There’s an almost biblical irony to Oklahoma’s latest tornado disaster. Not a funny irony, but the grim, tragic kind so common to acts of God. Four months before this twister, five of Oklahoma’s seven members of Congress — including both of its senators — all Republicans, had voted against a bill providing funds to states hit by Superstorm Sandy.
They thought that the money, $50 billion of it, should come from cuts in other federal programs, not fresh borrowing. Now, with the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore lying in ruin, not so much.
“That was totally different,” said James Inhofe, one of the chief conservative blowhards in the Senate. “They were getting things, for instance, that was (sic) supposed to be in New Jersey. They had things in the Virgin Islands…Everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place. That won’t happen in Oklahoma.”
Right. Far be it from Oklahoma to take advantage of federal money…unless, of course it comes in the form of subsidies for oil and gas companies or huge farms. As I indicated, not all of the Oklahomans were Sandy deniers. Rep. Tom Cole, for example, voted to support the relief bill and said, at the time:
“Each member ought to recognize at some point his or her area will be hit by some disaster and they will be here seeking support.”
Cole, in another ironic twist, happens to live in Moore, the very nearly destroyed town where the tornado hit. And yet, the whole Oklahoma delegation didn’t go all hypocritical on us. That pillar of rectitude, Sen. Tom Coburn, said that the disaster that befell his fellow Oklahomans hadn’t changed his mind about anything. (Coburn, who voted against the Superstorm Sandy relief bill in January, also insisted on offsets so that no new money would be appropriated for the victims of the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.)
He sent his spokesman out to say that the Oklahoma Republican continued to stick to his demand that relief funds be offset by cuts in the budget elsewhere.
“If the choice is between borrowing and reducing spending on largesse,” Coburn’s spokesman said, “we should divert funds from largesse to victims.”
Which sounds fine, but what happens — realistically — is that the funds get cut from programs that benefit groups with weak lobbies, like kids and poor people. Corporate largesse remains large.
But Coburn’s underlying logic goes to the heart of the snake oil that Republicans are selling the American people these days — that the way out of a recession is to drastically cut government spending and shrink the deficit.
As sensible as that sounds, there is little in the historical record to support the theory and most mainstream economists lean more toward the Keynesian model: increasing government debt during economic downturns to pump up demand and pulling back only when things get going again.
If you’re searching for an example of what budget-cutting does to a faltering economy, you need look no further than Europe. Bullied into a policy of austerity by the strongest euro zone member, Germany, the economies of Europe are going, one by one, into the tank. And the natives are now getting restless. Stimulus, rather than the bitter pill of austerity, is looking good to them. And Japan’s economy, stagnant for the past 20 years, has shown signs of reviving after its new prime minister decided to adopt some stimulative policies, even though they were inflationary.
You will never convince the Coburns and Inhofes of the world of that lesson, however. And there are a lot of them. Worse, they seem to have convinced a good share of the American people that we can secure the future of our grandchildren by failing to educate them or build roads, bridges, hospitals, and airfields for them to inherit.
There are few things more powerful than a bad idea whose time has come. Today, that bad idea is embracing austerity to cure joblessness.
By Donald Kaul
OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.