Are You Picking up Good Vibrations?

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2009. “Are you feeling stressed out yet?” Iowa City Press-Citizen (February 11): 19A.

One of my favorite songs from the Sixties was The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Perhaps you remember its refrain: “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations. Good, good, good, good vibrations.”

Well I’ve been picking up lots of vibrations over the past month or more, and they haven’t been good.  So I have a question for you: ARE YOU FEELING STRESSED YET?

Everybody I know at the University sure is. Worry about budget cuts, furloughs, lay-offs, and closure of programs runs rampant. But we are far from alone. There’s no doubt but that other people face far more challenging circumstances than we do. Six hundred thousand more Americans lost their jobs in January, bringing the total number lost since the recession began to 3.6 million. The unemployment rate has risen to 7.6 percent, its highest level in more than 16 years. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has declined by almost 37 percent from its high in May 2008, with obvious implications for those who are either retired or preparing to retire. Fear spreads that we might be headed for a second Great Depression.

Are those vibrations stressing you yet?

Can we count on the federal “stimulus” package to vibrate in ways that alleviate anxiety and bring more hopeful tunes back into our lives? Although I’m no expert at recovering from economic collapses, here’s what I think.

First, any recovery that simply restores the economy to its condition prior to 2008 is woefully misguided. If the package simply stimulates people to buy new cars, buy large new houses on large lots in the exurban periphery, and spend madly at malls on products made in China (such as shoes and IPods), then we will soon find ourselves back in dire circumstances.

A true recovery would be one that puts our economy and way of life on a more sustainable path. It would, for example, use federal tax breaks to encourage the construction and purchase of homes located within easy walking distance of public transportation routes. And it would provide tax breaks only for the purchase of new cars that are fuel-efficient. Similarly, it is crucial to ensure that a substantial amount of funding is directed toward improving our rail and public transportation system.

I can hear an obvious reply to my claim: but Jim, we need to get people back to work and get the money moving again. I agree, but plowing money into the same old same-o (building new bridges to nowhere, for example) will keep us singing a bouncy little ditty while we drive off a cliff. We need to target our new spending more wisely.

Once again I can hear an obvious reply: Congress can enact only that which 60 Senators, a majority of Representatives in the House, and the President are willing to accept. Consequently the final negotiated package will be full of elements that no one person would like, and which will easily be assailable from multiple perspectives. I agree, but one should be quite pragmatic about such matters. At moments like this, insistence on perfection can be the enemy of the good.

Somebody will no doubt say: this stimulus package won’t work; it won’t produce the desired consequences. Maybe they are right, but my sense is that it is impossible to project with a high degree of confidence what the full consequences of the package will be. What we do know is that the economy is plummeting downward, with no evident end in sight. At moments like this, the risk of not acting far outweighs the risk of making some mistakes.

Do I trust that our new President is trying to do what’s best for the people of our country? Absolutely. Do I fully trust the members of the House and Senate to do what’s best? No, although I do have enormous respect for many individual members. I especially distrust the Republican minority, for my sense is that they want to have their cake and eat it too. For them, the good vibrations come from moving the negotiated package as far in their preferred direction as possible, and then opposing it in the end for being wasteful. But to accomplish this feat, they need to permit a few of their members (Collins, Snowe, Specter) to support the package.

Given this imperfect world, I’ll go with what our President and the Congress collectively produce. At the moment, it will be the best vibration we can get. We can begin playing a better song tomorrow.

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