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George Will's 'Firing Offense' at Fox

04/06/2015 08:49 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015
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Those who corrupt the public mind are just as evil as those who steal from the public purse -- Adlai Stevenson, 1952.

Nothing, nothing is more sacred to right-wing dogma than opposition to government spending and to raising taxes on the wealthy, flip sides of the same ideological coin as the latter may be required for the former.

Hence, to admit, to suggest, to intimate, even to toy with the idea that government spending might possibly, maybe, perhaps, in a pinch, create a positive impact on the economy cannot be allowed, cannot even be considered. (Not that that stops them from feeding at the public trough, but that is another story.)

On rare occasions when professional right-wingers let down their ideological guards, however, they can slip into revealing the truth. Usually, they can make amends by denying they ever said it, by claiming their remarks were "taken out of context" (or, if you are Sarah Palin, that it is a "gotcha question", such as "what did you enjoy most on your trip?"), and then by becoming the most visible proponent of the right-wing mantra on that matter.

But, George Will has sinned on that most sacred of right-wing catechisms, government spending. From that, there can be no reprieve.

In Ken Burns's epic documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Will's comments on the '37/'38 recession make one wonder if he might indeed be the reincarnation of John Maynard Keynes himself.

First, to avoid the context defense, the lead in by the narrator:

In August of 1937 there was still more trouble. The economy had been steadily improving since 1933, so steadily that American output had finally outpaced 1929 levels.

FDR and some of his advisers began to worry about inflation.

In response, the president slashed funds for relief and public works in the interest, he said, of balancing the budget.

The George Will FOX hired would have commented, "and, he did the right thing, but he just did not go far enough, and that is why the economy plunged into a recession." [Of course, that would not have explained why the economy emerged from recession when Roosevelt turned on the spigot again, but the right-wing mind does not care if actual events prove them wrong, they just keep making the same assertions.]

That is what FOX hires him to say. That is what he dutifully wrote about the sequester that Republicans like Will championed, and whose effect trended in the same direction. The difference is that today we have more automatic countermeasures in place to offset the severity.

But, in a rare moment of clarity, Will (see video at 37 seconds) said this instead:

There is a serious argument to be made that Roosevelt stopped too soon. Far from being bold, he wasn't bold enough, because the recession within the depression that came along in 1937 came because they prematurely declared victory.

Book-ending Will's comment to avoid the context defense, we allow the narrator to continue:

The result was a precipitous economic decline that continued for nine frightening months. Industrial production fell again by one-third. So did wages.

Republicans called it the Roosevelt recession*. Industrial production fell again by more than one-third. So did wages...4 million additional Americans found themselves out of work...

There was then debate among FDR's advisors about what to do.

In the end, FDR sided with the liberals, persuading Congress to pump billions of dollars more into public works and public housing. [My added comment: Listen closely to the video and one will hear the word "stimulus]

The decline halted. "We are on our way again", Roosevelt said. And he won passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act that for the first time set federal minimum wages and maximum hours.

Will is a master sophist, so let us dispense with any attempt he might make to claim that his comments could be read as referring to stopping too soon on cutting spending. To say that, he would not have used the words, "prematurely declared victory", and the antecedent narrative would not have been about the change in policy from spending to austerity, nor the immediate subsequent narrative about FDR reversing course and the economy improving.

Sorry, George. Owlish though you may be, you cannot weasel out of this one.

By right-wing proclamation, we "know" that government spending cannot work. Period. No matter what they do otherwise, no matter what the facts may be, no matter what independent analyses have concluded, there can be not the whisper of a hint of acknowledging that a government program has bettered the national or local economy.

That would be heresy. Worse, it would be disloyal to the cause. Even worse, it would make their paymasters unhappy. Hence, any such suggestion must be snuffed out with a barrage of denial and invective.

Amazingly, Republicans carry this off seemingly without a perceptible twinge of cognitive dissonance.

Consider George Will's history. He has dutifully repeated the mantra for decades.

Indeed, Will went so far as to place blind ideology to these absurd principles over party, criticizing both George Bush's $168B stimulus in 2008, and Barack Obama's $787B stimulus in 2009. In each case he juxtaposed rising unemployment figures before and after to create the impression that the stimulus actually caused the unemployment to rise.

Unstated, of course, were what those unemployment figures would have been without that spending, or that we had seen even higher unemployment from a much milder recession under Reagan.

With Obama's stimulus, Will took the added delight of recalling that the president had said that if his stimulus did not pass that unemployment would go to more than 8 percent, and it indeed had gone to 9.5 percent, again supposedly "proving" that the stimulus made things worse. (Obama's remarks preceded updated information about how badly W had screwed the economy).

But, we now know that Will has been lying to us all these years.

Will's statement is earth-shattering for right-wing dogma. Incredible though it may seem, the Right still denies emphatically that FDR's policies rescued the country from the Great Depression. Indeed, they claim those policies made the Depression worse and longer. (Sound familiar?)

Second, when confronted with the events of 1937/38, today's right-wing has a million explanations other than the simple (yes, Keynesian) truth that FDR cut spending to balance the budget too early, or, as Will put it, "prematurely declared victory", resulting in a contraction of demand and income.

This second point is of particular importance because the 1937/38 events provide one of the few instances in economics where something approaching a real scientific analysis is possible. In most circumstances, particular actions are taken, and something happens to the economy, and everyone argues about causation because there is no way to prove it.

The Great Depression began in 1929 and deepened through 1933. FDR then introduced a remedy (massive government spending and deficits) that, in four years, had restored production to pre-Depression levels. Then, in 1937, FDR removed that government stimulus, and the economy contracted. Later, he restored it, and the economy grew.

There are very few instances in economic history where causation can be so definitively determined.

When the Right claims that World War II finally got us out of the Great Depression (their policies caused), they actually support the view that government spending works. From a purely economic perspective, military spending for the war was just stimulus on steroids.

For George Will, a respected right-wing polemicist, to agree in this uniquely provable context that FDR indeed hurt the economy by cutting government spending and trying to balance the budget is to abandon everything the right-wing preaches.

Are Will's days at FOX numbered?

*Note how nothing has changed on the Right. Despite their opposing all of FDR's spending in the first place, despite calling for even more precipitous cuts in spending that would have made everything even worse, they had no embarrassment, no twinge of intellectual dishonesty, calling it the Roosevelt Recession. Today, they [falsely] accuse Obama of cutting Medicare, whereas they would destroy it, forever. The difference is today's Democrats are so inept, they cannot make hay of it, whereas FDR did.