April 17, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
It is Deficit Reduction Week at the New York Times, sponsored by the Times‘ stable of Very Serious People. “Very Serious People” is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s euphemism for the “respectable” circle of political pundits who “keep demanding utterly foolish policies.” Krugman says he didn’t coin the phrase; he unknowingly appropriated it from blogger Atrios. Krugman finds the phrase especially useful because “it seems to be the only one I can use at the Times.” Atrios’ definition of VSPs?: “the idiotic assholes who rule us. Dishonest, too.” Not a construction Krugman can use at the Times, but it works for me.
This week the Very Serious People who regularly populate the New York Times editorial pages are celebrating Mitt Romney’s lock on the Republican presidential nomination by doubling down on their previous efforts to move President Obama away from his irresponsible leftist agenda. The paradigmatic Very Serious Person, Tom Friedman, kicked off the week with his brilliant column titled “I’m Not Mitt Romney.” As he so often does, Friedman excoriated President Obama for failing to embrace the Bowles-Simpson Catfood Commission deficit-reduction proposal. In repeating his standard refrain, Friedman wrote, “… the president … lacks a long-term plan to cut, spend and invest at the scale we need in a way to win enough bipartisan support to make it implementable.” Yes, if only President Obama had been willing to compromise a bit, cooperative Congressional Republicans would have met him halfway and all would be right in the land. Oh, wait. Friedman has repeated this column so many times, you might think he would have given up and resubmitted one of his other regular columns – maybe the one where he says we don’t know what will happen in the Middle East. But Friedman evidently calculated that Romney’s virtual nomination gave him a hook to recirculate his deficit-hawk column. The hook: slashing social-safety-net programs is a winning campaign strategy. Friedman writes, “If Obama went big, and dared to lead, he’d win for sure….”
Next came Bill Keller who told both Obama and Romney that Very Serious People Policy was a “sweet spot” and a sure winner. Keller claimed that the nice, white, suburban, well-paid and -educated voters who would swing the presidential election are “free-marketers” who “are profoundly worried about deficits and debt.” For evidence of his assertion, Keller relies on “his gut” and a study by a think tank established by Bill Clinton, funded by big-time “free-marketers” and, as Joan Walsh of Salon wrote, “exists expressly to pull the Democratic Party to the right.”
Comes now David Brooks, a founding member of the Very Serious People Association. Brooks first trashes Obama’s proposed budget (which Congress voted down, almost unanimously) as way more irresponsible than Paul Ryan’s budget (the Republican-controlled House passed it on a party-line vote). Obama’s bad budget would have total debt “skyrocketing” to 125 percent of total Gross Domestic Product by 2050. Ryan’s good budget would cut total public debt to 10 percent of GDP by 2050. Brooks tells us he bases his criticism on “certain facts.”
Brooks gets his certain facts, in this case, from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a think tank substantially funded by billionaire deficit hawk Pete Peterson. As its name implies, the CRFB is dedicated to reining in the federal budget. Economist Dean Baker lists the CRFB as one of the Peterson-funded organizations that “are obviously not thinking seriously about how to fashion a budget that provides basic social insurance and sustains a 21st century economy.” Economist Brad DeLong, who is not a fan of the CRFB, suspects that the true purpose of the organization is to “provide a safe harbor for politicians – primarily Republicans – who want to burnish their reputations as deficit hawks without actually doing anything to balance the long-term federal budget.” Paul Krugman is blistering:
… it’s become more and more clear that the committee’s real purpose isn’t to balance the budget, it’s to provide additional plumage for deficit peacocks. First there was the award to Paul Ryan, whose contribution to reducing the deficit is that he, well, talks a lot about the need to reduce the deficit; never mind that his actual proposals are a mixture of magic asterisks and concrete actions that would actually make the deficit bigger. Now there’s the fervent praise for the letter by 64 Senators whose plan to reduce the deficit is to … call on President Obama to come up with a plan.
(“Deficit peacocks,” a term apparently coined by Michael Linden of American Progress, “never mention revenues, offer easy answers, support policies that make the long-term problem worse, and think our budget woes appeared suddenly in January 2009.”)
Even the CRFB documents that its owns projections, which it labels as “realistic,” paint the Obama budget as increasing the debt in ten years, while the Congressional Budget Office estimates the Obama budget will greatly reduce the debt by 2022. In fact, as the handy chart the CRFB demonstrates at the linked page, the CBO projections are even more optimistic about the debt reduction inherent in the Obama budget than was the White House’s Office of Budget and Management. And bear in mind that the “realistic” CRFB has an agenda; the CBO does not.
Based on a Congressional Budget Office projection, the Ryan budget would reduce the size of government to 15 percent, not 10 percent, of GDP by 2050. But even then, as Derek Thompson of The Atlantic writes, the Ryan 2050 budget would “demolish every other government program outside of Social Security and defense.” It would eliminate all healthcare programs – Medicare and Medicaid, etc. – and
would leave nothing for infrastructure. Nothing for unemployment insurance. Nothing for food stamps. Nothing for border patrol. Nothing for the FDA, FAA, or FBI. Nothing for research and development. Nothing, even, to pay people to work in government! Do you think it’s important to support our veterans with health care, education, and retirement security? Sorry. Veterans programs currently cost more than 1% of our GDP. There would be no room.
Dean Baker, in a post today, echoes Thompson’s view of the Ryan 2050 budget projection:
… if Ryan wants to keep military spending near its historic levels (he has not suggested otherwise), then he essentially wants to eliminate all federal spending on roads and bridges, education, federal courts and prisons, he wants to shut down the State Department, the FBI, the border police, end all support for research and development. This logically follows from taking Ryan’s numbers at face value.
