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The Pre-History of Anti-Kenysianism

In the midst of a angry post about Drew Westen's Sunday New York Times op-ed excoriating Barack Obama's failure to use the bully pulpit to school Americans on the necessity of Keynsian fiscal stimulus, Jon Chait offers a useful comment about the need for precision in recounting past political events. Westen contrasted Obama's passivity in resisting deficit hawkery with FDR's aggressive advocacy of fiscal stimulus. Chait notes that (1) FDR was luckier than Obama in taking office at a much later stage in the economic downturn that defined his election; and (2) Roosevelt took quite a while to embrace Keynsian pump-priming, and never succeed during his first term in convincing Americans that was the right course.

On this last point, Chait quotes none other than Paul Krugman, who unearthed Gallup polls showing that Americans favored a balanced budget and debt reduction by a 70-30 margin at the end of 1935, and still favored a balanced budget by a 65-28 margin in November of 1936, just as they were re-electing FDR by a historic landslide.

None of this data suggests that Obama's fiscal policies have been right, but it does undermine the assumption that the president of the United States can easily act as Economics-Professor-In-Chief, brushing away simplistic "family-budget" analogies of what a nation should do in a recession or depression with big doses of Keynes. Progressives in general have failed over a long period of time to promote a decent level of public understanding about what to do in a recession, and however much Obama has contributed to that failure, he's hardly alone.