OK, this one is a bit off my usual style, but I feel obliged to speak up for a scorned and ignored group in American politics, those of us -- and, yes, I'm certainly one of them -- who don't believe, as a matter of policy, that the budget of the United States of America should be balanced at all times. Or over time. Or in the long run. We may disagree on the particulars, but we tend to agree that fiscal policy is a tool, a means to other ends. Sometimes, that means running a smaller deficit, sometimes a larger one, and perhaps at times even a balanced budget or a surplus. But as a rule we believe there's nothing principled at stake in the size of the budget deficit, thought of on its own. Economic growth, full employment, stable inflation -- those are reasonable goals. The deficit, for us, is just a means of getting there.
What's frustrating to me is that this group doesn't really have a name. People who actually care about balanced budgets are commonly called deficit hawks (okay, I admit it: I and others of my type tend to call them deficit scolds, or worse). But "deficit doves" doesn't really make any sense. Doves, in foreign policy, are those who prefer peace, while hawks prefer war (or, at least prefer always being very, very, ready for war). But most of us in my group aren't for large deficits in general. We think that fiscal policy depends on circumstances.
What I'm going to propose is that we follow a different foreign policy analogy: we are deficit realists, and we oppose not deficit hawks or alarmists, but deficit idealists.
Alas, one of the leading deficit idealists, Pete Peterson himself, has claimed the mantle of deficit realism. But clearly that's not correct. Pete Peterson has been for deficit reduction, well, forever -- and it's the mark of an idealist for policy preferences to remain unchanged no matter how circumstances change. They know how they think the world should be, and that's how it should be, and of story.
Realists, on the other hand, are always about the contingencies, always about the pragmatic solution for the moment. So many deficit realists may have supported deficit reduction packages in 1982, 1990, and 1993 -- but probably did not during the last three years. Some realists might be concerned about projected deficits twenty or thirty or seventy years into the future -- but we're more likely to believe that if the bond markets don't say its a problem, then it really isn't a problem. Realists are apt to point out that the United States managed to prosper perfectly well in the second half of the twentieth century while running a budget deficit almost always, and to cringe when we hear nonsensical rhetoric about future generations having to "pay back" current deficits.
But the main thing that really separates the idealists from the realists is any kind of talk about the morality and ethics of budget deficits. To idealists, it's axiomatic that it is fundamentally irresponsible to run budget deficits; to realists, deficits per se simply do not raise ethical issues.
Why do budget realists need a name? Well, for one thing, it's better spin, and while spin is generally overrated in politics, there's always the possibility that it would help around the margins. Currently we only hear about Very Serious budget hawks and those irresponsible other people who are ignoring the future of their nation. It might be a bit harder to call budget realists irresponsible (although perhaps it will be even easier to call them unethical, but that's the downside that realists of all types must accept).
But a better reason is because well-meaning deficit idealists -- and I do think that quite a few of them are well-intentioned -- are often just plain confused by those who don't share their religion. For example, Andrew Sullivan seems just baffled by the idea that there might be legitimate competing priorities to his preference for entitlement reforms that would reduce projected long-term deficits. For Sullivan, the main reason for lack of action on the deficit must be, as he says, political expediency; there's no sense at all that someone might have a substantive reason for putting off projected deficit problems until they start causing current trouble (to be fair, Sullivan was willing to accept countercyclical Keynesian deficits during the worst of the recession -- and his deficit idealism has been consistent over time, and regardless of whether he likes or dislikes the current administration). Explaining the point of view of deficit realism would surely not convert idealists, but it might help to prevent people from talking past each other.
It might help deficit realists, too, to understand better the other side of the debate. Liberal deficit realists are invariably suspicious that balanced budget are really a plot to destroy Social Security and other liberal priorities (and conservative deficit realists are suspicious that balanced budgets are really a plot to raise taxes). To be sure, GOP deficit pretenders (and there's no other way to think of most movement conservatives, who consistently support higher deficits in practice even while mouthing the rhetoric of deficit idealists) certainly do act far more interested in slashing spending selectively than in anything about the deficit. But there are real, sincere deficit idealists out there, and in my view they deserve to be taken seriously, even though I, as a deficit realist, strongly disagree with them. I suspect that thinking of them as deficit idealists would help facilitate useful conservation between the two groups.
At the very least, I think calling the two groups deficit realists and deficit idealists would promote clear thinking on the subject. So, if you think Pete Peterson is a menace to the nation and find Kent Conrad (the Senator who I believe has the longest record of sincerity on deficit reduction -- he once gave up his seat over it) a nuisance and a scold, embrace it: you're probably a deficit realist, and be proud of it.