Posted by: Jeff | November 12, 2010

Liberals and the Deficit Commission, Again

Having written a pretty scathing post about the deficit commission’s initial proposals, I’d like to walk back along a few vectors.

First of all, my post was meant primarily to defend the generally negative reaction most liberal quarters have had to the proposals. Conservative commentators like Douthat have taken the gnashing of teeth to indicate a lack of seriousness from liberals on deficit reduction, or proof of their desire to expand government just to expand it, both of which I think is nonsense. As such, my post wasn’t meant to encourage liberals to consider the proposals a dead letter — I just think the negatives in it really suck, and we shouldn’t hem or haw about it.

That said, I guess I’m basically in Jonathan Chait’s camp. The proposals ain’t great, but they could’ve been a lot worse, and the debt is a real problem even if it has a pretty long time horizon. And no solution that really fixes things is going to be anything other than massively unpleasant for both sides of the aisle.

So let’s take these proposals as a starting point. The only things, I’d say, that absolutely have to die are the increase in the retirement age for Social Security and  the cap on government revenue. Everything else should fall under the hold-your-nose-and-deal-with-it category. I’d also add a few specific caveats to my earlier complaints:

1) The tax code. I worked off Paul Krugman’s assumption that the regressive nature of reducing the tax brackets and rates would overwhelm the progressive nature of clearing out the tax code’s loopholes and subsidies. But that could be wrong! As Chait and Tim Fernholz have pointed out, no one’s actually crunched the numbers yet, so we’re all just guessing. And if the progressivity of the changes actually outweighs the regressivity — making the proposals, in total, kinder to the poor than the current tax system — that would be a massive point in their favor.

2) The revenue cap and the limit on health spending growth. Chait calls both of these provisions “vague, bordering on meaningless.” So they could turn out to be purely symbolic sops to conservatives, with no real teeth to effect how the government actually operates. If that’s the case, great, I can roll with it. But it does strike me as a risky bet.

The deeper cause of liberal anger, I think, is that there’s been a bait-and-switch in how the commission was presented to the public. It was meant to be a bipartisan, all-options-on-the-table project to settle on a grand bargain for reducing the deficit — one that liberals and conservatives alike could hold their noses and vote for. What we got instead was a plan that reduces the deficit, yes, but also more or less enshrines the conservative philosophic and moral take on how government should operate, and what government is for. (And reveals how ferociously conservatives are committed to preserving the privilege and comfort of the privileged and comfortable.) The commission exceeded its mandate in order to place its thumb on the ideological scales; a point on which I’ll turn things over to Jamelle Bouie and Adam Serwer, who really go to town on the thing:

[A]s an expression of the values of political elites, this document is appalling. It recommends that veterans pay for their combat injuries, working people take a payroll tax hike and social security benefits get cut so the government can offer large reductions in taxes for corporations and people in the top income bracket. Conservatives will try to argue that it offers more generous social security benefits for the poor, but it raises the retirement age so, as Paul Krugman points out, those who would benefit are also less likely to live long enough to do so. There’s a lot of preening babble about sacrifice from the austerity crowd, but what it comes down to is the idea that the deficit should be balanced at any cost as long as it doesn’t involve rich people paying more money.

Now, I don’t think a plan that was perfectly balanced between left and right would’ve been achievable. And I think it was inevitable that it would favor the right’s priorities, simply because more Americans identify as conservative than identify as liberal. The left in America is just at an inherent structural disadvantage in that sense.

But part of effective bargaining — and of effective compromise — is knowing where the line is that you are not willing to cross. And drawing that line deeply and clearly in the sand.


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