Remedy for the Economy: Find the Open Man

The following post was written on January 28th, 2009, shortly before Congress approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the “stimulus bill”).

We’ve seen it all too many times in the NBA. A team is down by 1, 2, or 3 points late in the game. They have one possession to win or tie it, and thus seal their fate as either glorious victors or ignominious losers. A twenty second timeout is called to advance the ball past half court. Little is discussed during this brief intermission, because everyone from the head coach to the couch potato watching at home knows what is going to happen. Announcers riddle off a series of tired cliches: “It’s clutch time”, “This is why they play the game”, “This is where playmakers make plays”, etc. Play resumes: the point guard squeaks a pass through the outstretched limbs of the opposing team’s lankiest defender, who seems to be doing a combination of a jumping jacks and Tae Bo. The recipient is, of course, the offense’s premier scorer. Whether you are a championship contender or perennial bottom feeder, you have this guy. He is unquestionably The Man on your team, and he is getting the ball no matter what. The Man receives the ball and is immediately draped by the opposition’s best defender (assuming there is not a prohibitive size difference, say, Chauncy Billips v. Kevin Garnett).

He initiates a series of meaningless, slow moving crossover dribbles while staring his man down. As the shot clock dwindles, he fakes one way, dribbles the other, and launches a fadeaway 3-pointer with his defender right in his face. As this is an incredibly low percentage shot, the ball usually misses its mark. Game over–bad guys win.

This was the time honored ritual of how to end games in the NBA. Then, in the 2005/2006 season, a funny thing happened. Budding superstar Lebron James, whose reputation as “The Man” was as firmly cemented as any player’s in the league, began passing the ball in close and late situations. One night, he drove and dished to a wide open Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who, in case you didn’t know, is 7’3″ and the team’s starting center) for a game-tying 3-ball against Phoenix. Another night, he found Sasha Pavlovic on a very similar play to beat Seattle. Lebron was even willing to pass in these situations in the playoffs, locating Damon Jones in the corner for the series winning three against Washington.

This should have come as no surprise to us; after all, this was the same player who since high school elicited comparisons to Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. We were constantly told by the national media that he was a different type of baller, one talented enough to score in bunches but unselfish enough to make the smart pass. He played the game the way it was meant to be played, a welcome change from the series of isolation plays that the NBA had devolved into. Because of this gift, many felt he was capable of resurrecting Cleveland from its decrepit state. And yet the same punditry that lauded James in high school and on draft day for being unselfish now scorned him for it.

Everyone from weekend warrior columnists like Bill Simmons to former All Stars like Charles Barkley joined in. Lebron lacked a “killer instinct”. Lebron wasn’t “mean enough.” LBJ’s new way of playing ball that had been so praised before was now mistaken for weakness and fear. You see, passing and setting screens is all well and good in the first 47 minutes of a game, but come crunch time, you should just chuck a shot off of one foot and hope that your “killer instinct” guides the ball into the hoop. Fortunately for us Cavs fans, Lebron for the most part continued to play unselfishly. Why? Because he knew it was the right thing to do, both for the integrity of the game and the good of his team.

President Obama now finds himself in an eerily similar position to King James. Like James, Mr. Obama was touted as a man who would change the way things were done. Many hailed him as the messianic future of American politics. Under Obama, partisan problems would be replaced with bipartisan solutions. Special interests would make way for the national interest. The media was enamored; for too long, they now claimed, the Beltway culture of political polarization had torn at the fabric of our nation. It was time for change.

President Obama may have just been inaugurated, but he already faces a close and late situation with our economy. The housing and credit markets are in shambles, consumer confidence has been shattered, and global demand is virtually nonexistent. Whether a cause or result of these woes, unemployment is skyrocketing, leading the vast majority of economists to believe that we simply can’t wait this one out. (After all, as unemployment rises, demand falls, and the vicious circle thus continues.) It is now time for the President, who has appeased centrists with his bipartisan rhetoric and at least some of his appointments, to be the player that we know he is capable of being.

The House is set to vote on HR 1 tonight. Like Lebron in crunch time, Mr. Obama has two fundamental choices. His first choice is to do what many of his predecessors have done in times of imminent crisis: he can act fast and usher the House bill through, just to say he did “something”. As the bill stands, this would be a disastrous mistake. Rife with the same pork barrel projects Mr. Obama swore to eliminate, this bill seeks to spend money frivolously rather than wisely. Billions of dollars would be wasted on projects with little or no economic value, such as the planned $500 million to rennovate the National Mall or the tens of millions to build a mob museum in Las Vegas. (Simply creating jobs artificially, especially construction jobs that are temporary in nature, will not provide long term stimulus.) Close to $50 billion would be spent on renewable energy resources, despite the fact that spending even four times that number would only allow us to accomodate roughly one percent of our energy needs.

It is not to say that these causes are not worthy, but rather, they will likely do little for the economy and thus should not be included in an “emergency” stimulus package. This option represents little more than a fadeaway 3-pointer: it may work, but it probably won’t. Mr. Obama’s second, and wiser choice would be to delay the bill’s passage for at least a week until Congress can agree to something that makes sense. He should be ready to make a play, for sure, but he should take as much time as possible to differentiate between vital stimuli and wasteful pork. He should ignore the uber-Keynsians in Washington and the media who tell him that a penny spent is a penny earned.

The President has both the intelligence and the political capital to make the right decision and lobby for a smart stimulus package. The Federal Government doesn’t spend $1 trillion very often, and there will be no going back. Mr. President: Ignore Pelosi, ignore Krugman. Resist their pressure to vastly expand the welfare state, because the vast majority of Americans that elected you want nothing of it. Ensure the safety of our jobs before you ensure the safety of our trees. You have the potential to be so much better than the radicals on both sides of the aisle…don’t waste it! Drive to the hole, draw the defender, and for the love of God, find the open man.

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