Your Humble Blogger is cranky about the New York Times. Specifically about the gimmicky gadget that says You Fix the Budget online.
First of all, I am no deficit hawk; perhaps I should write a whole note about how wrongheaded I find deficit hawkery. That isn’t this note, although Gentle Readers would do well to keep in mind that I am cranky in large part because of the blithe assumption of the NYT that the budget is broken unless costs match revenues exactly, year after year, for the projected future. Had the assumption been that the deficits should be kept to approximately the current percentage of the GDP, or that the projected budgets should have a buffer for unprojected deficit spending at need, or that debt service be kept to a certain percentage of projected revenues—any of that would likely have spurred me to discussion of the wrongheadedness of the details, and I might well have missed the bigger crankiness. But I was cranky about the whole thing, and with everyblogger posting her own solutions, my crankiness has focused on the bigger issue.
Which is this: the whole exercise works in the paradigm that the deficit is not a political problem. You are encouraged to fix the deficit. Fine, you can do it easily. I haven’t seen anybody posting a note throwing up their virtual hands and saying I can’t possibly fix the deficit, it’s too hard! No, it’s easy to make the numbers work. The problem is making the politics work. If you could cross out the budget bits you don’t like and could raise the taxes and cap the spending and otherwise make the little dots go blue, then you could balance the budget—but then we wouldn’t be living in a democracy. Heck, I could just draw a bunch of circles and arrows and declare the budget fine with a deficit of 6.8 gazillion dollars, but that wouldn’t be democracy either. The point—the whole point, for fuck’s sake—is that people disagree on their preferences and priorities, and that we have to bargain and negotiate and compromise, and then we have to win elections with the people who have made those compromises or we have to win elections over the people who have made those compromises, and then do it all again next year because everybody is a year older (or dead) and has new preferences and priorities.
This is most obvious in the easy way we can balance the budget in 2030 by pretty much knocking back Medicare. Health care is the source of two-thirds of the long-term deficit problem., and of pretty much all of the deficit problem that isn’t amenable to raising taxes as a solution. So. All we have to do is decide, now, to get rid of most of the Medicare costs. Simple!
Oh, and then we have to prevent people from voting, in the next twenty years, for legislators who support increasing Medicare. That would be about 80% of the legislators people actually do vote for, by the way, and that’s currently, with most of the baby boomers not yet eligible for its benefits. In twenty years, when the last of the baby boomers would have become eligible for the benefits—and will start to incur massively increasing health care costs regardless of Medicare benefit caps—I would think that getting a Medicare increase through would be, oh, no more difficult than it was the last time—under a Republican-controlled legislature and White House, remember. Particularly as we would be starting from a nearly-balanced budget, so who is going to vote for deficit hawks? Am I right? Or am I not wrong?
There are three possibilities, as I see them. One is that we really could act now to prevent people from having what will be their policy preferences later, through drastically reducing democratic participation. Two would be some sort of plague (or war or pestilence or climate change) that wipes out a goodly chunk of our middle-aged populace with minimal cost for chronic or emergency care. Mass graves: excellent for reducing the deficit. Three would be finding some way to control health care costs while still providing health care, thus making diminished expenditure on the part of the federal government politically palatable.
Oh, there are other possibilities. We could wind up taking most of the money we pay for chronic health care and care for the aging out of private funds. But if the point of deficit hawkery is that we are nationally borrowing from our children’s children, I don’t see the answer being individuals borrowing individually from our children’s children. This is, of course, one of the reasons why deficit hawkery makes no sense to me: nations don’t have children.
But that’s another story. This story, the story the NYT is peddling, is about how there is a fix to a budget that is broken, and the answer is to take it away from that messy old place where people fight for their interests and their policy preferences an priorities and just make the grey dots turn blue. As a Walt Whitman Democrat, that story makes me sick.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,