Such talk has created a feedback loop in the media, where budget cut horror stories—which never mention how much state and local government spending skyrocketed in the years before the recession—mix seamlessly with editorial-page calls to spend still more money we don’t have on government jobs we can’t afford. “Upcoming budget cuts by recession-battered states will lead to more job losses,” The New York Times editorialized in April. “As states cut spending, there is less business for private-sector contractors and more layoffs of government employees.” Meanwhile, the Times argued, the federal government needs to be spending more “on infrastructure and clean energy” and the creation of “public jobs, especially summer youth jobs.”
When we’re still talking about government make-work, it’s a sure sign we haven’t recognized the sinkhole we’re in. A smattering of summer jobs for teenagers is no consolation for jacking up the cost of borrowing for everyone during an economic downturn. Yet that’s what the White House’s best economic minds are proposing. “Failure to take additional targeted actions to jump-start job creation,” Christina Romer, chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said in March, “would lead to slower recovery and higher unemployment for an extended period.”
With policy philosophy like that, it’s no wonder that governors, facing nearly $200 billion in budget deficits, are descending upon Washington for another round of stimulus funding. As long as there’s still one greater fool left willing to chase diminishing returns with more cash, politicians can keep putting off the day of reckoning. If they’re lucky, they’ll be long out of office when the gong strikes midnight. Unfortunately for most of us, we’ll still be here.