In 1993, a group called “Third Millennium” formed, combining in-your-face Generation-X style with frenetic concern about the national debt, which it described in apocalyptic terms. In fourteen minutes, you can watch the young Jonathan Karl:
True* story – Third Millennium was the basis for an NBC prime-time show about a group of twentysomethings with interesting hair, uncertain career prospects, and a passion for entitlement cuts. But after focus groups found it too much of a downer, network executives decided to play down the deficit fear-mongering and introduce more romantic misunderstandings, which paved the way for Karl to be replaced with Courteney Cox. That show eventually became Friends.
The point — other than the fact that I blame people like this for making everybody hate my generation, and by “everybody” I include my generation itself — is that this kind of deficit-scold politics has a long history to it. There has been some renewed attention to Pete Peterson, the hedge-fund billionaire funding a vast network of lobbies dedicated to forging a bipartisan deal to reduce the deficit. The liberal critique of Peterson Inc. is that its advocacy of deficit reduction is wrong.
I don’t share that critique, at least not entirely. The problem is that these groups are very bad at understanding how to achieve their goal. In 1990, George H. W. Bush and Democrats in Congress agreed to raise taxes and cut spending, prompting a conservative revolt against Bush that redefined the GOP as an absolutist anti-tax party. In 1993, when Bill Clinton passed another bill to reduce the deficit, he received no Republican votes. Because Republicans opposed both laws so hysterically, they successfully turned them into symbols of phony government thumb-twiddling while the deficit raged out of control. Accordingly, Karl raged (in his Gen-X way) against Clinton’s plan, “that deficit reduction is a myth.” And the speaker before him denounced the 1990 deficit reduction bill. But both plans worked incredibly well! By the end of Clinton’s term, we were running surpluses, which allowed conservatives to take power in 2001, argue that the surplus represented a nefarious overtaxation, and bring us back into structural deficits.
*Not a remotely true story.