Thursday, February 17, 2011

Debating spending on Republican terms, unfortunately

Joe Conason observed last week that in Washington these days, "nearly every elected official is eager to prove that he or she is a single-minded accountant with the same mindless mindset as the Tea Party." (Need To Reduce The National Debt? Just Ask Clinton. New York Observer 02/10/2011)

This competition to slow the economy at the start of a very weak recovery by cutting government expenses is a result of the Republican narrative that government spending is the problem with the economy dominating in Washington with the Democratic President eagerly reinforcing it. One of the crazy things about that narrative is that Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush II showed vividly in practice that they didn't care at all about the debt or about deficits or high government spending as such. Tax cuts for the wealthiest are always priorities for the Republicans.

Which is the point of Conason's column:

Clinton isn't shy about explaining what happened on his watch. The budget deals he made with the Congressional Republicans were significant, but not nearly as significant as the tax increase on the wealthy that he passed, without a single Republican vote, in his first budget in 1993.
I actually take the still-unconventional view of the federal deficit that Jamie Galbraith advocates in his book, The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too (2008). So I see the federal deficits and surpluses as driven primarily by the accounting equivalence by which combined public and private deficits will match the external trade deficit, rather than directly by budget-balancing efforts by the federal government itself.

But Conason's argument is nevertheless an important one. As long as the national debate over taxes and spending is fought on Republican terms of the virtues of deficit reduction, Democrats need to do as much as possible to make sure the revenue side of the equation is fully recognized along with the spending side.

He also has some acid comments on some of the "stupid ideas to restore fiscal order" that are being put forward with straight faces by supposedly serious political leaders:

Then there is the House Republican plan to slash domestic discretionary spending and then freeze it for the next ten years at the same level as 2006, which sounds reasonable until you realize that would require reductions of more than 40 per cent in essential government services like border security, federal law enforcement, food safety, education and environmental protection.

For politicians who are more or less on the payroll of the coal industry or the meat packing cartel, that doesn't necessarily sound so bad. As long as nobody is dying from E coli poisoning in the Capitol Hill cafeterias, maybe they believe we can afford to lay off half of our agricultural inspectors for the next ten years. Meanwhile the rest of us belong to the special interest group that breathes the air, drinks the water, and wonders what hellish bugs lurk in that package of hamburger. [my emphasis]
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