The Washington Post

Deficit scolding from way back

One spoonful a day will solve your deficit problems.

I was a deficit scold before being a deficit scold was cool. We’re talking the late 1980s. We were running deficits then of a few hundred billion dollars. At Tropic Magazine we ran a notorious cover story on the budget deficit. We knew that no one would possibly want to spend time reading a story on something so boring — it was the very definition of Dull But Important — so we illustrated the piece with photographs of nearly naked people. The magazine set up a photo shoot with two prepossessing models, a man and a woman, and shot them looking concupiscent as they slunk around a hotel room in their drawers. Here’s the cover, courtesy of a Weingarten chat. It was by no means the most insane thing that Tropic did in those days, but it did appall and horrify quite a few people (and I’m not sure anyone actually paid attention to my words). (Tropic, tragically, no longer exists.)

As noted yesterday, the fiscal cliff deal has made a lot of people unhappy — see Ezra’s account of liberal dyspepsia, for example. Here’s a conservative in despair over the failure to cut spending in this latest deal. And despite being a bipartisan effort in an age when bipartisanship is rare, the deal is infuriating to centrists who wanted a Grand Bargain. See this statement by Bowles and Simpson, via TPM.

No deal or a small deal is probably better than a bad deal in the short run (“bad deal” being in the eye of the beholder of course). But at some point the elected leaders have to govern. This is my stern voice. See my eyebrows knit. Governing requires decisions. See my finger wag.

The leaders haven’t made a decision — collectively — one that can actually be signed into law — about how to get revenues and spending more into line. This is a difficult problem but hardly insuperable. Heck, we don’t even have to balance the budget! You can run deficits for years and years — and add to your overall debt — so long as your balance sheet is heading in the right direction relative to the economy. Economic growth can make even a huge debt look manageable over time. The problem now is that we’re not even close to having a plan in place for long-term fiscal sanity, and short-term trimming of deficits will arguably do more harm than good in this weak economy.

George Will says our failure here is a symptom of decadent democracy; we’re becoming Greece on a grand scale. Paul Krugman thinks the deficit scolds are hysterics, though even he notes that, at some point in the future, we’ll have to reduce deficits significantly as a percentage of GDP. Ruth Marcus calls the small deal “a pathetic punt.” David Ignatius is very unhappy: “It’s depressing that after four years of gridlock, a president who won what was supposed to be a decisive election is back once again to the politics of gridlock.”

Fiscal policy is rightfully an ideological matter, and so this is also going to be politically rancorous stuff. It ought to be. But to the extent humanly possible, we need to recast our arguments as discussions, and turn our fights into negotiations. This was Obama’s promise when he first came on the scene: He was the guy who could bring people together and get beyond the partisan divide. Didn’t happen. Delusional? Maybe. The GOP became the party of no (and now the party of eff-no). I sense the media don’t help much, what with the volume always turned up to 11, and every political debate scored like a prizefight.

America has the supreme luxury of being in a situation in which it can solve its own problems. We don’t need anyone to bail us out. We can afford to pay our bills if we make the right decisions.

I don’t consider this scolding, actually. I view it as a form of optimism. This is what hope looks like.


Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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Joel Achenbach · January 2, 2013

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