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Monday, February 20, 2012

Shifting the Center of the Political Debate

I want to follow up on Paul Krugman's post about the shifting Overton window in the UK toward the political right (think of the Overton window as a view into the center of a debate). As Krugman would be the first to tell you, it's not just in the UK. For example, consider the current discussion over the president's proposed budget, a budget that is touted as "broadly consistent with the bipartisan deficit reduction proposals put forward by the Bowles-Simpson Commission."

I thought the recommendations for balancing the budget that came out of the Bowles-Simpson committee gave far too much to the GOP - the solutions that were proposed were much further to the right of the political spectrum than I would have preferred. My recollection is that people such as Paul Krugman and Dean Baker were critical as well (and recall that there was no official report because four Democrats and three Republicans on the seventeen member committee could not agree to the recommendations on the table -- instead we got an unofficial report from the committee chairs, Bowles and Simpson).

However, Republicans have shifted the debate so far to the right that Bowles-Simpson is now being portrayed by the administration and others as a model of balance, reason, and compromise that both sides ought to embrace.

Now it is true that the administration is backing off on one proposal in Bowles Simpson that generated much of the opposition from the left, one to raise the Social Security retirement age and cut Social Security benefits in other ways:

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Thursday explained why President Obama never fully embraced the 2010 report of his fiscal commission, headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Erskine Bowles.

Geithner, under heavy fire from the Senate Budget Committee, said the Obama administration “did not feel” it could embrace it because the cuts to defense were too deep and the reforms to Social Security relied too much on benefit cuts.

I don't like the position on defense cuts, at all, but at least the administration has committed to protecting Social Security. That's a step in the right direction (assuming it won't be put on the table as a bargaining chip for other policies -- I'm not ready to relax about the administration's plans for Social Security just yet).

But the point of this post is to note how far the debate -- the Overton window -- has shifted to the right. Suddenly, Bowles-Simpson is held up as the ideal, something to strive for -- as though achieving it would be a great success -- yet from my perspective it is, as noted above, far to the political right. With the Social Security and other changes, it is, perhaps, the minimum acceptable policy for progressives, but it is not an ideal to strive for as it is currently being portrayed.

This is Jenni LeCompte of Treasury:

Difference on Deficit Reduction is not about “How Much?” but “Who Pays?”, by Jenni LeCompte, Treasury Notes: The Budget released by the President this week uses a balanced approach to achieve more than $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years. This level of savings and the manner in which they are accomplished are broadly consistent with the bipartisan deficit reduction proposals put forward by the Bowles-Simpson Commission and the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Six.” Using this balanced approach, the President’s Budget reduces deficits from about 9 percent of GDP in 2011 to below 3 percent by 2018, and stabilizes the debt as a share of the economy by the middle of the decade.
In general, there is little disagreement on the magnitude of savings that are needed over the next decade to put us on a sustainable fiscal course. Rather, the main difference between the President and Republicans are related to the composition of these savings.
As Secretary Geithner made clear in testimony on the Budget this week, the greatest impediment to bipartisan progress on reducing deficits is the unwillingness by Republicans in Congress to take a balanced approach. Instead, they have sought to achieve budget savings solely through cuts to critical programs like Medicare and Medicaid, without asking the most fortunate citizens to contribute anything more than they do today. This position is at odds with both of the bipartisan efforts cited above. Though often invoked by Republicans in Congress as a model for reform, the Bowles-Simpson Commission recommendations included about $2 trillion in additional revenues over 10 years, which is $2 trillion more than Republicans have been willing to support. ...
Rather than address our fiscal challenges largely on the back of middle class families and seniors, the President’s plan calls on the richest two percent of Americans – those who have seen their incomes grow more than the rest – to make a contribution to our deficit reduction efforts. At the same time, the Budget carefully slows growth of spending in Medicaid and Medicare through both the Affordable Care Act and additional proposals in the Budget that save about $360 billion in mandatory health spending, while preserving these vital programs. It saves more than $270 billion in so-called “other mandatory” spending implementing a number of policies consistent with the Bowles-Simpson Commission’s recommendations. ...
Notwithstanding the many misleading claims that were made about the President’s Budget over the past week, the fact is that if the President’s Budget were enacted today, it would boost growth and job creation in the short term, reduce our deficits and stabilize our debt by the middle of the decade, and put us in a strong position to pursue long-term reforms. As Secretary Geithner said this week, “This plan will not solve all the nation’s challenges, but it will put us in a much stronger position to deal with those challenges.”

When he chooses engage, the president is doing a bit better in battling Republicans. I wish he'd engage on more fronts, but lately there has been progress. However, it seems to me that all the president has done is stop the rightward drift in the center of the conversation. That's something, but it is not enough. What I want is a president who can begin pushing the Overton window back in the other direction, and it's not clear that Obama is up to this task (either politically or ideologically).

    Posted by on Monday, February 20, 2012 at 10:05 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  Comments (43)


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