Narrative watch: “Uncertainty”

John Boehner, rapidly approaching skin-hair chromosyncretism.

Speaking to the City Club of Cleveland yesterday, Representative John Boehner (R–OH, net worth $4.1 million) said that President Obama had failed to revive the economy, that his entire economic team should resign, and that voters should elect Republicans in November. That much was unremarkable. The audacity of the second claim was kind of cool, but since it seems unlikely that Boehner’s policy recommendation will be implemented, I suspect he said it just to get a rise out of Joe Biden.* What was notable about Boehner’s speech was his repeated deployment of the phrase “uncertainty” to explain our continued recession. “Uncertainty,” in his formulation, is the hesitation of business owners to hire new employees or expand their operations because they’re worried about how health care, financial reform and other government regulations will be implemented. “America’s employers are afraid to invest in an economy stalled by stimulus spending and hamstrung by uncertainty,” Boehner said in one of nine uses of the word counted by Slate. “The prospect of higher taxes, stricter rules, and more regulations has employers sitting on their hands.”

As totalizing theories go, “uncertainty” is awesome. It seems plausible that business owners would hold off on trying to grow until their concerns about various new taxes and regulations are resolved. At least, it does until you’ve considered it for five seconds. The guiding principle of American business is “make as much money as possible and become as large as you can, regardless of economic conditions.” Uncertainty about taxes and regulations probably makes businesses unhappy, but it seems doubtful that it discourages them from taking risks. Boehner’s explanation seems predicated on the idea that businesses are only interested in pursuing the maximum possible quantity of money, and if that maximum is lowered they’ll lose interest entirely. I don’t buy it.

Fortunately, the real genius of “uncertainty” lies not in explanation but in prescription. Since taxes and regulations and the Obama administration are what make businesses uncertain, the obvious solution is to lower taxes, repeal health care/financial reform and oust Democrats. Those just happen to be the Republican Party’s established positions. “Uncertainty,” then, isn’t so much the force that explains our continued economic stagnation as the unifying principle that explains the GOP’s response to it. It’s the Thetans to their Scientology.

In other words, it’s a narrative. It explains both what has happened and why we should do what we want to do now, but its primary concern is that the same explanation works for both. It is coherent. If, as a descriptor of an economic force, it seems to have been constructed after Boehner decided what to do about it, that’s probably because he’s advocating the same economic policy that Republicans advocated before Obama—in fact, before the economic collapse happened at all. Cutting taxes and reducing regulations isn’t exactly the bold new idea that caught fire in the back room of the National Review two weeks ago. The only new product we’re looking at here is “uncertainty.”

Which brings us to an important point—if Boehner’s plan is to attack Democrats on the economy, why would he do it in the form of a narrative? “Uncertainty,” after all, is a why issue, and presumably carries less emotional impact than the what issue of the economy itself. He’s not changing his policy, so he doesn’t need a new narrative to contextualize his decision. If the Obama administration really is effing up the economy, why not just let the economic effery speak for itself?

The answer might have something to do with a Congressional Budget Office report released today. According to the CBO, the stimulus increased the Gross Domestic Product between 1.7% and 4.5% and created between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs. We’re still in trouble, but it seems like we’re in significantly less trouble as a direct result of Obama’s economic policies.

Hence “uncertainty,” an economic metric that, unlike job growth or GDP, is completely unquantifiable. “Uncertainty” can’t be measured; it sounds plausible, but its existence is as a conceptual framework, not as a force that can be monitored or responded to. Like the angels that moved falling objects before gravity or the miasmas that hovered over poor neighborhoods and caused cholera, it is the undetectable why behind observable phenomena.

Much like angels and miasmas, it is also extremely susceptible to Occam’s razor. Before “uncertainty,” we still had a bad recession and a Republican Party that wanted to cut taxes and reduce regulations. Without “uncertainty” we still have all those things, although it should also be noted that we have a better health care safety net less dependent on our uncertain jobs and a system of financial regulations designed to reduce erratic—that is, uncertain—behavior.

The other new thing we have now is a reason why all those things might go away if we do what Republicans have been saying we should do all along. Thanks, John Boehner. While the President and his economic team try to come up with new ideas to eke three points of growth out of the GDP, the Republican Party is coming up with new reasons why their old ideas should be good. I’m frankly not very excited by either result, but to quote Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: between grief and death, I’ll take grief.

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  1. Rep. Boner is succumbing to his own self-importance, a trait endemic among politicians. He believes that politics can “fix” or “cause uncertainty” in the economy. The economy (as a whole) is so huge, so global, that it barely bats an eye to the actions of the U.S. government.

  2. I enjoyed today’s entry, though I’m aching for another of those jaunts into Dan’s tortured brain at the moment he’s sighted a cute girl in a café.

  3. “[Boehner’s] advocating the same economic policy [cutting taxes and reducing regulations] that Republicans advocated before Obama.” Absolutely true. Democrats would be wise to run on this in November. What got us into this mess in the first place, peeps?

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