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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Republicans and the Deficit

After so much lately about Democrats, politics, and the budget deficit, let's move to the other side of the political spectrum and look at Republicans, politics, and the budget deficit. This is Jonathan Chait:

Neocons and Bush deserve each other, by Jonathan Chait, Commentary, LA Times: News reports are suggesting that Bush plans to send more troops to Iraq. Neoconservatives have been urging ... more troops in general for years — even before the war started. And that's not surprising. ... If you read old issues of the Weekly Standard, which is the bulletin board of neoconservatism, you can find calls for a bigger military going back to the Clinton administration. ...

Bush may have come to believe in the neoconservative mission for the nation's military. But he never accepted the corollary about increasing the military. So he ended up pursuing Dick Cheney's foreign policy with Bill Clinton's army.

In hindsight, we can see that the neocons made two huge blunders. The first was to go along with Bush's enormous tax cuts. When Bush took office in 2001, any halfway honest budget analyst would tell you that he was making a lot of promises that didn't add up. The neocons calculated that, if they supported the tax cuts like good party soldiers, Bush would grant them their defense budget increases later on.

So the Standard enthusiastically boosted the tax cuts. Neoconservative defense hawk Frank Gaffney concurred... "Those of us who look forward to helping you succeed in your efforts to rebuild our defense posture appreciate that your success in reducing taxes is a first and highly synergistic step toward that goal," he wrote. "Consequently, you can count on us in the national security community to support you in both of these important endeavors."

Whoops. It turned out there wasn't any money left over for a big troop increase... Enraged at the lack of a defense hike, the Standard published an editorial calling on then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to resign in protest of "the impending evisceration of the military."

The Standard lamented its own gullibility. "Those of us who expressed concern about the Bush administration's shorting of the military were told not to worry," the editors wrote. "Bush had to pass his tax cut first. Then the damage would be repaired in the [fiscal year] 2002 and FY 2003 budgets. But that's not the way things have turned out."

Let me translate this passage: We thought Bush was just lying to the American public, but now we discover he was lying to us also!

Let me quote one more passage from that editorial, because it's really incredible. The Standard warned that Bush's budget would make an invasion of Iraq all but impossible: "In practice, assembling a heavy armored force of even four divisions to defeat Saddam's army and then occupy Iraq would require every heavy unit based in Korea, Europe and the United States." Yet, just a few months later, the neocons demanded the very war that they said would be impossible, to be waged by that same eviscerated military.

But if they had only withdrawn their support earlier, before the big tax cut and before Bush invaded with too small of an army to win, the United States would be in much better shape today — and so would the neocons.

There has been a lot of discussion about the budget deficit lately, but the deficit itself is the wrong place to focus. We need to ask a straightforward question. What size government do we want and how do we fund it in the long-run?

We can't just pick whatever size government we want irrespective of our ability to pay for it. Nor can we pick whatever tax rates we want without consideration of our needs. How the party in power should react to a surplus or deficit depends upon an evaluation of our ability and willingness to pay for government relative to how well the existing level of government services is doing at meeting our goals.  What do we need, what can we reasonably afford, and who should pay for it?

The answers aren't easy and they differ by party so this requires a political resolution, but it's still better to focus on these questions instead of on whether the deficit taken in isolation is too large or too small.

One way to characterize the discussion from Paul Krugman (with as assist from Brad DeLong) that has generated so much discussion recently is to first recognize that Krugman is starting with the premise of fiscal responsibility. Suppose we are able to generate a surplus relative to the existing budget through fiscally responsible policies. What should we do with that surplus?

We have needs now that are not being met, and we have needs in the future as well. Thus, given the two sets of needs, there is a choice to make. Do we spend the money now, as Krugman has advocated, or do we save it (reduce the deficit) to spend in the future?

Krugman's point is that political realities have lowered the probability that we will be able to meet future needs, and because of this the tradeoff has shifted from future needs toward present needs. It's hard to disagree with that point of view given recent experience, and thus it's hard to disagree with the recommendation to shift priorities to the present until a better commitment mechanism can be enacted. It's really a question of how strongly we can commit to the future and how important our future needs are relative to our present needs.

    Posted by on Sunday, December 24, 2006 at 03:06 AM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Politics, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (36)


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