07/20/2010 02:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Voodoo Redux

I think I might have finally figured out modern conservative economic orthodoxy, at least dating back to the Reagan years when we were entertained by the absurdity of supply-side economics and $200 billion deficits for "as far as the eye can see," a term coined by his unflappable Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman. In retrospect wouldn't $200 billion annual deficits be a godsend today? But that is not the point.

Although I spent six years during the Reagan years on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee trying to hold back the popular trickle-down circus that was known as Reaganomics, I am not an economist but have an intimate knowledge of the dismal science as practiced in the political arena. Quite simply, it appears conservatives today are quite enamored with the notion that during times of economic growth, deficits really don't matter and fiscal recklessness feeds the all-powerful private market.

Liberals, on the other hand, adhering to the tried and true Keynesian models that rescued this country from the Great Depression believe that deficits are necessary when the economy is struggling and hence should gradually be repaid once the economy is operating at full bore. I must admit that from the layman's perspective there is considerable logic to this argument, besides it has already worked.

On the other hand, the illogic of a restrictive fiscal policy when the economy is failing seems more fit for a period when leeching was thought to have ultimate medicinal value. Yet this is exactly the economic policy that modern day conservatives would have us follow as the economy sputters along with a stubborn and seemingly intractable level of unemployment, underemployment, and discouraged workers. Aside from the amorality, if not outright immorality, of the argument, how in the world is it supposed to work, and has it ever worked?

Certainly not in the 1980's as we watched a trebling of the national debt over the course of a decade. And most assuredly not in the first eight years of the new millennium when we witnessed the vanishing surplus of the Clinton years and a massive explosion of debt that made the Eighties look tame by comparison. Conservatives seek refuge in the Church of Fiscal Responsibility only when the fiscally responsible thing to do is to stimulate a plunging economy. Yet deficit spending during boom years is religion during economic boom times.

If I were a cynic I might conclude that there is some pretty fancy slight-of-hand being practiced by the snake oil salesmen masquerading as guardians of the public trough. The inherent contradiction in this line of thinking renders the term hypocrite too gentle. Yet there is a political class who are willing to stake their electoral prospects on the notion that ordinary folks, frustrated, distrustful, and angry, will not bother to scratch beneath the surface to discover the insidious deceit that bolsters the ridiculousness of their claims. And unfortunately, this may be a gamble with better than 50-50 odds of succeeding.

The real test will be whether or not those who ascribe to the notion that fiscal responsibility depends upon a strong economy that must be whacked into shape with a stimulative jolt equal to the depth of the slump can succeed in pointing out the difference between happy talk and serious policy making. This will be a difficult challenge indeed, but will be made easier if average folks are made aware of the basic differences between these two economic arguments. Contemporary conservatives and the fledgling tea partiers who have attached themselves to their underbelly must be made to offer up their prescriptions for solving the economic mess, and when they are pressed they have very little if anything to offer other than the well-worn political clichés that bear no relevance to governing. There is a clear choice and the people must be made to acknowledge such.