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Less than Zero

Y’all know how I feel about the deficit. Right? I don’t give a crap about it. The U.S. federal debt would have to be crazy, much bigger than it is now, in order to cause real economic problems. And to the extent that I care about the debt at all, it’s clear to me that the engine for reducing the deficit (and therefore the debt) is through a combination of economic growth and price inflation, not through spending cuts or revenue increases. I don’t have much objection to revenue increases—I would object to them during really bad economic times, sure, but during good times if we want to balance the budget by raising taxes, that’s fine with me. As far as I’m concerned, the real benefit to a high rate of taxes on the super-wealthy is to mitigate the problem of the existence of the super-wealthy—it is a problem that there are fifty thousand people or so with so much wealth, and therefore so much influence over the institutions of power, that they can choose viciousness and destruction with impunity. Reducing their power by reducing their wealth (relative to that of the country at large) (at least at first the country—one could make a similar argument about the fifty million or so people who can treat the world’s institutions of power with contempt, and that would probably include Your Humble Blogger and all the Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu, and that argument would be entirely correct, too, but admit of even less practical correction) would be the main reason for a millionaire’s surtax of 75% or so; balancing the budget, if it happened, would merely be a side benefit.

But there it is: I am far from the mainstream of political thought.

What is the mainstream of political thought? It seems to me that we have three large tributaries.

  • Most of my Party currently feels that deficit spending during a recession or a war is a regrettable necessity, and that in peaceful, prosperous times we should run a surplus to reduce the debt accordingly. The balance should be balanced not year to year but over a longer period, with various groups competing via legislative compromise for what spending there is. This means that there are a few policies that are higher priorities than Deficit Reduction (reduction of unemployment below 6% or so, widespread access to health care, mitigation of the worst aspects of poverty particularly for children and the elderly, national security) but that many preferred policies (education, housing, immigration, etc) that get put on the back burner when they are in conflict with this multi-year concept of budgeting.
  • There are a handful of real Deficit Hawks (or what Jonathan Bernstein calls deficit idealists) who think that the government should reduce the debt to zero and keep it there, even if it means that their policy preferences do not get put into place. These come from both Parties (and outside them, to the extent that people outside the two Parties are relevant) and while one can say that their consistency is a jewel, like a jewel it is amazing how much some people are willing to give up for it. On the other hand, it does seem that many elite opinion-makers believe themselves to be in this group, and say lovely things about the other people they think are in this group.
  • Most of the Other Party currently feels that deficit spending is morally indefensible, and that it ranks as a priority well below any other of their other policy preferences. Furthermore, they consider compromise with political opposites morally indefensible Thus, when their policy preferences concerning immigration, national defense, taxes, regulation, energy, education, family law, climate change, poverty, national security or any other topic are in conflict with deficit reduction, they must rhetorically claim that they are not in conflict, and that in fact higher spending on the military, for instance, or a stricter immigration law, or a lower top tax rate, leads to deficit reduction through economic growth. Or through righteousness. Or something.

There is your Left, Center and Right on the topic. I am not even in the Left—except to the extent that you can stretch the Left one out to the point where the back-burner preferred-if-there’s-no-deficit-problem part is very nearly empty. I’m closer to the opinion I see on the Other Party, where I am happy to reduce the deficit except when it interferes with my actual policy preferences. But it isn’t symmetrical that way, at least not for the last twenty-odd years. And it’s symmetrical the wrong way for me—someone in the Other Party who doesn’t give a crap about the debt can ignore everything that Paul D. Ryan says about the terror of being crushed under the debt burden, knowing that he will never, ever, ever give up on one of his Party’s policy goals to reduce that debt. For Your Humble Blogger, it’s the other way around—no matter how much Our Only President may agree with my on one or another piece of policy, I cannot know whether it will be put on the back burner in order to satisfy the higher priority of deficit reductions.

Ah, well. It’s a democracy, is what it is.

For further reading: Larry Bartels on the Fiscal Facts of Life and Paul Waldman on Phony Hawkery.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Very interesting. My only comment is that you should "give a crap" about the deficit AND the debt now, while we have a chance to do something about it, rather than after it has spiraled out of control like it did in Greece. We will have our own Greek tragedy unless we start to address this problem. We can either start with some austerity now or have it imposed upon us later by default and/or large-scale monetizing.

Hmm. Our situation is very very different from that in Greece. It's very relevant that we control our own currency, while Greece does not. We can print money to solve our problems! That will devalue our currency, so it's not something to do without thinking about it, but it's a tool in our toolbox which we have, and the Greeks simply don't. Since at this moment we have basically zero inflation, it's not even a tool we should be particularly afraid of using.

I can't remember if I've ever written up why I don't give a crap about the deficit. I probably should, if I haven't. But at any rate, I do have to say that if you care about the deficit (and the debt), you should vote for Our Only President, as the (perhaps marginally) better of the candidates on the issue. Or, at least, the candidate who is willing to give up something else of value to him. I have no evidence whatsoever that Gov. Romney would give up anything—even rhetorical evidence, for whatever that's worth—and of course even if he would, his Party would not. And that's in addition to the Governor's foreign policy advisers, many of whom are responsible for the massively debt-funded overseas invasions of the last decade.

Of course, there are lots of areas where the two Parties have differing opinions—putting one Party in place over the other will have a million effects all through the country, not just on the debt. But if you put the debt first, it's hard for me to see how voting for Governor Romney is a good idea.


We already have massive public service cuts all over the place, a safety net with holes so big that 1 in 6 Americans have fallen through it, 200,000 fewer public school teachers than a few years ago, crumbling infrastructure (or is that just in Massachusetts?), and cuts to college systems that (for example) have some California colleges simply refusing to admit in-state students because the colleges are too broke to cover their expenses with in-state tuition. We have austerity. I don't like it.

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