Pundits have begun asking Democrats how they will answer the Gipper question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
Dean Baker’s response is perfect: Suppose your house is on fire and the firefighters race to the scene. They set up their hoses and start spraying water on the blaze as quickly as possible. After the fire is put out, the news reporter on the scene asks the chief firefighter, “is the house in better shape than when you got here?”
A serious reporter, Baker notes, would ask the fire chief if he had brought a large enough crew, if they had enough hoses, if the water pressure was sufficient. The analogy is obvious: serious reporters would ask whether the stimulus was large enough, whether it was properly designed and implemented, and whether other measures might have been taken that weren’t.
Baker’s analogy is on point. But even if we persist in asking the question, I think the only honest answer is yes. We are better off–although we certainly aren’t well off. As a Facebook friend noted the other day, you are definitely better-off if you live in Kokomo, or in any other city where the local economy depends on the continued vitality of the auto industry.
People are also better off if they have retirement accounts; recent financial reports confirm that these accounts have more than recovered from the huge hit they took in 2008–they’ve not only made up the lost ground, but surpassed previous levels. Job creation has been agonizingly slow, but slow beats hell out of the month-after-month huge losses that characterized 2008. We still have young men and women in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan, but far fewer than were there fighting ill-conceived wars when Obama took office–and those who are still there are coming home.
As Joe Biden likes to say, Osama bin Ladin is dead and the American automobile industry isn’t.
So let’s be honest. We are all better off, in a multitude of ways, now that the administration has stopped the hemorrhaging and begun the slow process of recovery.
But if we are being honest, we also have to admit that better isn’t good. Unemployment remains unacceptably high; the economy is not only growing too slowly, globalization means that it is vulnerable as never before to missteps in Europe and elsewhere. There are thorny questions about what to do about Iran and Syria. The planet is heating more quickly than even the most pessimistic science had projected. And Washington seems incapable of engaging in a rational discussion of these and other pressing national issues.
The pundits ought to be asking both candidates and their campaigns for the specifics. (In the case of the Romney campaign, especially, those specifics have been all but invisible.)
What, exactly, do you propose to do about [fill in the blank]? Don’t give us gauzy, dismissive promises (“I’ll create 12 million jobs; I’ll repeal ‘Obamacare'” “I’ll save Medicare”). Tell us precisely how you propose to get from where we are–which is demonstrably better than where we were, but still not good–to where we need to be. If you are promising to defund Planned Parenthood, tell us where the low-income women who depend upon it for breast screenings will be able to get those services. If you are promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, tell us which of its provisions, if any, you will spare–and how, in its absence, you will slow the growth in medical costs that have been strangling our economy. If you are promising to protect Israel from Iran, tell us how many young men and women you are willing to put at risk to do that, and why you prefer a military incursion to diplomatic efforts. If you propose to balance the budget by closing loopholes, tell us precisely which “loopholes” you are targeting.
Most important of all, do tell us how your proposals are any different from the decisions that set the house on fire in the first place.