Deficit Morality

Paul KrugmanLast week, Neil Irwin over at Wonk Blog wrote an article that sounded really fun, Joe Scarborough, Paul Krugman and the Economist-Pundit Divide on Debt and Deficits. But I really hated it. I like what he is trying to do: explain why these pundits are so focused on the deficit even though the facts all say it is stupid. Unfortunately, it all comes off like apologetics.

It all follows from an appearance Paul Krugman made on Morning Joe earlier last week. Joe Scarborough just could not believe (during the segment and then in print after it) that Krugman was right when everyone Scarborough talks to disagrees. As any number of people have pointed out (including Krugman), this isn’t about economics or even politics; it is about sociology. Most of the people I talk to each day have very little knowledge of economics, but I don’t assume they are right just because there are a lot of them. This kind of polling approach to science just manages to allow people to not think seriously about things.

In the afternoon, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones kicked back a bit, (Almost) Nobody Is Serious About the Deficit. He notes that everyone knows that the long term deficit must be dealt with. So why is there disagreement about the short term deficit? His answer:

For conservatives: They aren’t. They just don’t like spending lots of money on poor people. Their real desire is to cut welfare spending, and deficit hawkery is just a handy excuse for this.

For centrists/lefties: They accept the economic argument in theory, but are more attuned to practical politics than economists are. The idea that we can safely ease the pressure for action on the debt today, but still count on politicians to virtuously cut borrowing in the future, strikes them as laughable. We’re humans, not Vulcans.

Okay, I accept that for the conservatives, but it is only partly true. I think conservatives and liberals alike have the same kind of moralistic idea about borrowing. They just think it is wrong. The reason that conservatives don’t mind deficits when they are in power is that by and large they aren’t reminded of it. The conservatives are very good constraining information flow.

The problem with all of this is that no one seems to understand that our sense of morality is not absolute: we have moral codes because they help the society. There is no point in applying personal morality to the society generally. And note: we don’t do it about anything else. If another nation steals our oil field, that is cause to go to war. The same does not apply to individuals. You would be punished if you killed someone because they stole your car.

In the case of economics, it is even more bizarre. A government budget is not the same as a family budget. It does not make sense to apply that morality to the government, but that is what most people do. At least the conservatives use it in the cause of what they want to do anyway. Liberals use it like they are 5-year-old girls who just learned the difference between right and wrong.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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