Thursday, May 26, 2011

Catch of the Day

Jonathan Chait listens to NPR, which uses its Neutral Omniscient voice to casually refer to the national debt as "the biggest problem facing the nation."  Ugh.

As Chait notes, this really is the triumph of Pete Peterson. It's also the outcome of what Greg Sargent calls the "Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop." After all, anyone listening to NPR is going to tend to believe that the national debt is very important. Politicians, knowing that, are going to hesitate to dismiss its importance, and even more to the point are going to find it costly to say anything positive about deficits, even when they believe (or at least their economic advisors believe) that deficits are appropriate policy.

What it isn't, of course, is a factual statement of an objective condition. As Chait points out, calling anything the "biggest problem facing the nation" is going to be opinion, not fact. Even if you agree with Peterson about deficits, Chait is correct. Nice catch!


  1. I don't think you can really talk about the "deficits are bad" narrative without mentioning that until 2008 even most liberal intellectuals had been doing there part to promote it. As the narrative went, Reagan's deficits (fueled by tax cuts and military buildups) were deplorable, Clinton deserved praise for producing surpluses, Bush was bankrupting the country (remember the ads?).

    Of course, it could well be that the circumstances of the Great Recession are unique (I would agree), but I find it a little disingenuous for liberal elites to claim that the current focus on deficits is strange, when they've bought into the narrative since at least 1980. Insofar as stimulus means purposely running up debts, it was always going to be a hard sell.

  2. Jonathan, Ezra Klein's piece today on why the political class likes to focus on the deficit struck me as pretty pure Bernstein:

    That’s the thing about the deficit: It can be used in service of any policy, even those that increase deficits, like the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts. It can also be used to oppose almost any policy, including those that reduce deficits, like the Affordable Care Act. It’s elastic and opportunistic in a way that global warming or the uninsured or the unemployed simply aren’t. All those policies imply specific solutions. The overall spending trajectory of the country doesn’t, and so parties that want to push for specific agenda items but don’t quite know how to put them on an agenda dominated by urgent concerns use the deficit as their urgent concern and try to sneak their policy preferences in behind it.


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