What Lies Beneath

The psychological basis of economic, financial, and social behavior

What’s in a name—the political psychology of ‘stimulus’

'Stimulus' or 'job vaporizer'? Language as a political weapon

What unsung political genius labeled the $787 billion spending plan `economic stimulus'? With unemployment soaring, critics argue that it is ineffective, and not delivering on its promises (such as the forecast that "The plan will create three to four million jobs more than the economy otherwise would've had... "-Larry Summers, 1/25/09, "Meet the Press".) Proponents, on the other hand, favor more. As presidential advisor Laura D'Andreas Tyson puts it, the stimulus is "a bit too small."

The psychology of political attention and labeling here is fascinating. ‘Stimulus', according to Merriam-Webster, is "something that rouses or incites to activity." So the very terminology, ‘economic stimulus,' already decides the debate in favor of the view that it boosts the economy.

The argument in favor of the stimulus is that there are unemployed resources in the economy that government can put to work. Rather than just letting resources stand idle, have people build bridges. This relieves the suffering of the unemployed, and improves infrastructure too. In short, the pro side says that the ‘stimulus' plan will stimulate.

The con side says that government is a catastrophically wasteful director of resources, as evidenced by the failure of socialism in the 20th century and the economic stagnation of European social democracies. If businesses and individuals understand this, the stimulus will make them more pessimistic about the future. Pessimistic decisionmakers cut back on investment, hiring, and spending. So the stimulus can even reduce employment.

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Regardless of who's right on the economics, clearly the ‘stimulus' language captures the pro side perfectly, and the con side not at all. Indeed, the term immunizes the mind to opposing evidence. After a cup of stimulus from Starbucks, if I'm still drowsy, by definition I need another jolt. Justin Wolfers at the Freakonomics blog gives evidence that the plunge in employment is worse than people realize. The solution? "It's time to start talking about a second fiscal stimulus." Despite the current unpopularity of the first stimulus, President Obama is keeping the option of a second plan open: "I don't take anything off the table when unemployment is close to 10 percent and a lot of Americans are hurting out there."

Opponents have lots of metaphors they could choose from. Instead of the image of rousing activity, there could be the economic ‘suppression plan,' ‘deadweight package,' or ‘growth-retardant system.' For alliteration, there's ‘prosperity Propofol.' To honor the frugality of government, how about ‘resource-flush scheme,' ‘wealth dump,' or ‘porkapalooza'? As for mechanical metaphors, there's ‘recovery off switch,' ‘opportunity crusher,' and ‘investment choke button.' For the computer savvy, how about ‘stagnation drag and-drop-down device,' or ‘system freezer'.

In recognition of our gleaming new infrastructure, there's the ‘road-to-Hell-paving project'. And to celebrate the new Star Trek film, how about economic ‘stasis-field mechanism', ‘enterprise eliminator,' 'job vaporizer,' or just plain ‘black hole'?

So, here's a political psychology question. Why did opponents gullibly swallow the stimulus terminology, and thereby defeat? Any ideas?

 

David Hirshleifer, Ph.D., is the Merage Chair in Business Growth and a professor of finance and economics at UC Irvine.

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