America in the Red

By Joe Campbell
May 3rd, 2010

Last week, I labeled this article a “Must-Read” — saying it provided “a coherent and reality-based conservative look at America’s structural deficit.”

As commentor John Rose points out, the piece has some glaring flaws. For one, there is only one mention either agricultural subsidies or the defense budget:

Every program should be on the table, including those as politically sensitive as agricultural subsidies, Social Security, and defense.

Throughout the rest of the piece, Marron focuses on total spending and specifically Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. No look at this topic can be complete without discussing the defense budget. But Marron makes the best contribution from the right to this national conversation dominated by Peter Orszag on the one side, the marginalized far left claiming any talk of the deficit is a cover to screw the working class for Obama’s corporate agenda on another, and the populist right not really participating as they seem to believe that this all can be fixed by cutting waste while leaving Social Security, Medicare, and the defense budget alone.

Of course, the most important thing to me personally, so that I can use it as a sledge against  is that Donald B. Marron — from a conservative (rather than populist right wing) perspective — confirms the essentials of the story I told in my series on “real fiscal responsibility” and each part. (Parts 1, 2, 3, and follow-up.)

Marron for example directly contradicts one of the avowed sources of hysteria on the right — Obama’s short term deficit — saying:

Running deficits can certainly be appropriate — and even beneficial — at times of particular stress, such as wars and recessions. But in the long run, persistent large deficits and growing debts undermine our nation’s prosperity.

Marron points out that the problems with Social Security can be fixed with some common-sense reasonable measures — but that Medicare and Medicaid — because of growing health care costs — are spiraling out of control:

While Social Security provides benefits in cash, Medicare and Medicaid pay for a service — the cost of which is not wholly within the government’s control and is also growing at an explosive rate. Despite some rhetoric about solving the problem once and for all, the reality is that no one really knows what to do to rein in federal health spending. There are lots of ideas — strengthening consumer incentives, changing provider incentives, investing in prevention, squeezing doctors and hospitals, or moving to a single-payer system — but no one can be sure how much any of these measures would actually “bend the cost curve” over the long run. Policymakers should therefore approach health spending as a research-and-development challenge, not as a one-time matter of setting specific policy dials. Experimentation, learning, and reform will be essential as we pursue policies to reduce the growth of health-care costs. Budget-setters can take some immediate steps to reduce the growth of health spending (e.g., by limiting Medicare payment rates), but this is a dilemma that will require ongoing attention.

The populist right lives in a world in which “Other Spending” is what is out of control.

Marron makes the best conservative case against the Obama administration’s relative fiscal responsibility that can be made:

Finally, our leaders should obey the first law of holes: When you are in one, stop digging. Unfortunately, the current climate in Washington encourages the exact opposite: Dig as fast as you can while there’s still time.

That impulse is evident in many recent policy initiatives. Lobbyists are already arguing that various temporary provisions in the 2009 stimulus bill should be made permanent. While the congressional committees with oversight of education spending have found a way to eliminate $80 billion from the federal student-loan program, they plan to use most of it to expand other spending, rather than to reduce the deficit. The committees in charge of energy and environmental policy are considering proposals that would create almost $1 trillion worth of carbon allowances over the next ten years — only to give away or spend 99% of that money. And then there is the Democrats’ health-care initiative, which would make a series of cuts to the budget only to use the savings to expand the federal government’s role in financing health care.

Marron gives no credit to the actual worth of the policies being pursued — cap-and-trade addressing the issue of global warming for example. Marron instead looks at each policy solely based on how it affects the budget.

And on health care, he is curiously silent. He makes it clear that this is the crux of the problem — but doesn’t evaluate or discuss the deficit reduction matters within the health care law recently passed — the many pilot projects meant to test different ways to bring down costs. You get the impression that he would oppose all non-stimulus spending the Obama administration has proposed — even if it reduced the deficit.

Ezra Klein though had a good rejoinder:

[T]he Center for Budget and Policy Priority’s Bob Greenstein made a nice point on this: The choice, he said, isn’t between solving the problem before the crisis hits and waiting for a crisis. Solving the problem requires doing more than the political system is able to do outside a crisis atmosphere. But making a start on the problem isn’t. And if you can make enough of a start, you can delay the crisis and/or mitigate its eventual severity. The problem is that people tend to dismiss doing a bit because it means we won’t do enough. But if we attempt to do too much, Greenstein said, we run a large risk of doing nothing at all, and that will be much worse.

But by providing a reality-based description of the structural deficit from a conservative perspective, Marron has made an important contribution to our political conversation and where it needs to go.

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