Let the Blame be Spread Like Salt

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Evan Thomas in this Newsweek article takes a straightforward and somewhat odd position, adding to the ever-growing advice-giving genre. He writes

His only hope to be an effective president, to secure his legacy, is to tell the whole truth about the deficit, the debt, and the only real way out—to be, as he put it, “straight” with the voters.

This seems simple enough. Thomas goes on to hint at what a program of honesty would look like. He writes

There may not be a single political professional in Washington who would agree with this advice. I’ve never met one. Generally, the suggestion that a politician call for tax increases and cuts in Social Security and Medicare is greeted with hoots of derision.

Thomas here suggests that Mr. Obama’s solutions should include the above. I can hear this speech by the President: “American people: we’re going to cut Social Security and Medicare today. Good luck to you.” Later in the article, Thomas gets to what might be called the “ethic” of doing the right thing (the right thing of course can be inferred) by making an appeal to sacrifice.

Only the president can make the case for sacrifice, and it won’t be popular. As it is, most people already think they are doing their share by paying taxes and resent the idea of paying more, especially if their house is underwater, and they believe (rightly or wrongly) that financial geniuses on Wall Street are to blame. To call for sacrifice, the president will have to be willing to make a sacrifice himself. Obama can offer his own political career. He can put his reelection on the line. He can make the 2012 election a national referendum on doing the right thing.

I’ll get back this shortly but first provide another quote that illustrates Thomas’ take on yet another problem area with deficit and economy: the state employee question:

A real growth spurt, in any case, will require government spending on badly deteriorating infrastructure and massive research and development. But there is no money—not in the federal treasury, nor at the state level. Thanks to massive (and largely unnoticed) giveaways to public-employee pension plans, big states like California, New York, and New Jersey are even closer to bankruptcy than the federal government. A column by David Brooks of The New York Times recently noted that New Jersey badly needs a new tunnel to New York, but can’t afford it because the money has been spent on generous benefits for public employees. In California, the state is paying its bills with IOUs.

The question of growth spurting is a current hot topic. Investment in infrastructure and RnD are positive things, of course, and would likely be even better if states would shrink their operations and maneuver “giveaways” to this research. Thomas’s application of the oft-used accusatory phrase “Thanks to” is nice icing, as in “Thanks to you, I’m in the friggin’ poor house.”

I have questions: why does Thomas claim that only the President can make the case for “sacrifice”? Certainly the President could make the case to “cut Social Security,” but so could the leadership of the GOP and AARP. Dean Baker makes a different case:

Of course the facts are very clear. There is no truth to the whining about out of control government spending. According to the Congressional Budget Office, non-interest federal spending was 18.8 percent of GDP in 1980. In 2020 it is projected to be 18.6 percent of GDP.
. . .
And of course the whole long-term deficit nightmare story is driven entirely by our broken health care system. If per person health care costs in the United States were the same as in any of the wealthy countries with longer life expectancies we would be looking at huge budget surpluses, not deficits.

Thomas’s point, of course, goes to the President’s credibility and a wish-list; I take Baker’s arguments above as treating evidence specifically, regardless of what may or may not be on the President’s mind. As Thomas writes, the President could act like other exemplars of “sacrifice”:

But rather two large and noble groups: people who serve in the armed forces and every parent who has sacrificed himself or herself for a child. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen routinely put their lives at risk for something other than the modest pay they get. Mothers sacrifice themselves—their sleep and careers and peace of mind—for their children on a daily basis, often without really thinking about it. In every case they are subordinating their physical and material well-being to something greater than themselves: the love of a child, or their comrades in arms, or their country.

This finally gets us to the quick of the matter, I think. But the problem here is that the infrastructure that supports the “soldier” is a massive part of the US budget and parents really don’t have much of a choice, as the poop doesn’t clean itself and we don’t pay parents what they’re probably worth.

Ultimately, the problem with all this is that the framework Thomas draws is under dispute. My position is that supplying advice to Presidents in this manner won’t actually solve any problems. I’d rather see the author ask more questions and perhaps cite research that concludes that California’s “giveaways” are indeed significant enough to hoist up with such prominence. He doesn’t even ask if “giveaway” is the word he should use. The CCEA Outlook study is a good example of things people might consult.


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