Two impossible things happened to the U.S. economy over the course of the past year – or at least they were supposed to be impossible, according to the ideology that dominates half our political spectrum. First, remember how Obamacare was supposed to be a gigantic job killer? Well, in the first year of the Affordable Care Act’s full implementation, the U.S. economy as a whole added 3.3 million jobs – the biggest gain since the 1990s. Second, half a million of those jobs were added in California, which has taken the lead in job creation away from Texas.
Were President Barack Obama’s policies the cause of national job growth? Did Jerry Brown – the tax-raising, Obamacare-embracing governor of California – engineer his state’s boom? No, and few liberals would claim otherwise. What we’ve been seeing at both the national and the state level is mainly a natural process of recovery as the economy finally starts to heal from the housing and debt bubbles of the Bush years.
But recent job growth, nonetheless, has big political implications – implications so disturbing to many on the right that they are in frantic denial, claiming that the recovery is somehow bogus. Why can’t they handle the good news?
The answer actually comes on three levels: Obama Derangement Syndrome, or ODS; Reaganolatry; and the confidence con.
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Not much need be said about ODS. It is, by now, a fixed idea on the right that this president is both evil and incompetent, that everything touched by the atheist Islamic Marxist Kenyan Democrat – mostly that last item – must go terribly wrong. When good news arrives about the budget, or the economy, or Obamacare – which is, by the way, rapidly reducing the number of uninsured while costing much less than expected – it must be denied.
At a deeper level, modern conservative ideology utterly depends on the proposition that conservatives, and only they, possess the secret key to prosperity. As a result, you often have politicians on the right making claims like this one, from Sen. Rand Paul: “When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan.”
Actually, if creating “millions of jobs” means adding 2 million or more jobs in a given year, we’ve done that 13 times since Reagan left office: eight times under Bill Clinton, twice under George W. Bush, and three times, so far, under Barack Obama. But who’s counting?
Still, don’t liberals have similar delusions? Not really. The economy added 23 million jobs under Clinton, compared with 16 million under Reagan, but there’s nothing on the left comparable to the cult of the Blessed Ronald. That’s because liberals don’t need to claim that their policies will produce spectacular growth. All they need to claim is feasibility: that we can do things like, say, guaranteeing health insurance to everyone without killing the economy.
Conservatives, on the other hand, want to block such things and, instead, to cut taxes on the rich and slash aid to the less fortunate. So they must claim both that liberal policies are job killers and that being nice to the rich is a magic elixir.
Which brings us to the last point: the confidence con.
One enduring puzzle of political economy is why business interests so often oppose policies to fight unemployment. After all, boosting the economy with expansionary monetary and fiscal policy is good for profits as well as wages, yet many wealthy individuals and business leaders demand tight money and austerity instead.
As a number of observers have pointed out, however, for big businesses to admit that government policies can create jobs would be to devalue one of their favorite political arguments - the claim that to achieve prosperity politicians must preserve business confidence, among other things, by refraining from any criticism of what businesspeople do.
In the case of the Obama economy, this kind of thinking led to what I like to call the “Ma! He’s looking at me funny!” theory of sluggish recovery. By this I mean the insistence that recovery wasn’t being held back by objective factors like spending cuts and debt overhang, but rather by the corporate elite’s hurt feelings after Obama suggested that some bankers behaved badly and some executives might be overpaid. Who knew that moguls and tycoons were such sensitive souls? In any case, however, that theory is unsustainable in the face of a recovery that has finally started to deliver big job gains, even if it should have happened sooner.
So, as I said at the beginning, the fact that we’re now seeing mornings in blue America – solid job growth both at the national level and in states that have defied the right’s tax-cutting, deregulatory orthodoxy – is a big problem for conservatives. Although they would never admit it, events have proved their most cherished beliefs wrong.