SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Contrarian Manifesto

Boom or Bust? We’re Always Wrong

NEW YORK—My father taught me to go left.

Not politically. He was a right-wing Republican. At the movies.

“Most people choose the right entrance,” he told me. “There are usually more seats on the left side of the theater.” I’ve found that to be true.

He dressed like a conformist. But Dad was a contrarian. “If you don’t know what to do,” he said, “do the exact opposite of what everyone else is doing. On average, conventional wisdom is always wrong. Run away from the crowd—and you’ll come out ahead in the long run.”

Never has the wisdom of his words been more apparent than now. Acting like Chicken Little proven right—this time, the sky really is falling—government and business are making decisions that are the exact opposite of the right ones.

Which is nothing new. Politicians and businessmen also do the exact opposite of what they should do during boom times too.

Consider prison policy. Hit hard by the Depression that began in 2008, cash-strapped states are releasing prisoners early. California’s early-release bill even eliminated supervised parole. Because the average recidivism rate is 80 percent, “[unsupervised parole] is designed to reduce the number of parolees returned to prison, essentially because the state will not know if they are violating the terms of their parole,” reports The Contra Costa Times.

But facing a state underemployment rate of 23 percent, California parolees have no real chance of finding work. Most will commit more crimes. From the standpoint of social stability and public safety, it would make more sense to keep them locked up.

If anything, a better time for leniency would have been the 1980s and 1990s. Jobs were plentiful. Wages were steady. Some employers, dealing with a tight labor market, would have welcomed ex-cons. Criminals could have gone straight. But leniency is not what happened.

Instead, “tough on crime” politicians pushed through longer sentences, fueling a massive boom in prison construction. In 1975 there were fewer than 600 state prisons in the U.S. By 2000 there were over a thousand —a 70 percent increase.

Many of those prisons are now being closed due to budget cuts.

If the leaders of our government and major corporations were smart, they would respond to booms and busts the opposite of the way they do.

During a boom, salaries are high. Stock prices rise. State and federal tax revenues go up. Governments run a surplus. Soon we hear calls to “give back” the people’s money—by cutting their taxes. As a result, tax rates fall. So do government revenues.

This is stupid. During a period of economic growth and low unemployment, governments should increase taxes. After all, people can afford to pay more when they earn more. And booms eventually end. So some surplus should be set aside for a rainy day.

During a bust, salaries stagnate or decline. Securities markets seize up or crash. Governments run into fiscal trouble. So they raise taxes.

This is stupid too. People are broke. The last thing they can afford during a recession is higher taxes. Governments should cut taxes when the economy sucks. They should be drawing on that big nest egg they should have stashed away during the fat years to pay bills and stimulate recovery.

The Stupid Opposite Game has been in full effect since the mid-1990s. Bill Clinton, who presided over the largest and longest economic expansion in U.S. history, slashed income taxes. Barack Obama, dealing with the gravest economic catastrophe since the 19th century, is effectively increasing them. To Obama’s credit, he doesn’t have a choice. The cycle can only be broken during a boom. It has to begin with that nest egg.

Then there’s spending.

Obama is a typical victim of the fear reflex, proposing a budget that freezes federal spending for the rest of his term—except for the military. Hit especially hard would be the Army Corps of Engineers and NASA.

This is exactly the opposite of the budget he ought to be proposing.

The Army Corps of Engineers builds the massive public works projects that create a ripple effect through the economy, immediately employing thousands of workers and leaving a legacy of infrastructure that can promote future economic growth. As FDR did during the 1930s, Obama ought to increase spending on infrastructure. Funding for NASA ends up paying a lot of salaries for scientists—people we ought to be encouraging.

The military budget, on the other hand, ought to be slashed. True, wars stimulate the economy. But they cost more than they earn—in lives, subsequent foreign aid and international contempt.

If CEOs and government officials were smart, they would be hiring like crazy. Millions of smart people are out of work. They can be hired much more cheaply than in the late 1990s. Plus they’ll stay longer. Competitors real and imagined have vanished. There’s less pressure to expand too quickly.

Venture capitalists ought to be loosening, not tightening, their purse strings. After all, there’s no better time to start a new business. Eighteen of the top 30 Dow Jones index companies were founded during economic downturns, including Johnson & Johnson, Caterpillar, McDonald’s, Walt Disney, Adobe, Intel, Compaq and Microsoft.

So what is a good contrarian to do? Celebrate. Take chances. Because the sky really is falling—and that’s great.

(Ted Rall is the author, with Pablo G. Callejo, of the new graphic memoir “The Year of Loving Dangerously.” He is publishing a new political manifesto for Fall 2010. His website is


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About the Author

Ted Rall
Ted Rall
Setting himself apart from the herd with a unique drawing style and a take-no-prisoners approach, Ted Rall began editorial cartooning in the 1980s with a handful of alternative weekly newspapers whose editors saw his photocopied work hanging from lampposts in New York City. In 1991 San Francisco Chronicle Features began syndicating Rall’s three-times-a-week editorial cartoons syndication with newspapers including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Des Moines Register and Philadelphia Daily News.

Universal Press Syndicate picked up Rall’s cartoons in 1996. Today the man often called “the most controversial cartoonist in America” appears in more than 100 newspapers throughout the United States, ranging from the Washington Post to the Village Voice.

His trademark “Generalissimo El Busho” is an iconic caricature of President Bush. It has drawn criticism from conservatives. He was called “treasonous” by the right-wing Weekly Standard and “anti-American” by the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page. The Right Wing News website named him 2003’s “Most Annoying Liberal” and was named number 15 in Bernard Goldberg’s book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. He has received numerous death threats.

Rall has also won awards, including the 1995 and 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards for Outstanding Coverage of the Problems of the Disadvantaged. In 1996 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Rall also draws non-political strips for MAD magazine and cartoon journalism for EurasiaNet, a news website about the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

"Editorial cartooning is an intrinsically negative medium,” Rall says, “but I’m an optimistic person. My hope is that, by calling attention to hypocrisy in our government and the inward focus of American culture in an amusing way, things will change for the better.”

Four collections of Rall’s cartoons have been published: Waking Up In America, All The Rules Have Changed, Search and Destroy, and America Gone Wild, as well as three award-winning graphic novels, My War With Brian, Real Americans Admit: The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done! and 2024, a parody of Orwell’s 1984. He edited an influential three-volume anthology of edgy alternative weekly political cartoons, Attitude. He wrote the bestselling 1998 “generational manifesto” Revenge of the Latchkey Kids.

Rall covered the war in Afghanistan in cartoon form, where his harrowing experience—3 of the 44 journalists with whom he traveled were killed—led to the critically acclaimed book To Afghanistan and Back. He released two books of prose during 2004, Wake Up, You’re Liberal: How We Can Take America Back From the Right and Generalissimo El Busho.

Rall’s most recent book is Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, a detailed analysis of the region in prose and cartoons.

See his books from NBM!

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