WASHINGTON -- The president, convinced that the only thing America has to fear is an insufficiency of fear, has warned that "disaster" and "catastrophe" are the certain alternatives to swift passage of the stimulus legislation. One marvels at his certitude more than one envies his custody of this adventure.
Certitude of one flavor or another is never entirely out of fashion in Washington. Thirty years ago, some conservatives were certain that their tax cuts would be so stimulative that they would be completely self-financing. Today, some liberals are certain that the spending they favor -- on green jobs, infrastructure and everything else -- will completely pay for itself. For liberals, "stimulus spending" is a classification that no longer classifies: All spending is, they are certain, necessarily stimulative.
At Yale's 1962 commencement, President John Kennedy expressed Washington's recurring confidence in the ability to supplant politics with expertise. As is traditional, Kennedy deplored "traditional labels" and insisted that "differences today" involve not clashes of principles but only "matters of degree." Kennedy argued that "the practical management of a modern economy" is "basically an administrative or executive problem." Congress need not intrude. Because policy issues are "sophisticated and technical questions," demanding "technical answers, not political answers," laypersons could hardly participate in the debate.
In December 1965, John Maynard Keynes, although 19 years dead, was, as today, enjoying one of his recurring resurrections as vindicator of government management of the economy by manipulating "aggregate demand." Keynes' visage was on Time magazine's cover and the accompanying story said that happy days were here again and here to stay.