the national interest

The Eternal Folly of the Bipartisan Debt Fetish

So wise. So fair.

Gerald Seib has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal about how sad and disappointing it is that the two parties cannot come together and solve problems. (“What’s lacking is an attitude among the capital’s politicians that, while acknowledging they have different views, they must agree that they need to solve problems despite differences.”) That is the same point of a recent column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, an editorial in The Economist, and vast swaths of commentary by the most respectable members of the mainstream media. It all runs together, day after day, an endless repetitive drone of elite sentiment.

The drone of right-thinking sentiment has certain distinct qualities. One is that it is, in almost the purest sense of the term, a meme — a way of looking at the world that individuals pass one to one another without a great deal of conscious thought, even though thoughtfulness, or the appearance of thoughtfulness, is one of the qualities the opinion imbues upon its proponents. They don’t engage with alternative analyses. They seem to have no idea that their own ideas even could be contested. They are merely performing the opinion journalism equivalent of wishing passersby a Merry Christmas.

All the analytic work lies instead in the unstated background assumptions —  the most important of which is the premise that reducing the long-term budget deficit is the most urgent problem in American politics. Indeed, if you look closely at these columns, they uses phrases like “solve problems” and “reduce the deficit” almost interchangeably.

I consider the long-term deficit a problem worth solving, though I would argue that mass unemployment and, especially, climate change are more urgent problems. I would like to know the case to the contrary, but if there is an argument for elevating the deficit above those priorities, I am not aware of it. Overt argument is not the preferred style of respectable centrist pundits. It is too rude.

And so, when figures like Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are invited on to programs like Meet the Press, they are treated as disinterested wise men rather than political advocates. The host, David Gregory, asks them to hand down rulings on politicians. He does not question their own ideas. (Notably, the Sunday talk shows, a haven of right-thinking, deficit-obsessed centrism, have given over little attention to climate change in the last four years and have not quoted a single climate scientist during the entire span.)

The most striking feature of the centrist deficit drone rests upon a political analysis that is willfully, and probably self-defeatingly, false. Seib, Ignatius, the Economist, Bowles, Simpson, and their endless list of allies all believe unswervingly that the solution to the long-term deficit requires both parties to move to the center. They seem to hold this belief as a matter of a priori logic. Literally nothing seems capable of budging it.

In reality, since 1981, and especially since 1990, the Republican Party has grown totally uninterested in deficit reduction per se (as opposed to using the threat of deficits to limit social spending.) The Democratic Party has grown to largely embrace the anti-deficit agenda.

This is most glaringly obvious in the current atmosphere. The two parties are currently at loggerheads over the manufactured crises of budget sequestration and the debt ceiling. President Obama’s position is that the two parties should enact a mix of cuts to retirement programs and revenue increases through tax reform. The Republican position is that no more revenue can be considered, and further deficit reduction must consist entirely of domestic spending cuts.

The merits of the two positions can of course be debated. What is beyond dispute is that Obama’s negotiating position is exactly the same as the centrists. If they believed that the $600 billion in revenue Obama secured, on top of the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts agreed to in 2011, was enough revenue, and Obama was demanding an excessively revenue-heavy solution to the deficit issue, then obviously they should argue as much. But they do not believe that. In fact, the Bowles-Simpson plan would raise far more revenue than Obama is asking for. One party stands completely in accord with their position, and it has not happened entirely because the other party stands against it.

Why, then, don’t they say this? Part of the answer is careerist. The elite centrist drone is emitted by people who deem non-partisanship an essential part of their job description. If they concede that one party is advocating their agenda, then you could flip the sentiment around and correctly conclude that they are advocating the agenda of a party; therefore, they would be partisan and have thus forfeited the entire basis of their claim to respectability.

I don’t believe that the centrist drones are so consciously cynical. This is where the dynamic of the meme usefully replaces overt thought. That the two parties must meet in the center and agree on a deficit plan is something that respectable people repeat to each other so often it becomes obviously, uncontroversially true. There is just so much partisanship these days. Whatever happened to the center? The two parties should come together and reduce the deficit. Merry Christmas.