Friday, January 22, 2010

Fun With My Conservative Pals:
"Obama's Economy" Edition

So I do have some conservative friends, believe it or not. Unfortunately, they are not willing to discuss politics with me. At least one of them cannot discuss politics without immediately becoming too angry to speak. (Note: this problem is not new; it pre-dates Obama.) Another likes to drop little conversational bombs, but then suggest that we not discuss politics if I respond. Some of my conservative interlocutors are not actual friends, but mere web-acquaintances, yet I spar with them so frequently that I feel as if I know them to at least some extent. Among these latter, here's a claim of which they're extremely fond:

It's Obama's economy now.

The reason? It's been a year since he was inaugurated.

Of course this is ridiculous. Presidents have limited control over the economy, and what control they do have operates rather slowly. Typically--barring any major screw-ups or unusual acts of presidential heroics--a president becomes progressively more responsible for the state of the economy as his length of time in office increases. I don't know enough about economics to have a decent guess about how much presidents typically influence the economy, but it's clear enough that the degree of their influence typically increases over time, and carries over into the term of their successor, then trails off over time.

Obama inherited an economic mess. The consensus among economists seems to be that he's done a reasonable job so far. To suggest that he is magically and suddenly responsible for our economic situation is absurd. Perhaps interestingly, it is in line with claims by the same conservatives that he is now entirely responsible for the situation in Afghanistan. (Funny...they don't argue that Obama is now responsible for victory in Iraq...). I usually ask them whether they believe that FDR was entirely responsible for the economy one year after taking office, but they are unwilling to respond. And one wonders whether Truman should get all the credit for winning WWII...

What is particularly amusing about all this is that conservatives blamed Bill Clinton for essentially every failure of the Bush administration--up until a few months before Obama was inaugurated, when they began blaming him, apparently believing in backwards causation. Now that the tables are turned, however, they are eager to insulate Bush from responsibility, and suddenly advocate an arbitrary, 1-year statute of limitations on responsibility.

It's particularly annoying that participants in such discussions generally fail to distinguish the question of actual responsibility from the question of who the public will hold responsible--but these must, of course, be carefully distinguished. The public seems to vote largely on the basis of how things are, not on how we got there, so I have always expected them to quickly begin blaming Obama for the mess he inherited--and, in fact, I have always thought that there was a significant chance that he will be a one-term president for that reason. But that's a different issue.

I certainly hope that the conservatives I've been interacting with are unrepresentative. If not, there's a plague of irrationality on the other side of the aisle.


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