I have not yet commented on the most dangerous aspect of President Obama’s wishful, magical thinking — his penchant for converting partisan projections into existing reality. It’s one thing to assert: “I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens half a world away.” Eveyone understands that this is a promise.
But what are we to make of this statement: “We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students.” I assume that Obama was referring to the provision in the stimulus package which, in his words, provides “families who struggle to pay tuition costs. . .a $2,500 tax credit for all four years of college.”
How, though, does Obama know that this tax credit makes college affordable for nearly seven million more students? Presumably, someone made this projection. But it is a meaningless one. For (to my knowledge) there is no reliable, objective way of determining when college becomes “affordable” for a given family. That is, there is no way to define a financial borderline of general applicability at which a family will conclude it can’t afford to send their child to college. The existence of student loans only highlights the difficulty. Certainly establishing a small tax credit will assist families at the margin. But to convert that into a number of students for whom college has become “affordable” is hocus pocus.
The same can be said about Obama’s claim that the stimulus package will “save or create” 3.5 million jobs. Although Obama at least couched this in promisory language, rather than as a fait accompli, the use of the word “save” will make it impossible to verify whether the promise has been kept. Thus, Obama effectively is making a definitive claim about the effect of the stimulus package on employment.
But no economist can reliably make such a projection. That is why, to my knowledge, President Bush did not attempt to quantify in advance how many jobs would be “created or saved” as a result of his tax cuts (or if he did, it did not become a mantra). The tax cuts were urged as a means of creating new jobs and when, month after month, hundreds of thousands of new jobs appeared, the administration took credit. But that’s a far cry from what Obama is doing.
I hope we’re not witnessing the advent of the “big lie,” wherein a leader simply presents repeatedly a bogus or unverifiable claim with the expectation that the “masses” will come to believe it. The government can’t fake a recovery, of course, but there is a good deal of middle ground between a full-scale recovery and an ongoing recession (recall the so-called “jobless recovery”). It’s understandable that Obama wants to begin grabbing that middle ground, but it’s troubling that he’s doing so in such an intellectually dishonest fashion.
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