To convey their disdain for the ongoing Republican pressure to reduce federal spending -- pressure that led to the recent agreement with President Obama for $38 billion in cuts in the current fiscal year -- critics have been reaching back eight decades for what they seem to regard as the ultimate in fiscal put-downs.
"Watching the debate in Washington," write Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift in a recent column, "it's like Herbert Hoover versus John Maynard Keynes, and sadly Hoover is winning." Hoover, they explain, "was curiously passive" in the face of the Great Depression and "he responded with a renewed focus on balancing the budget."
Populist Jim Hightower blasts Republicans for enabling Hoover to make "what looks to be a full comeback to power," complete with a return to Hoover's economic prescription: "Insist on reducing the size and spending of governments. . . . 'The deficit is the devil,' cry the New Hooverites, as they wildly slash spending and try to kill federal programs."
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asserts that "one of the most basic principles of economics is that when an economy is anemic, governments should use deficit spending as a fiscal stimulus." A lawmaker who "believes that the response to a weak economy is to slash spending," he says, "is embracing the approach that Herbert Hoover discredited 80 years ago." Last month, Kristof's colleague Paul Krugman scorned House Speaker John Boehner "for declaring that since families were suffering, the government should tighten its own belt." That, Krugman snorted, is "Herbert Hoover economics."
If there is one thing most people have learned about Herbert Hoover, it is that his timid response to the financial crisis of 1929 brought on the Great Depression. Instead of slashing federal spending and clinging to laissez-faire economics, the received wisdom goes, Hoover should have done just the opposite: plowed more money into the economy, relying on deficit spending to stimulate growth.
The only thing wrong with that narrative is that federal spending under Hoover didn't plummet. It went through the roof.
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