Ben Stein Watch: August 31, 2008

Of the two candidates for president of the United States, one has an intelligent, coherent, and sophisticated economic policy. The other is quite open about the fact that he has almost no grasp of economics and that he is utterly unqualified to choose economic advisors, let alone a Treasury secretary or Fed chairman; it’s sometimes hard to tell whether his economic policy is incoherent or simply nonexistent. No prizes, then, for guessing which candidate Ben Stein takes aim at in this week’s column.

Putting the substance of the column aside for one minute, I’ll concede at the outset that this is an explicitly partisan column from an unabashedly Republican pundit. I did hear, once, second-hand, that NYT business editor Larry Ingrassia, when questioned, defends the inclusion of Ben Stein in his paper specifically because he’s a Republican who somehow "balances out" the more left-leaning tendencies of fellow Sunday columnist Gretchen Morgenson.

But Morgenson is no party-political hack, and indeed has shown far more sense during the present economic crisis than the crazed populist rantings of Stein. She doesn’t accuse Goldman Sachs of deliberately trying to profit by bringing down the US economy; instead, she’s much more likely to file a boring-but-important reported story like her column this week on municipal bond disclosures.

As political thermometer ratchets up between now and November, I’m sure we’ll see many columns about Obama’s economic policy written by Republicans. This one is probably a reasonably good expectation of what to expect: there will be better, and there will be worse. But it’s quite clearly a column that only a Republican could ever write. If the NYT business section really thinks that it’s a natural home to such animals, it should really start running similar columns from Democrats too. I’m sure Brad DeLong would be happy to oblige.

In any case, Stein declares this week that he’s not in favor of economic stimulus on the grounds that rebates tend to be saved and not spent. He asks:

[B]ecause we now know that sporadic rebates of limited duration do not generate much consumption stimulus, why offer them?

He then moves on to Obama’s economic-stimulus policies, which are neither sporadic nor of limited duration. Instead, they’re long-term investments in America’s economy, combined with rebate checks aimed at precisely the people who are most likely to spend rather than save them — it’s almost as if Obama’s plan were crafted with Stein’s criticisms in mind.

But of course Stein’s still not at all happy. First, he complains that the list of projects is so long that Obama is "dividing the stimulus pie into homeopathic slices" — a weird complaint, given that as any Keynesian will tell you, it’s the size of the pie that matters, not the number of slices.

Then comes this:

Whether this plan would be more effective than Mr. Bush’s remains to be seen. But, in practice, there is little more wasteful than pork-barrel public works — and, in practice, that is what this plan could turn out to be. And such a plan can rarely be put into effect before the countercyclical need for it has passed. Rebuilding bridges and runways, while much needed, takes much longer to put into action than writing a check.

Yes, Stein has barely finished complaining that "there is little more wasteful than pork-barrel public works" before he starts telling us that such infrastructure investments are "much needed". Is it too much to ask that even if he contradicts himself within the space of one column, he try at least to refrain from doing so within a single paragraph?

Of course, the simple announcement of a big infrastructure investment program can kick-start a large amount of economic activity: you don’t need to wait until the bridges and runways are completely rebuilt to see an economic effect. And what Obama is offering here would seem to be exactly the kind of stimulus that Stein should love: a nourishing meal rather than a sugary snack.

But before Stein can bring himself to admit this, he’s on to another subject entirely: Obama’s proposed windfall tax on oil companies. Stein doesn’t like it — he uses the word "punish" three times in six sentences, so you can be sure of that — but his arguments against it are pretty weak, as Dean Baker demonstrates.

Stein ends up by admitting that he doesn’t have any better ideas than Obama — which makes it even harder to understand why he spent a whole column bashing Obama’s policies. Stein normally files every other week, but this column came just one week after the last one: is the NYT actually ramping up the number of Stein columns it runs, as we move into election season? I do hope not. But the same thing happened at the end of June: we’ve now had seven columns in eleven weeks. With any luck, most people will have had better things to do, this Labor Day weekend, than read this one.

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