Toward a More Perfect Stimulus Metaphor

For a while, I've tried to come up with a metaphor for my position on the stimulus and our debt. See, I'm a stimulus dove and a deficit hawk. I think we should spend much more this year than Congress is willing to spend and I think raise taxes and reform entitlements later more dramatically than most stimulus advocates would like. But that can be hard to put into real-non-wonk terms. So here's my best shot*:


You've got a junkie named Sam who abuses drugs. His sister Sarah would prefer he stop, but she never really confronts him. One day, Sam breaks his leg in a car accident that has nothing to do with drugs. In the hospital, they're performing surgery on his leg, and they put him on pain killers. Sarah walks into the hospital.

"You can't put my brother on drugs, he's an addict!" she screams at the nurses.

"Ma'am," they respond, "his leg is broken. His recovery could take weeks. If we don't put him on drugs, he won't be able to handle the necessary surgery and he'll recover slower."

"I don't care, he's an addict! You can't give a drug addict drugs!"

"Ma'am, we're sorry he's an addict. But we need to administer this morphine to perform the surgery."


And so they scream back and forth, compromise by giving him only a little morphine and perform only a portion of the surgeries they wanted to perform. His recovery is delayed, but his leg finally heals, and he goes back to being a drug addict. The end!


You can probably see the parallels yourself. Sam is Uncle Sam, the drug addict who suddenly has a major crash. Sarah is the Republican Party, which only suddenly seemed to care about the deficit after the crash. The car accident is the economic crash. The nurses are the stimulus advocates. Morphine is the stimulus. And the drugs are our long-term structural deficit.

You can also probably see the moral I'm trying to set up: Not all drugs are the same. The best way to fix a drug addiction is not to withhold morphine after you shatter your femur, but rather to recover from the shattered femur as fast as possible, and then work on that drug addiction. Accusing the pro-stimulus crowd of not caring about the deficit is as silly as accusing Sam's nurse of secretly wanting him to do more blow.

I get frustrated when Republican press aides say over the phone,"We can't spend $26 billion on Medicaid, because the stimulus money starting to add up." A few dozen billion dollars this year on unemployment insurance and state aid is not an addiction. It's the drip. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Congress is giving us the worst of both worlds. They've shut off the morphine and they don't want to talk about the addiction until the invisible point in time when it's convenient for all parties to do so.


*We've had good arguments on this blog and in the comment section about how to stimulate (via tax cuts or spending) and how to reduce the debt (via taxing or spending cuts). This piece isn't really about those debates. It's about explaining the more basic principle that one can support both short-term spending and long-term deficit reduction simultaneously.