The Corner

Can Swine Flu Stimulate the Economy?

Over at The Nation, John Nichols has written an extremely long and extremely hyperbolic post — GOP Know-Nothings Fought Pandemic Preparedness — over the fact that several Republicans argued against (and succeeded in getting Democrats to remove) an $870 million expenditure for pandemic preparedness in the stimulus package. It’s a Republican outrage, he nearly shouts from the web page, putting politics ahead of health.

It’s not that the Republicans argued in favor of pandemics, Nichols graciously acknowledges. But in fact, they didn’t even argue against spending government money to prepare for pandemics. The argument advanced by Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal op-ed was that unlike manufacturing and other industries, the job market in the health-care sector remained healthy and did not particularly require stimulation via a “stimulus package” as long as other priorities abounded.

The argument made by Sen. Susan Collins (R, Maine) is that some activities, even worthy ones, do not belong in a stimulus package because they are not stimulative. Nichols’s argues that flu spending is stimulative because a flu can disrupt economic activity, but this sort of loose reasoning justifies any kind of government spending whatsoever as “stimulative” and could further justify any number of spurious complaints against lawmakers. (Where are the funds, for example, for preventing asteroid collisions, just one of which could bring an end to all economic activity?)

Collins’s spokesman released a statement today noting (1) that as early as December she was pushing for an even larger cash infusion for the emergency health fund at HHS ($905 million) through the normal appropriations process and (2) that no one has asserted so far that there is any lack of funds in combating the swine flu.

In fact, the U.S. government already spends more than $150 million specifically on pandemic influenza research every year — mysteriously, it did so even during the science-hating Bush administration. (Yuval provides some background on that, in case you missed it earlier.) Moreover, Congress can vote out emergency funds much faster than agencies can spend them. Given that no one in the U.S. has died yet, only one person here has been hospitalized with the swine flu, and there is still no pandemic in the U.S.A., Nichols should take a cue from the president: calm down.

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