Sunday, November 1, 2009

Deficit Politics

Deficits are back in the news this weekend, with the Times giving prominent placement to Kent Conrad's obsession. Brad DeLong and Matt Yglesias (here and here) have good comments on this. I'll try to amplify it a bit, with several points:

1. No one cares about the deficit -- no voters, that is. People care about taxes, about jobs, about getting various benefits, but no one cares about the deficit. Voters don't even understand what the deficit is, let alone whether it's a good or bad thing. No candidate ever lost a single vote as a result of large deficits.

2. The idea that Democrats could take the steam out of the opposition by cutting the deficit is nuts. Listen to them! They're concerned about Obama taking their guns, about Obama letting terrorists loose in their neighborhoods, and about ACORN's scheme to take over the world. They're concerned about Obama's mysterious background. They are worried about death panels. They are obsessed with the possibility that they will be called racists. They are, in other words, successfully shielded from real policy changes. Just as Obama's complete lack of action on gun control doesn't prevent the opposition from actively fearing he's after their guns, it is utterly implausible that efforts to reduce the deficit will have any affect at all on the intensity of opposition to Obama from his opponents.

3. The same thing is true of Republican politicians, and the communications networks they use. Remember, Republicans managed to call the stimulus bill as a tax hike, even though it was in fact a tax cut. There's no chance that Republicans would applaud Democratic action to reduce the deficit. In fact, we have seen in the health care debate exactly what Republicans would do if Democrats even try to find substance-free savings -- Republicans would immediately bash the Dems for (in the case of Medicare spending) killing grandma.

4. As far as the commission idea is concerned, commissions are useful when both parties want to do something but are afraid of taking responsibility for it. I see no evidence at all that Republicans really want to cut the deficit but just don't want to be seen doing it. Yglesias makes the point that Republicans don't want to raise taxes...But on top of that there's not a lot of evidence that Republicans want to cut spending in any serious way. They last tried in 1995 (and before that in 1981), and since then they aren't even willing to propose serious, specific spending cuts. At any rate, Republicans have obviously decided that their best electoral strategy is to oppose whatever the Dems propose. That's not something that a commission can solve.

Overall, I think Yglesias has it exactly right: "When it comes to macroeconomic management, you need to listen to your economists not your pollsters."

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