Politi­cians se­lec­tive about when debt and deficits mat­ter

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - VIEWS & VOICES - JONAH GOLD­BERG Jonah Gold­berg writes Tri­bune Con­tent Agency.

If you’re a nor­mal per­son who pays at­ten­tion to pol­i­tics, you’d be for­given for think­ing that Wash­ing­ton can’t de­cide whether deficits are bad or not. Well, I have one easy trick that will help you make sense of it all.

In Wash­ing­ton, when you hear peo­ple com­plain that this or that piece of leg­is­la­tion will “ex­plode” the deficit, what they are re­ally telling you is that they don’t like the leg­is­la­tion.

It’s re­ally that sim­ple. Good leg­is­la­tion, like good food, movies, nov­els and pretty much ev­ery­thing else ex­cept for dogs (they’re all good), is in the eye of the be­holder. A politi­cian or par­ti­san who thinks a pro­posal is worth do­ing will think it’s worth do­ing even if it in­creases the deficit. If he thinks a pro­posal is bad, he might ar­gue that it’s bad on the mer­its. But you can be sure that if it also in­creases the deficit, he will cite this fact as a ma­jor rea­son why it is bad.

That is the role deficits — and the na­tional debt — play in our pol­i­tics. Anti-debt talk serves as dye marker for some more fun­da­men­tal ob­jec­tion.

Al­most ev­ery­one thinks deficits are bad in the ab­stract, but that their bad­ness should only be a prob­lem for the other side. In 2008, for ex­am­ple, then-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Barack Obama said that the $4 tril­lion in debt rung up un­der Ge­orge W. Bush was “un­pa­tri­otic.” But his ac­tual com­plaint wasn’t about the debt but what that money was spent on — the Iraq war and tax cuts.

Un­der Obama, the na­tional debt soared from

$11 tril­lion to just un­der

$20 tril­lion, but that deficit spend­ing was jus­ti­fi­able, ac­cord­ing to Democrats, be­cause it went to com­bat­ing the fi­nan­cial crisis and pay­ing for var­i­ous other do­mes­tic pro­grams.

The source of the ap­par­ent in­con­sis­tency isn’t sim­ply par­ti­san hypocrisy (though that’s a fac­tor as well), but a good-faith ide­o­log­i­cal dis­agree­ment.

As a mat­ter of eco­nomic pol­icy, con­ser­va­tives be­lieve that the peo­ple them­selves are bet­ter at spend­ing their money than the gov­ern­ment is. Cut­ting taxes and reg­u­la­tions drives eco­nomic growth. Lib­er­als, mean­while, be­lieve that the gov­ern­ment is the prime, or at least an in­dis­pens­able, driver of eco­nomic growth.

This is why lib­er­als tend to talk about spend­ing on ev­ery­thing from in­fra­struc­ture to ed­u­ca­tion as an “in­vest­ment.” The Obama stim­u­lus was sold as an in­vest­ment that would pay huge div­i­dends, thanks in part to Key­ne­sian “mul­ti­pli­ers” — the idea that ev­ery dol­lar of gov­ern­ment spend­ing re­sults in more than a dol­lar in eco­nomic growth. Oba­macare, we were told, would re­duce the deficit by cut­ting health care spend­ing and im­prov­ing eco­nomic growth.

Con­ser­va­tives make sim­i­lar ar­gu­ments about tax cuts. Over the week­end, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell told Fox News that the tax cuts would yield more than enough eco­nomic growth to make up for the deficit the bill cre­ates on pa­per.

On the philo­soph­i­cal side, there’s an even starker con­flict of vi­sions. Lib­er­als tend to start from the as­sump­tion that the gov­ern­ment is en­ti­tled to as much rev­enue as it needs, and so tax cuts amount to giv­ing peo­ple money.

Ear­lier this year, Sen. Bernie San­ders pro­posed a bud­get that would add at least $21 tril­lion to the debt over a decade. But when the Sen­ate passed the GOP tax bill, he tweeted, “His­to­ri­ans will look back on Dec. 1, 2017 and con­clude this was one of the great rob­beries in US his­tory be­cause Repub­li­cans are loot­ing the Trea­sury.” For San­ders, let­ting peo­ple keep more of their own money is theft — be­cause it’s re­ally the gov­ern­ment’s money.

Con­ser­va­tives, on the other hand, start from the as­sump­tion that money be­longs to the peo­ple and busi­nesses who earn it. Let­ting peo­ple and busi­nesses keep more of their money isn’t a hand­out or give­away, never mind a rob­bery: It’s fair­ness.

The ul­ti­mate prob­lem is that ev­ery­one says they care about the deficit, but few peo­ple care about it enough. Democrats think spend­ing is more im­por­tant than the deficit, and Repub­li­cans think cut­ting taxes is more im­por­tant. And that’s why the na­tional debt is more than $20 tril­lion, and grow­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.