The Rise of Tea Party Keynesianism

Spending money on defense is good because it creates jobs and stimulates the economy -- wait, what?!

Published August 5, 2011 9:14PM (EDT)

People wave signs at a "tea party" protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009 (Reuters)
People wave signs at a "tea party" protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009 (Reuters)

After the past month of pitched battles in which two American political parties competed for the right to demonstrate themselves the most committed to cutting huge swaths of government spending, the sight of a Tea Party leader making the case for classic Keynesian fiscal stimulus is more than a little aggravating. So I completely understand the high dudgeon that Economist blogger M.S. works himself into after catching TeaPartyNation leader Judson Phillips in the act.

Here's Phillips, explaining why writing a $9 billion check for a new aircraft carrier makes terrific economic sense:

If we decided to build a couple of new carriers, thousands of workers would be hired for the shipyards. Thousands of employees would be hired for the steel mills that would provide the steel for the hull and various sub contractors would hire thousands. Do you know what that means? It means they would receive paychecks and go out and spend that money. That would help a recovery. That is a shovel ready project!

Increasing spending for the military does a couple of things. It not only not only stimulates the economy, it protects our nation.

M.S., in response, writes that "the idea that a major tea-party figure can turn around and make a bog-standard argument for defense spending on Keynesian grounds testifies to a startling capacity for cognitive dissonance."

But it seems that there are no other things the government spends money on, apart from defense, that Mr Phillips believes can stimulate the economy. He appears to believe that while government spending on aircraft carriers leads to workers getting hired, spending their paychecks, and helping the recovery, government spending on highways, high-speed rail, education, and health care does not.

Again, I feel great sympathy for M.S.'s sense of annoyance. But there are two problems here: First, there appears to be good question as to whether Judson Phillips legitimately qualifies as a prominent Tea Party leader. He has a history of making outrageously inflammatory statements that put him well outside the mainstream of conventional right-wing politics. To his fellow Tea Partyers, his defense of stimulus spending might fall on the same crazy continuum as his belief that Obama spent the last 48 hours before Osama bin Laden was killed trying to stop the raid, or that the Founding Fathers were correct to limit voting rights to property owners. The man is a veritable fountain of nuttiness.

But secondly, it's just not true that advocating defense spending on Keynesian grounds is cognitively dissonant for anyone on the right. Phillips spells this out in a sentence that M.S. neglects to quote: "Defense is the one area, even in the time of a depression, such as the Obama depression, when we should be increasing spending."

(Obama depression? Growth is slow, yes, but the economy has been adding jobs for a year and growing for most of the last two years. What depression is Phillips talking about?)

Anyway, spending on the military is, by definition, different from all other kinds of government spending, mainly because it satisfies a strong constitutional mandate to provide for the national defense. The fact that it puts people to work is a perk, a side benefit, a two-for-one drink special.

This line of thinking is by no means unique to Tea Party extremists. It has long been part of the core platform of the Republican Party, a fact that we saw underlined anew at the tail end of the debt ceiling debate, when some of the most vociferous deficit hawks in the GOP suddenly got cold feet about the possibility that a debt reduction plan might also slice away at the Pentagon budget.

M.S. is on stronger ground when he notes that if one is prepared to acknowledge that spending money putting people to work building aircraft carriers creates jobs, then by definition, cutting other programs to save money must end up destroying jobs. A balanced budget amendment of the type so desired by Tea Partyers would therefore be one of the most anti-stimulative policy initiatives a government could possibly undertake during a stalling economy.

There's your cognitive dissonance, if you're still looking for it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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