Over the weekend I got in a long argument with some ally of the deficit hawk group Fix the Debt on Twitter, and while most of the conversation turned on who should be blamed for mass unemployment, it did reach an interesting place in one respect. This person took as a given that long-term deficit reduction is a policy priority of the first rank — a belief that is very common among America's elite.
This priority is misguided both in detail and in general. Here's why.
There are two points to make here: First, long-term deficits are entirely about the rising cost of health care. Centrist elites insist that this is a reason to make our social insurance programs less generous, but the reality is that America's high prices are driven by inefficient service provision, not by excessively generous programs. American health care is unfair, monopolistic, and captured by specialist doctors, and our policies are designed poorly, which is why we pay about half again as much as the next-most-expensive developed nation for what is in fact a pretty threadbare safety net.
This point is crucial. What it means is that making our social insurance more stingy, by raising the Medicare eligibility age for example, will accomplish almost nothing. Unless you tackle the skyrocketing cost problem, the budgetary headroom created by benefit cuts will be eaten almost immediately by rising prices. In other words, no matter how many grannies you put into the poorhouse, on predicted trends eventually a single ibuprofen will cost the entire federal budget. (Unless, of course, you just repeal all social insurance altogether and let sick, poor, and old people go bankrupt and die in the hundreds of thousands per year.)
Fortunately, we just passed a gigantic health care reform package. You might have heard of it: It's called ObamaCare, and it seems to be helping slow health care inflation.
Second, even if we set that issue aside and talk about the Platonic ideal of long-term deficits, there again the case for action is weak at best. The political problem is that America does not actually have the consensus necessary to reduce deficits on a long-term basis, despite the constant whining about it one hears all the time on cable news. One of our two political parties is composed of total hypocrites on this issue — just look at Paul Ryan. It is a near-certainty that any long-term work on the deficit would be immediately squandered on tax cuts for the rich the moment Republicans got a chance — it's what happened in 2001.
But even on the merits, if you actually run through the economic reasoning (PDF), the case for worrying about the long-term deficit is weak at best. The U.S. is indebted in its own sovereign currency and cannot go bankrupt. Inflation could be a worry, but given current mass unemployment it's a hypothetical concern at best.
So don't worry about the deficit in 2050 or whatever. People ain't got no jobs. People ain't got no money. That's what matters.