimum for his position. His tepid response wasn’t a consequence of irritation so much as a result of the impatience someone might feel after having to sit through a seminar from HR on company compliance standards.
This was like asking a would-be Hollywood actor or actress what they really think. It hardly seems fair. They can say Obama was simply offering another failed stimulus package like the first one, but things have been lining up against them, and also for them. Things are ambiguous:
A recent Pew poll showed that people blame Republicans for not being willing to cooperate, so people may be receptive to the president’s message. But members of the GOP will be selling the idea that this is more big-spending from a big-spending president – which the country also believes. Seventy percent, in a recent Washington Post poll, say Obama favors larger government, which only 38 percent of respondents say they would prefer. Fifty-six percent would prefer a smaller government.
The message seems to be that you’re on your own. The polls cut both ways:
Whether the president succeeds will depend on whether those rank and file Republicans start to feel any pressure from voters, and that will depend on whether Americans are actually listening to a president who has given a lot of speeches and whose approval rating is low. It will also depend on whether Americans who feel a record-low faith in government will believe that these programs will change anything. The president said these programs would offer a “jolt” to the economy, but he didn’t make wild claims. If Obama was offering a serum to cure a raging epidemic and Republicans were knocking it from his hand, he might have a strong case, but he was talking about another set of federal government programs: How many voters will believe that this particular set of programs can cure the sick economy?
But Obama put Republicans on the spot, with a threat. He won’t go all soft and conciliatory and abandon the fight this time – “This plan is the right thing to do right now. You should pass it. And I intend to take that message to every corner of the country.” And then Obama started to do just that, speaking in Eric Cantor’s home district the next day. It was a challenge. Hey Eric, what do you really believe? Tell us. Explain yourself. Damn, after he played Hannibal Lecter all those times no one ever asked Anthony Hopkins about how best to prepare human flesh and fava beans (with a nice Chianti) – that was just another role. Is this no-spending no-stimulus thing just another role? Inquiring minds want to know.
And there are the facts of the matter:
A top economist says President Barack Obama’s job plan will likely add 1.9 million jobs and grow the economy by 2 percent. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, also said Obama’s $447-billion plan would likely cut the unemployment rate by a percentage point, United Press International reported on Friday.
See Moody’s Analytics for the details, or Real Time Economics with More Economists React: Gauging Impact of Obama Jobs Proposal – no one goes quite that far, but this should actually work. After all, there’s Mohamed El-Erian, the big gun at PIMCO:
At long last, President Obama did enough this evening to upgrade the quality of the nation’s economic debate. He presented a credible program that is focused on the right structural areas. Now he must strengthen it and complement it with a sensible fiscal component; and Congress must discuss it in a cooperative and constructive manner.
Others see problems, but no reason not to do this. So, is this no-spending no-stimulus position that is held by the Republicans both well-founded and utterly sincere, or has someone been masterfully faking sincerity, hoping for that Oscar? We do have the new American Jobs Act, and the president saying pass it now, all of it, or explain to the American people why you won’t. What do you really think? Method Acting classes don’t really prepare you for such things.
And Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic sees it this way:
In a normal political world, it would actually have a chance of passing, because most of the ideas have a genuinely bipartisan pedigree. The infrastructure bank proposal, for example, comes straight from a bill co-sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Republican from Texas. The single biggest element of the proposal is a payroll tax cut, which Republicans have historically supported.
Of course, Republicans have already indicated they may not support it this time around. Which brings us to the real issue here: What now? Most seasoned observers doubt meaningful legislation can pass. I’m not quite so sure. Republicans, particularly in the House, may have some extreme views on the economy. And they may be determined to oppose anything that Obama endorses. But they still have to win elections next year. And they may already be feeling some pressure to relent.
After this speech, House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement indicating that Obama’s proposals “merit consideration.” No, that doesn’t mean that he – or his party – intends to give the proposal consideration. (Republicans were simultaneously blasting it as more “failed stimulus,” after all.) But it does mean they feel compelled to pretend they will.
Ah – things have shifted. They’ll have to fake sincerity in the opposite direction:
And that means they might eventually feel compelled to vote for something – not as ambitious as the president proposed, for sure, but something that could still make some difference in the economy.
But the question is what happens if they don’t:
Then Obama has at least given the public a clear sense of who stands for what. And make no mistake: That’s a worthwhile endeavor. The approaching presidential election will offer voters stark choices about the country’s future. The best thing Obama can do – not only for the sake of his own candidacy but for the sake of the public discourse – is to make sure the voters understand those choices.
And there you have it. Put up or shut up. Do you really believe what you’ve been saying, or is this just something you were saying just for power or fame, or maybe just because sometimes it’s fun to be outrageous? If it’s the first then every economist in the world disagrees with you, as do more and more voters. And if it’s the second – that you’re working hard on perfecting your awesome fake sincerity for fame and fortune – then step aside, as there’s real work to do, for the good of everyone. It seems Washington isn’t really Hollywood-for-ugly-people after all.
At least Obama seems to be working on that. But in real life how do you tell when someone is faking sincerity? Some folks are really good at it. One thinks of Meg Ryan at Katz’s Deli. And someone does say I’ll have what she’s having.