Certain About Uncertainty

John Judis has an enormously depressing article over at The New Republic about the economy, titled, aptly, "Doom! Our Economic Nightmare is Just Beginning," which includes this vivid anecdote:

When I was in New Hampshire this summer, I accompanied Republican Congressman Charlie Bass on a visit to a small factory that produces industrial-strength air-conditioning filters. Bass asked the factory owner what he would do first if he were Obama. The owner replied immediately: "Cut spending." Later, as I was touring the plant, I learned that schools, government buildings, and the military bought their filters there.

As Bass was leaving, I asked the owner whether, in proposing that Obama reduce government spending, he wasn't cutting off his nose to spite his face. He was taken aback and took a moment to reply. He began by denying that cutting federal spending would have any effect on his business, which was mostly local, but then acknowledged that schools and offices now had less money to buy filters. It was as if he had never made the connection before between his deep-seated cultural assumptions about government and the fate of his own business—and by extension that of other businesses.

That's just one guy, of course, but it certainly runs against the common image of businesspeople as hard-headed pragmatists. Not that they can't be as ideologically blinded as anybody else, but you'd think that a guy who sells things to government might be affected more by that concrete experience than by the rhetoric of a bunch of Washington politicians. Unfortunately, that's not how ideology and partisanship work. Our political allegiances determine, to a large degree, how we understand a wide range of issues, even those with which we have direct experience.

Which goes a long way to explaining why political arguments can be so infuriating. When I hear Republicans argue that the reason employers aren't hiring isn't lack of customers, it's "uncertainty," the fear that at some future date their taxes might go up or some new regulation might affect them, I want to scream. But if you're a Republican, the economy's poor performance has to be Barack Obama's fault. It just has to be. And if he hasn't actually done the terrible thing you think he's going to do (raise taxes), then it must be the fear that he might eventually do that terrible thing that is destroying the economy. So we get articles like this one, from the Fox News website, "Uncertainty Strangles Small Business," which explains how "businesses require two critical ingredients in order to expand and succeed: a clear understanding of what their costs are going to be, and access to capital. The current political and regulatory environment leaves them void of both." What about, you know, customers? Demand for their products? Might that matter? Nope -- not mentioned. In contrast, we get this article, from McClatchey, titled "Regulations, taxes aren't killing small business, owners say," which interviews a bunch of small business owners who say they just need more customers. Believe whichever story you prefer.

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