At this point David Brooks has a choice: he can say "I am an idiot who does
not know what I am talking about"; or he can change the subject.
Ezra Klein: In the column, you said that the Obama
administration doesn’t have a plan to replace the sequester. I feel
like I’ve had to spend a substantial portion of my life reading their
various budgets and plans to replace the sequester, and my sense is that
you’ve had to do this, too. So, what am I missing?
David Brooks: First, the column was a bit of an
over-the-top… I probably went a bit too far when saying the president
didn’t have a response to the sequester…. I was unfair…. [But] there’s
no scorable plan they’ve come up with, at least this time around… it
would serve the country well if they put out something specific….
EK: CBO did score the president’s budget, and
almost all of their proposals are drawn from that. I find, in general,
that legislators often ask Elmendorf if he’s scored things from the
White House and then crow about the fact that he hasn’t, when all that’s
really going on is CBO doesn’t score everything the president does or
DB: If you look at the charts I’ve seen, they’re
targets that, say, cut x from agriculture spending, and specifically how
you do that is vague…. I think having something concrete and standalone
is the way for the president to go… he's got a responsibility…. I don’t
think he’s given us a document that would anchor the debate in a
boring, managerial framework so we can have a debate over substance.
EK: On that point, one theme in your column, and
in a lot of columns these days, is this idea that the president should,
on the one hand, be putting forward centrist policies, and on the other
hand, that if he’s putting forward policies that the Republican Party
won’t agree to, those policies don’t count, as they’re nothing more than
political ploys… it seems a bit dangerous and strange to say the
boundaries of the discussion should be set by the agenda that lost the
DB: In my ideal world, the Obama administration
would do something Clintonesque: They’d govern from the center; they’d
have a budget policy that looked a lot more like what Robert Rubin would
describe, and if the Republicans rejected that, moderates like me would
say that’s awful…
EK: But I’ve read Robert Rubin’s tax plan. He
wants $1.8 trillion in new revenues. The White House, these days, is
down to $1.2 trillion. I’m with Rubin on this one, but given our two
political parties, the White House’s offer seems more centrist…. People
say the White House should do something centrist like Simpson-Bowles,
even though their plan has less in tax hikes and less in defense cuts….
DB: My first reaction is I’m not a huge fan of
Simpson-Bowles anymore; I used to be. Among others, you persuaded me the
tax reform scheme in theirs is not the best. Simpson-Bowles just
doesn’t do enough on entitlements…. I agree with you [that Republicans]
shouldn’t be given veto power over the debate, but I still think that if
you look at what moderates want the administration to do, they have not
gone far enough.
EK: What would be far enough, in your view? What would you like to see them offer?
DB: My fantasy package, and I’m not running for
office, would include a progressive consumption tax, and it would have
chained CPI, and it would have a pretty big means-test of Medicare. I’d
direct you to Yuval Levin’s piece in the Times a few days ago, which
EK: On the topic of deals Republicans should take,
I’m completely confused by their stance on the sequester…. They want to
reduce the deficit, cut entitlements, protect defense, simplify the tax
code by cutting out various expenditures, and lower rates…. Republicans
could get four of their five goals by striking a sequester deal, and
they could always cut tax rates later, whenever they get into power.
What am I missing?
DB: Here’s something I’m confused by: how much
they still believe in top rate reductions. I would say in the
conservative economist world I think I know almost nobody… super
motivated by top rate reductions anymore. I don’t think that’s true with
Republican members of Congress. I think there’s a lag between the wonks
and the legislators. The second thing is, for them, the big issue is
overall size of government. When they try to explain why growth is so
slow, it’s because we’re saddled with this large, unproductive public
sector, and they need to bring that down. And cutting tax expenditures
would generate money for a bigger more unproductive public sector.
EK: So, then, what do you see as the White House’s motivating theory?
DB: If I were to capsulize their theory, it’s lets
stabilize the debt over 10 years, maybe do some things that would make
it better beyond the 10-year window, but let’s not try to take care of
the long-term debt issue all at once. Achieve a floor and then focus on
growth and equity. And I guess my response would be, as the
[International Monetary Fund] and others have said, if you don’t lay the
groundwork for a long-term debt solution now, it gets immeasurably
harder every year you wait. I agree there are three big issues — equity,
growth and debt — and it’s hard to address all three at the same time.
But that’s what we need to do. ...