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Romney’s Distortion—and Why It Matters

Mitt Romney’s twisting of President Obama’s rhetoric continues today with a press release insisting that, yes, Obama really did say people who own businesses didn’t build them. "President Obama Meant It," the release says, "He’s Consistently Sided With Government As The Answer To Solving Our Nation’s Problems." Afterwards the press release cites a new pair of Obama statements, one from 2009 and one from 2012, that supposedly back up Romney’s claim. 

As you probably know by now, Romney has been taking the infamous Obama quote ("If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that") out of context. Obama wasn’t denying the effort individual entrepreneurs make or whether, if successful, they deserve credit for it. Rather, he was saying that behind every business success story you can usually find some level of help from the government, whether in the form of infrastructure, public services, or even direct financial assistance. And the stories of small business owners Romney has been highlighting in the last few days actually back up Obama’s essential claim. As noted yesterday, the Massachusetts businessman who appeared at a Romney event last week and the New Hampshire one stars in a new Romney ad both received loans from programs financed or run directly by the federal government.

The Obama quotes that Romney cites today are similarly revealing. Here’s the first one, taken from a 2012 speech:

Yes, there have been fierce arguments throughout our history between both parties about the exact size and role of government — some honest disagreements. But in the decades after World War II, there was a general consensus that the market couldn’t solve all of our problems on its own.

And here’s the second, from 2009 while Obama was promoting the Recovery Act:

Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy, where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending.

Do either of these sound like Obama thinks business owners don’t work hard for their success? Or that the market never works? Hardly. Look at that key phrase in the first quote: "market couldn’t solve all of our problems on its own." That clearly implies the market can solve some problems on its own—and that, when it can’t, it simply needs help. As for the second quote, it’s an illustration of the first statement: A suggestion that, when the economy slows down, the market can’t fix itself without some kind of outside intervention.

I know, I’m getting awfully worked up about semantic precision in a press release, one of dozens that the campaigns will send out this week. But I think it’s emblematic of just how unhinged Romney and the Republicans have become, because neither of those Obama statements should be the least bit controversial.

Virtually every mainstream economist, left and right, would agree with both the proposition that sometimes market economies stall and that, on those occasions, government can take action to get them going again. This is basic Keynesianism and, as far as I know, even Romney’s own economic advisers would concede as much. Between left and right you can typically find an honest, and worthy, debate over the size, shape, and timing of optimal government intervention during downturns. But you don’t generally get an argument over whether some government intervention makes sense at least some of the time.

Among those aghast at the position Republicans have taken are economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. As they explained in a column for Bloomberg View on Tuesday, the political debate over economic policy right now is between, on the one hand, those who believe that the Recovery Act reduced unemployment, that the bank bailouts stabilized the financial system, that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves—and, on the other hand, those who dispute those claims. 

These days, the former view is the one you typically hear from Democrats and their supporters, the latter from Republicans and their allies. But in surveys of credentialed economists, the Republican view gets virtually no support:

The consensus isn’t the result of a faux poll of left-wing ideologues. Rather, the findings come from the Economic Experts Panel run by Booth’s Initiative on Global Markets. It’s a recurring survey of about 40 economists from around the U.S. It includes Democrats, Republicans and independent academics from the top economics departments in the country. The only things that unite them are their first-rate credentials and their interest in public policy. ...
Angry Republicans have pushed their representatives to adopt positions that are at odds with the best of modern economic thinking. ... The disjunction between the state of economic knowledge and our current political debate has important consequences. Right now, millions of people are suffering due to high unemployment. Our textbooks are filled with possible solutions. Instead of debating them seriously, congressional Republicans are blocking even those policy proposals that strike most economists as uncontroversial.
This inaction has no basis in economics. Instead, it’s raw politics—a cynical attempt to score points in a phony rhetorical war or a way of preventing their opponents from scoring a policy win.

That’s a pretty serious accusation: It suggests that Republicans are willing to sabotage the economy in order to win the 2012 elections. But others have made the same accusation and, honestly, how can we dismiss it?

Maybe the sabotage is subconscious, with Republicans convincing themselves that the economics profession is wrong. Or maybe it’s a more conscious effort at subterfuge, designed to hide the fact that Romney and the Republicans have no serious employment plan of their own—a theory that Greg Sargent put forward on Tuesday. Either way, the bottom line is the same: Romney and the Republicans have embraced a nonsensical position on the issue that voters say is most important to them. Let’s hope the voters notice.

Update: With a little rewording to make clear what Stevenson and Wolfers were arguing.

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