Jared Bernstein, who was probably the most liberal voice on economic policy inside the White House, has started a blog that’s devoted to countering the rightward drift of our discourse and the ever-present falsehoods that enable it.
Today he makes good on his vow by deftly skewering the deeply flawed analogy — a staple of conservative rhetoric — which holds that government must tighten its belt with massive spending cuts because families are doing the same:
it’s almost always used as an argument for cutting everything to the bone right away, and in that sense it’s wrong.
First of all, it’s bass-akwards: when families are tightening their belts, the federal government is the one institution that can actually help the economy — and these belt-tightening families — by loosening its belt and running a deficit.
That deficit should be temporary and should come down when the private economy climbs up off the mat — which again tweaks the analogy: when families start to loosen, gov’t should eventually start to tighten...
But there’s another fundamental way in which this family budget analogy gets misused. Families borrow to make investments and to get over rough patches. They run deficits too. I went into pretty deep debt to finance college and grad school and I’m glad I did.
That last bit is good stuff. It’s folksy, easy to understand, and tackles the analogy on its own terms — flipping it back on itself, rather than letting it define the debate.
The problem, of course, is that Obama and Democrats cannot make use of this sort of rhetorical Jiu-Jitsu, because they’ve already endorsed the “government must tighten its belt” analogy themselves by using it again and again. As Bernstein shows, however, there are pretty decent counterarguments Dems could make — if they had not decided to cede a sizable chunk of the argument over government spending and the economy to the right and get themselves caught in a Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop as a result.
Yes, I know, Dems think the key to winning back independents is to move to rein in some spending to undermine the chief GOP arguments about “tax and spend liberals,” while striking a sensible balance between spending cuts and targeted investment that makes the GOP look extreme in comparison. They may be right about this. And to his credit, Obama has gone out of his way to supplement this strategy by frequently making an expansive case for liberal governance and the safety net. But in a general sense, the Democratic Party really has given up on the idea that the argument Bernstein joins here is a winnable one. And that's too bad.
(H/T Jonathan Bernstein.)