Say It Again; Conservatives Don’t Care About the Deficits

Fretting about the deficit, and the difficultly in addressing the deficit, is a constant source of posturing from pundits, but sometimes they remind you that they really have very weird views on the nature of the problem, and the possible ways of addressing it. Consider David Brooks:

Now some people think their elected officials are so rotten that only an unelected commission can save us. Snobs. The history of commissions is the history of failure. Stuart M. Butler of the Heritage Foundation and Henry J. Aaron of the Brookings Institution argue compellingly that it is simply impossible in a democracy to rewrite the social contract without popular consent. Commissions are fine, but they have to be embedded in a broader democratic process.The way to do that is to break free from the polarized committee structure. Invite a dozen handpicked senators and House members and stick them in a room three times a week for six months.

After they’ve come up with a debt-reduction plan, have them send it up in secret to the presidential deficit commission, which President Obama was smart enough to create.

This is a fine idea, so far as it goes, and it’s not something I’d have a problem endorsing. But what’s odd is that Brooks, like basically every other pundit that trades in deficit hawkery, completely ignores the main problem facing people who want to tackle the long-term deficit; Republican elected officials will not under any circumstances accept tax increases. Really, they won’t. Republicans in the federal government haven’t voted for a single tax increase since George H.W. Bush was President, and the conservative base revolted in response to that attempt to address the deficit. What’s even more maddening is the inevitable need to paint the deficit as a problem made by both parties, which both parties are equally reluctant to tackle.

Consider the last 30 years of fiscal policy. When Reagan was in office, he advocated drastic tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy, and large increases in defense spending. The result, naturally, was historically large budget deficits. George H.W. Bush attempted to take steps towards deficit reduction, and was villified by most of the Republican Party for it. Then came Clinton, whose 1993 budget not only reduced the size of the deficit, but turned it into a large surplus by the time Clinton left office. And not a single Republican voted for that budget. Every single Republican member of Congress opposed the most significant deficit reduction measure of the last 30 years. Let that sink in. Then of course, Dubya came along with a large surplus on the budget, and through a series of massive tax cuts, a completely unfinanced entitlement expansion, and two unfinanced wars created more historically large budget deficits. The current Democratic government, by contrast, constructed their major legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, in a way that was not just paid for, but actually reduces the deficit in the long term according to the CBO. Yes, there was the stimulus, but that was both a one-time, short term expeniture in the face of a massive economic downturn, and a textbook example of how government is supposed to react in situations where monetary policy is of limited effect in stimulating the economy according to modern economic theory.

The pattern here is pretty simple, moderate and liberal governments budget responsibly, and take deficit reduction seriously, even when it makes legislating more difficult, while conservative administrations mix large tax cuts with new spending on pet projects, specifically wars and military equipment, leading to exploded deficits. And at present, the obvious impediment to serious bi-partisan attempts at deficit reduction is Republican refusal to accept tax increases to generate new revenue. As is usually the case, the fact that pundits who are ostensibly concerned about this issue never make note of the problem suggests that they either don’t take the issue as seriously as they purport to, or simply don’t pay enough attention to know what the actual impediments to their goal are.

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