How Olympia Snowe's "Moderation" Hurt the Economy

One of the big stories of this recession is the massive decline in public-sector employment. In order to weather the economic storm, states and localities have cut jobs for teachers, firefighters, police, and other public servants. As The New York Times reports, this has also trickled down to higher education, where public colleges have cut training for valuable jobs and professions:

Technical, engineering and health care expertise are among the few skills in huge demand even in today’s lackluster job market. They are also, unfortunately, some of the most expensive subjects to teach. As a result, state colleges in Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Florida and Texas have eliminated entire engineering and computer science departments. […]

This squeeze is one result of the states’ 25-year withdrawal from higher education. During and immediately after the last few recessions, states slashed financing for colleges. Then when the economy recovered, most states never fully restored the money that had been cut. The recent recession has amplified the problem.

You might remember that in 2009, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe pressed for Democrats to reduce the size of the bill by $100 billion as a condition for securing her support. There was no particular reason for shaving that much off of the bill—it was just a nice, round number that she liked. And because she occupied the important pivot point in the Senate, Democrats couldn’t do much to limit her cuts.

The problem, besides the fact that the smaller the stimulus the less effective it would be, is that her cuts came directly from aid for states and localities. Aid that could have saved public jobs as the recession continued, and aid that might have kept colleges from cutting valuable training.

In a lot of ways, this sums up the problem with Snowe’s vaunted moderation—it had no point. It was moderation for the sake of moderation, and more often than not (as with the Bush tax cuts, for example), it resulted in bad policy. Her retirement might be bad for Senate comity, but as far as actual lawmaking is concerned, it strikes me as a good thing.

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