But Baker makes an even more important point about the fallacy of contrasting the Obama and Ryan budgets:
… Brooks … neglects to mentions the basic fact that his budget horror story is all driven by projections of exploding health care costs. If the United States had per person health care costs were comparable to any other wealthy country, then we would be looking at long-term budget surpluses, not deficits. This is why serious people focus on the need to fix the health care system, not the budget deficit. If we fix our private health care system, then there is no long-range budget problem. If we don’t, then the economy will be wrecked even if we eliminate the public sector health care programs altogether.
The principal reason Obama’s budget calls for more spending than Ryan’s is that Obama’s budget contemplates continuing to provide the basic federal services Americans have come to expect, including Medicare and Medicaid. As Thompson and Baker outlined, the Ryan budget would, by the numbers, have to eliminate almost all basic government services except defense and Social Security. Bear in mind that the no-government-services budget is the budget David Brooks is pushing.
Nonetheless, the entire discussion about the 2050 budget projections is pretty much moot. Neither God nor the Devil can predict what the 2050 U.S. federal budget will look like. As Baker writes,
We don’t make budgets for the next 40 years. President Obama could not decide spending and tax policy in 2040 or 2050 even if he wanted to. We have something called ‘elections.’ … So Brooks is looking at entirely nonsense numbers. No one is deciding today budget policy for the next four decades however delusional they might be to think they have such power.
Brooks devotes the bulk of his column to what he calls a summary of the White House’s arguments for the President’s budget. He peppers his summary with “they say” and “they argue” so the reader is certain Brooks is skeptical of White House claims. He writes,
I’m not going to pass my own comprehensive judgment on this here. I’ll just say that my conversations reaffirm my conviction that Obama is a pragmatic liberal who cares about fiscal sustainability, who has been willing to compromise for its sake, but who has not offered anything close to a sufficient program to avoid a debt crisis.
After providing the White House a “forum” to air their claims, Brooks blithely ignores the White House projections and never mentions the CBO scoring. Instead, he expects his readers to take his word for it: Obama “has not offered anything close to a sufficient program to avoid a debt crisis.”
Brooks – like Keller – wants President Obama to be more like President Clinton. Again, Brooks – like both Keller and Friedman – claims that as a campaign strategy, the Third Way is the best way. Brooks writes, “If the president is truly committed to a strategy for progressive fiscal stability, as Bill Clinton was, he’ll make that the center of his campaign. He’ll earn a mandate. He’ll win over independents who want fiscal discipline but worry about the way Republicans get there.”
The only data any of the Three Wise Men provide to back up their claims come from so-called think tanks that openly promote drastic deficit reduction, always with an emphasis on cutting social safety-net programs like Society Security and Medicare. These data are suspect, to put it mildly, and are at odds with CBO scoring. The aims of these organizations, especially in the short term, are counterproductive, and in the long term, would hurt all but the richest Americans. Deficit reduction should not even be a subject of the 2012 presidential campaign, and it makes no sense to fixate on deficit projections. Almost every expert agrees that in the long run, a manageable deficit is desirable. Reducing the deficit is a worthy goal – but only when the national economy is in good shape. To try to control the deficit in the short run is foolhardy and self-defeating. When businesses and consumers aren’t spending, governments must take up the slack. The federal government, which fortunately does not have to balance its budget (and I do mean fortunately), as do almost all state governments is particularly well-suited to being the big spender of last resort. As study after study has shown, the economic stimulus of 2009 – though too small and sometimes misdirected – is what pulled the U.S. economy out of the depths of depression in late 2009.
In short, Brooks and Keller and Friedman, in their efforts to push President Obama into their deficit hawks nest, are entirely off-base. They should be using their bully pulpit at theNew York Times to educate the public on the value of government, not just as a provider of services but also as an economic engine and overseer. Instead, the Three Wise Men of theNew York Times are using the newspaper to argue that the federal government should get out of the business of serving the people and stimulating the economy, even in hard times. Their position is irresponsible. Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation says it better. She writes in her Washington Post column today,
… the entire frame of the discussion – driven by Washington elites – is perverse. We should be focused on how to put people to work. How much should we take advantage of record-low interest rates and borrow to rebuild America and put construction workers back to work? How much should we raise taxes on Wall Street and multinationals to pay for rehiring teachers, and direct employment of young people?
Vanden Heuvel specifically points to Brooks and Friedman for their lack of “any sense of reality.” She reminds Post readers that
… the terms of the ‘grand bargain’ represented by the Obama-Boehner negotiations or the Simpson-Bowles recommendations are skewed dramatically to the right. The basic outline exchanges cuts in Social Security and Medicare for ‘tax reform,’ promising to lower tax rates while closing enough loopholes to raise revenues. That requires erasing the mortgage deduction for middle-class homeowners or ending the employer deduction for providing health care to employees. This notion of ‘shared sacrifice’ is unconscionable, given that working Americans have been sacrificing for years and weren’t even invited to the Wall Street bacchanalia that created the mess.
President Obama and his campaign advisors would be well-advised to read vanden Heuvel and forget the more influential columnists at the New York Times. Vanden Heuvel speaks for the American people. The Times boys speak for powerful monied interests. The Fourth Estate is supposed to be a check on the powers that be. Instead, the New York Times – the nation’s “paper of record” – is serving as the house organ for wealthy interests who already have far too much control over every branch of government.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com