Deficit Hawks Are Not Interested in the Deficit

Bill McBrideBill McBride has a question about, Ornithology: What is a “deficit hawk”? It might seem easy: a deficit hawk is someone who cares a great deal about the deficit and is willing to make a lot of compromises to get rid of it. But is that really what a deficit hawk is? McBride has noticed what I have: deficit hawks don’t seem to care much about the deficit; they just seem to care about using the deficit to push other things they actually do care about.

How else do you explain the fact that almost all the prominent deficit hawks are for lowering taxes? Yes, they claim that this will create growth that will decrease the deficit. But as McBride noted, “All data and research shows that at the current marginal rates, tax cuts do not pay for themselves and lead to much larger deficits.” Speaking of economic growth, these are the same people who don’t want to do anything to head off recession. And how do you explain that they are generally for budget-busting wars? The only “sacrifice” that these deficit hawks seem to be willing to make is cuts in spending on the poor and middle classes.

I think the answer really comes back to one of my favorite analogies: Matt Yglesias’ Quaker budget hawks:

If you saw a bunch of Quakers running around in a panic about the national debt pushing a plan to reduce the debt by cutting military spending, and then loudly objecting to all debt-reduction plans that don’t slash military spending you’d rapidly reach the conclusion that the Quakers don’t actually care about the national debt. They’re just pacifists. And good for them! But it would be extremely frustrating for them to run around pretending to be accountants.

But somehow, in our society, rich people must be given the benefit of the doubt — regardless of how absurd that becomes. My favorite example doesn’t even come from the United States. Back in 2013, France was being forced to do austerity — because balancing the budget is so important in a recession. (Note: sarcasm!) But when France met its budgetary target through tax increases rather than spending cuts, European Commissioner Olli Rehn was upset. He said, “Budgetary discipline must come from a reduction in public spending and not from new taxes.” And why is that? It certainly isn’t because the economics dictates this. In fact, the economics probably point in the opposite direction. It’s just that Rehn’s conservative ideology dictates it, but like almost all of the deficit hawks, he doesn’t actually care about deficits.

I should be clear: I don’t care about deficits. In a booming economy, they are a problem, of course. But when was the last time we had a booming economy? For two years at the end of the 1990s? And that was such an aberration that people still talk about. It was also a time when the deficit was gone because of the boom. But I’m willing to talk about deficits if we can get a political system that shows it is actually interested in creating jobs and not just more income for the very richest among us.

But what’s clear is that those who want to use the deficit as an excuse for their conservative ideology are not honest brokers. We can’t deal with them because they won’t say what they want. And we know why that is: what they want is truly unpopular. It sounds so much better to say that we must screw the poor in order to help the poor. And somehow, that’s an argument that has worked for four decades now — even as the poor are doing worse than ever.

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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.

12 thoughts on “Deficit Hawks Are Not Interested in the Deficit

  1. And they hate being called out for their lies. It is so uncivil. For a very long time Democrats were cowed by it. Now of course they are starting to be willing to call the Republicans on their steaming heaps of nonsense and the media is taking tiny steps towards showing the Democrats are not merely being partisan. Helped a great deal by the occasional honest statement from a Republican.

    Your example is also why the NYTimes article I posted points out that our own stupidity when it comes to deficits and budgets infects the rest of the world-a lot of the people outside the US come here for economic degrees and Mr. Rehn is no exception with his obtaining a degree from Macalester College, St. Paul, MN. It is this bizarre addiction to suffering that people must go through for no apparent reason (he is not particularly religious but here in the US that is definitely part of it.)

    It used to be that we did not think people should suffer just to suffer but now we do and while religion is a big chunk of it, many people of my age or thereabouts who are not particular religious have signed onto this notion.

    • There’s no doubt that American thought spreads like a virus through the rest of the world. We are making everywhere worse.

      • I remember during the 2008 election, Tom Brokaw was a debate moderator and asked Obama a loaded question about how Reagan had the guts to call Russia “the evil empire” and if Obama would be so bold. Yes, the author of “The Greatest Generation” praised Reagan’s courage for saying what every American politician had said since 1945. Brokaw; quite the intellectual, that one.

        I don’t recall Obama’s response. Probably mentioned how he’d have stood up to something Russia’d done lately that didn’t remotely affect us at all. One has to say these things.

        I do remember thinking what I wished some American politician’s response would be: “Yes, Tom, the Soviet Union was an evil empire. All empires are evil. Including ours.”

        But it’s probably impossible. Not even Bernie would say that. No empire ever seems to give up power/influence willingly, simply because citizens realize it’s expensive for them and spreads giant batches of suck on everyone else. Can’t imagine we’ll be any different.

        • Most people I talk to are shocked at the idea that we even have an empire. Where are the colonies?! The amazing thing about American propaganda is that it is so weaved into the fabric of our society that people think it is uncontested fact. It goes back to that Chomsky lecture I posted a while back. All these historians had just taken it as given that this or that war was just. If academics can’t see it, what chance do people with real jobs?

          • I think that one is a lack of information and refusal to accept the information upon receipt of it.

            And we have colonies…oh I am sorry, territories that are given different laws then we are so that makes them not colonies and therefore we don’t have an empire.

            Makes some of us sigh and others roll their eyes in annoyance.

            • Yeah. I often wonder why we haven’t had no new states. And then I remember: because those poor people don’t have a racist heritage that would vote Republican!

                • Yeah, what’s going on now in Puerto Rico is an outrage. I don’t know if they want to be a state, but they’re undergoing a massive debt crisis that they can’t handle the same way states can.

                  • They didn’t but this may change their minds. At least the separatists have stopped trying to assassinate presidents.

    • Macalester’s a strange school. It’s super expensive ($50K for tuition, not to mention room/board — another $9 — and, oh yeah, you have to have health insurance or buy it through the school, adding $2 more.) So it’s got to deliver the goods in fields for people who want rich careers, and I suppose it does.

      But a lot of activist types have come out of there. I know some. “The Progressive” has an article this month on a top anti-school-privatization guy in Washington state; he’s from Macalester. Apparently there’s some good, inspiring teachers there. There are at MIT, too. And the local community college which costs 1/10th as much!

  2. Didn’t Greece get their plan rejected a few months ago because it relied on taxation and not spending reduction?

    • I don’t remember the specifics — there were several backs and forths. But I’m sure this was part of it. I’ll have to go back and find out what’s happening in Greece. It can’t be good. But every time I check out what’s going on in Greece, I start hating the Germans.

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