WASHINGTON -- Summoned to remove a fish bone agonizingly stuck in a rich man's throat, British surgeon Joseph Lister did so. When the grateful patient asked the charge for this service, Lister replied: "Suppose we settle for half of what you would be willing to give me if the bone were still lodged in your throat." The point -- that the price one will pay depends on the urgency of the purchase -- is pertinent to the president's "stimulus" proposal.
Frightened people are receptive to his pleas for large and quick action: Just do it -- we'll count the cost later. As Emerson said, when skating on thin ice, safety lies in speed, and the administration's confidence in what it is doing should be -- this is not its fault -- thin.
Economic policymaking in turbulent times is a science of single instances, meaning no science at all. When economic theories matter most -- when the economy is in uncharted waters -- all theories are necessarily untested. Hence attempts to derive prescriptions from the New Deal are somewhat surreal.
Furthermore, our language is bewitching our intelligence. Long ago -- a year ago -- Russell Roberts, economics professor at George Mason University, deplored terms that suggest that economics is a science akin to medicine. With a "stimulus," of a sort that makes the legs of a dead frog twitch, the government will "inject" money as a doctor gives a blood transfusion. Or as a life-reviving "jolt" from a defibrillator.
Sensible people are queasy about throwing trillions of dollars at barely understood problems on the basis of untested theories. For Republicans, the question is: What are the duties of the opposition at a moment like this? The answer has three components, beginning with elementary political arithmetic:
Having received near 53 percent of the popular vote -- better than Ronald Reagan's 50.7 percent in 1980 -- Barack Obama won 100 percent of the presidency, and almost that much of the nation's leadership expectations now that the public, which really should diversify its investments, invests such extravagant hopes in presidents. To govern is to choose, always on the basis of imperfect information, and the president may never have more public support than he has now. He deserves some deference. Some.
Second, congressional Democrats have turned the 647-page stimulus legislation into an excuse for something that never needs an excuse -- an exercise in wretched excess. They have forfeited some of the president's claim to deference.