Perhaps David Brooks and Paul Krugman should stop writing on opposite sides of the Times op-ed page, throw down their quills, and kick-box it out like the red-blooded, musclebound American he-men we know they are. Today, Brooks, usually the voice of moderation, cautions against a giant stimulus package that will leave us heavily indebted for years and maybe not even get the economy rocking anyway. But in the other corner, Krugman, volume set as high as his intellect, argues relentlessly for an even higher level of federal stimulus spending.
Set your clocks, audience, it's time for a Three-Round Brainfight!
Round One: Who Are They Writing For?
• Krugman clearly wants his voice heard by the administration, which probably enjoyed his usual anti-Republican zingers about "deep voodoo" and stimulus opposition that "bordered on the deranged." But Krugman also characterizes Geithner's plan as "kick[ing] the can down the road" — nice condescension there.
• Brooks seems to have historians in mind with today's column, which is written in the past tense. He trots out his old friend de Tocqueville — who, we would like to remind everybody, last visited our fair nation more than 150 years ago. New Haven (yes, the one in Connecticut) was the most beautiful city he'd ever seen. We also doubt very seriously that an "American disease" on the scale of the "British Disease of the 1970s" is something to fear, given our more dynamic, innovative economy and highly productive immigrant labor force that won't sit around pining for the grand old days over a pint or five.
Round Two: Who's Most Convincing?
• Krugman loses us with his complete faith in unimaginably large numbers. So the Congressional Budget Office says that the U.S. economy is set to underperform its potential by $2.9 trillion over the next three years. We have no specific grounds on which to contest the CBO's figures, but nor do we have any basis on which to understand them. Millions, billions, trillions — what comes after that? We're tempted to see all this economic analysis as akin to those fancy debt instruments Wall Street cooked up — too dependent on models there's no reason to believe in anymore.
• Brooks suggests that the problems seem more psychological than economic, and the endless freaking in political circles can't be helping. "Economists and policymakers," he writes, "had no way to peer into the darkness." Which means they're just like us.
Round Three: Who's Scarier?
• Brooks frightened the living crap out of us. Yes, the headline was "A Worst-Case Scenario," but it all sure sounded plausible. A failed stimulus package will abort the great Obama experiment and leave our country afflicted with long-term, debilitating anxiety, "a society of foreboding." Thanks to Brooks, we can feel it coming on already.
• Krugman eventually leads us down the same rat-hole of despair that Brooks does. "I don't know about you," Krugman writes, "but I've got a sickening feeling that America just isn't rising up to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years." Well, geez, we do have that sickening feeling, now that you mention it — we just can't isolate the cause of it so easily.
And the winner is ... well, nobody. According to these guys, we're all losers, including them. But we're going to give the edge, on points, to Brooks today, for inspiring true terror, and by moving the conversation away from dollar figures and partisan name-calling, perhaps helping us to start sorting out meaningful alternatives that aren't just about spending an extra trillion or so.