A new Congressional Budget Office report shows that the projected increase in the national debt has slowed dramatically. Good news for deficit scolds, right? Not for Ron Fournier, who still thinks the nation is on its last legs:
Only in Washington, the place where you land when you fall through the looking glass, could this be hailed as good news... Our deficit levels (annual totals of red ink) are stalled at breathtakingly high levels — and are projected to soar again in a few years... Scary news, right? Not according to many media outlets and a cynical leadership class in Washington. Some news organizations focused on the sugar-high of good news — the (temporary) dip in deficits.
Think of a reporter covering a shooting. The police tell him the victim is dying of blood loss. Is the headline "Shooting Victim Expected to Die" or "Blood Flow Slows for Shooting Victim"? [National Journal]
Fournier's economic analysis, if it may be so dignified with the phrase, is comprehensively wretched. As I've argued, the real problem with the deficit is that it's coming down way too fast. Premature austerity has crippled the economic recovery and kept millions out of work. The biggest economic problem facing the nation is unemployment, which outweighs the stupid deficit by Graham's Number levels of importance.
But the main problem is that his scold case is weak even on its own terms. Fournier understands neither what is driving the increase in the national debt nor why that might be a problem — all of which betrays a bizarre ideology that holds that pain must be inflicted before any gains can be made.
The huge increase in the annual deficit in 2008-09 was driven by two things: first, the economic collapse, which caused revenues to fall and spending to increase as people drew on safety net programs like unemployment insurance. Second, the Recovery Act, aka the stimulus, which provided a one-time surge of spending to restore aggregate demand and get people back to work. Though the stimulus was not nearly large enough to fill the hole in demand, this is what macroeconomic policy is supposed to do in a recession (a fact that Republicans were happy to accept when they were in power).
The long-term debt and deficit projections, on the other hand, are entirely about health-care spending. As Peter Fisher once said, the government is basically an insurance company with an army, and for many years the price of health care increased much faster than the rate of economic growth. This made government spending on health care (mostly Medicare and Medicaid) consume an ever-greater portion of the federal budget. Past CBO projections just assumed this trend would continue, which accounts for past reports predicting that the national debt would eventually eat the whole budget.
What this means is that Fournier's preferred solution for dealing with this trend — higher taxes, fewer entitlements — is completely pointless. We have to fix the problem of rising prices, otherwise eventually a single tablet of aspirin will consume the entire federal budget. And the price problem is driven by awful policy design, not excessive generosity. America manages the rare trick of having very patchy and stingy social insurance that is simultaneously incredibly expensive. We spend more government money per person than Canada does — and the Canadians have universal single-payer coverage.
Fewer entitlements or higher taxes will get you a few years of breathing room before price increases eat up all the savings — and the whole point of Fournier's column is that a couple decades of breathing room is still grounds for hair-on-fire panic.
Luckily, since the passage of ObamaCare, price increases have indeed slowed dramatically. That, plus a new projection that interest rates will stay low for a long time, accounts for the new CBO analysis showing slower debt growth. Just why this is happening is a matter of some dispute; I suspect it is partly the result of several programs in ObamaCare designed to bring prices down, and partly that health-care prices are already so high they're running into resource constraints.
I think the fact that Fournier is patently uninterested in any of these things, and favors a policy that would accomplish nothing whatsoever on the deficit by his own standards, reveals that the pro-austerity school of punditry isn't about the deficit at all. Instead, he says that his entitlement-cutting agenda is "going to happen sooner or later, painfully or more painfully." As with David Gregory, the pain is the operative concept. The centrist definition of responsible politics holds that the American people must suffer a little more to keep the nation healthy. It's only the "hateful partisans" who are keeping the wise, reasonable moderates from making those tough bipartisan compromises to slash social insurance and inflict pain.
But make no mistake: This has nothing to do with economics, and everything to do with the bizarre looking-glass ideology of "serious people" in Washington, D.C.