All This Talk About Deficits Is Getting In the Way Of Preserving and Expanding Our Entitlement Spending


Is it surprising to find a long-term liberal congressman who argues that Democrats should give a hoot about the budget deficit? Matt Bai's New York Times piece on Democratic Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the founder of the House Bicycle Caucus, which is apparently an Actual Real Thing, is framed as a contrarian whodathunkit about a precocious liberal who claims to care about sound budgeting and doesn't reflexively oppose all changes to Social Security:

Mr. Blumenauer argued that if Democrats really want to protect a vast array of federal programs from repeated Republican onslaughts, then they need to bring the costs of the programs in line with reality.       

Otherwise, he said, liberals only make it easier for conservative critics of social spending to undermine the entire premise of liberal government. And they make it that much harder to propose new and much-needed investments in, say, infrastructure and education.       

In other words, the debate over budget deficits is getting in the way of government spending. And we can't have that!

As Democratic arguments go, though, this isn't terribly novel. Newly minted White House budget director Jacob Lew said essentially the same thing a decade ago when he told Congress that "fiscal discipline is essential to protect Social Security and strengthen Medicare, so that both will be there in the years ahead." In this view, fiscal responsibility is useful insofar as it allows for the expansion of government.

Bai deserves credit, though, for his succinct breakdown of the Social Security trust fund scam, which a recently formed coalition of progressive activists—including the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and MoveOn.org—has sworn to defend:

The coalition bases its case on the idea that Social Security is actually in fine fiscal shape, since it has amassed a pile of Treasury Bills—often referred to as i.o.u.'s—in a dedicated trust fund. This is true enough, except that the only way for the government to actually make good on these i.o.u.'s is to issue mountains of new debt or to take the money from elsewhere in the federal budget, or perhaps impose significant tax increases—none of which seem like especially practical options for the long term. So this is sort of like saying that you're rich because your friend has promised to give you 10 million bucks just as soon as he wins the lottery.       

On this point, I suppose I largely agree with Blumenauer: If progressive activists are determined to defend this sort of budgeting B.S., it does make it awfully easy to criticize.