You probably think the shutdown’s about spending. It isn’t.

October 4, 2013

1. So this is all about the deficit, right?

It's true that House Republicans are holding up a spending bill, but they're not holding it up over demands for spending cuts or tax increases or some other package of deficit reduction. In fact, they're happy with the level of spending in the bill. It's a number they proposed, after all.

Center for American Progress.
Center for American Progress

For that reason, it was widely assumed that passing a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels would be a relatively uncontroversial proposition. But then Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) came in. They declared that they wouldn't support a continuing resolution that doesn't "defund" Obamacare. That failed, so then they said they wouldn't vote on a CR that didn't delay Obamacare. Then it was a CR that didn't delay the individual mandate.

Senate Democrats (not to mention the Obama administration) weren't willing to dismantle Obamacare as a cost of keeping the government open. Republicans weren't willing to keep the government open unless Democrats let them dismantle Obamacare. So the government closed. (Here's absolutely everything you need to know about government shutdowns.)

2. Wait, I totally thought this was about the deficit. Why aren't Republicans worried about the deficit?

There's not a whole lot left to worry about anymore. The deficit is set to fall rapidly through 2018:

Data: U.S. Budget and CBO projections; Graph: made with Infogram by Ezra Klein.
Data: U.S. Budget and CBO projections; Graph: made with Infogram by Ezra Klein

Which means that the debt is going to be largely stable in the medium-term:


That doesn't mean we won't have increased debt related to increasing health care costs and an aging population in the long-run, as this gif from the right-leaning think tank e21 shows:

But (a) the main driver there is increased health-care costs, and there is evidence that their growth is slowing considerably and (b) long-term debt projections are fraught with error, as Treasury advisor Ernie Tedeschi notes:

3. Aha, but the baby boomers are still a problem! How about a grand bargain, then?

You're not alone in thinking that; Boehner is now saying that the way to solve both the shutdown and the debt ceiling is a grand bargain.

But it's worth remembering what exactly the term "grand bargain" meant in the context of the debt negotiations. The idea was that someone — be it the Simpson-Bowles commission or the Gang of Eight or Joe Biden and Eric Cantor or Boehner and Obama or the Supercommittee — would work out a deal that included increased revenue, especially from high-earning individuals and families (which Democrats like) as well as cuts to entitlement spending (which Republicans like), which together would put the deficit on a sustainable path.

Here's the thing, though: The deficit is on a sustainable path. Between the debt ceiling deal (including sequestration and lower budget caps) and the fiscal cliff deal, we've enacted about $2.75 trillion in deficit reduction measures since Republicans took over Congress. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that we'd only need another $900 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years to stabilize the debt — and that doesn't include the post-2013 sequestration. Some $90 billion in cuts or revenue increases each year isn't nothing, but it hardly requires some grand reimagining of entitlements or taxes.

What's more, slowing health-care spending has further bent the debt curve downward. "The sequester was intended to ensure we'd get another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction after the initial round of cuts," CAP's Michael Linden explained to me Wednesday. "In between August 2011 and now, we got $800 billion in the fiscal cliff and $500 billion through slower health care cost growth. …The reason we still have the sequester is that it was only going to be turned off if we got that $1.2 trillion reduction through the super committee. But that's just arbitrary. We've gotten that and more."

4. Wait, so we don't need the sequester?


C'mon, like you have a better way of visually symbolizing the sequester?

Under the logic of the debt ceiling deal from 2011, no. The fiscal cliff deal and reductions in health-care spending accomplished the deficit reduction that the 2011 deal called for, and then some. You don't even need the sequestration to achieve that level of reduction. But with sequestration, there's even more deficit reduction than policymakers were promising in 2011.

Now, the additional deficit reduction of the sequester helps stabilize the debt in the medium to long-run, if you're into that kind of thing. But there are almost certainly better ways to do it than through the sequester's blunt across-the-board cuts.

5. So what do we need?


This is what a real problem looks like.

If you really, really want to, I guess you could implement some revenue increases or spending cuts to make the long-run debt curve flat. It'd look prettier that way, I guess, and making Social Security actuarially solvent indefinitely would make life slightly easier for policymakers from 20-30 years from now.

But if you were making a ranked list of real problems the U.S., let alone the world, faces over the next few decades, the long-term debt would be somewhere around, I dunno, number 137. The U.S. economy is operating far below potential and the real unemployment rate, once you take declining labor force participation into account, is probably north of 9 percent. Over a billion people in the world live in extreme poverty, including over a million in the United States, and that could be substantially reduced through policies that would make us and the rest of the world far better off economically. Climate change is going to put the lives and livelihoods of billions of — predominantly poor — people in severe danger.

If the long-term deficit were as severe a problem as those, it would make sense to have these high-stakes confrontations every few months or so. But it isn't. It's time to stop worrying and start talking about actual problems.

Update: A previous version of this article used an outdated CBPP estimate of the amount of deficit reduction needed to stabilize the debt over the next decade. More recent estimates suggest the number is $900 billion, not $1.5 trillion. We regret the error.

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