Hey Were Gonna Balance the Budget But Seriously Folks

Richard Eskow

Heard any good jokes lately? This headline was making the Internet rounds yesterday:

“Sen. Conrad: Extend All Tax Cuts; Time to Get ‘Serious’ About Deficit.”

It’s easy to see the humor in that. It’s almost like saying you’re serious about saving money but don’t want to put any more pennies into the piggy bank. But here’s what isn’t so funny: Most reporters and politicians agree that Kent Conrad is “serious.”

So-called “deficit hawks” like Conrad, Erskine Bowles, and Alan Simpson aren’t just unserious. They’re radicals. Their positions are an extreme departure from the philosophy of government that’s guided American policy for a century. They’re promoting an upward redistribution of wealth that would change the shape of our society forever. They’re want to weaken a social contract that’s existed since the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and dismantle the economic principles we’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt.

You can call it a joke if you want. But, to paraphrase Elvis Costello, it’s got “a punchline you can feel.”

Roger Hickey and I pointed out on Wednesday that most Americans (including most Republicans) oppose any cuts to Social Security benefits. They want the payroll tax cap lifted instead, which is a fiscally sound approach. But the Republican leadership would rather cut benefits than inconvenience the wealthy, and Democrats like Conrad agree. So the “serious” position in Washington is to split the difference between them.

What happens you if recommend the solution that most people (including most Republicans) want? People say you’re an “extremist.” No, seriously. And nothing you can do that will change that. You can point out that Social Security is self funded and they’ll roll their eyes. You can have the most qualified actuary in the nation prove that your solution works, and they’ll never even acknowledge that your solution exists. (Peter Orszag and Alice Rivlin have both practiced this form of rebuttal by non-acknowledgement- which seems to be the public policy equivalent of an Amish shunning.)

If all that makes you a little exasperated, they’ll observe that you’re not just an extremist, you’re a shrill extremist. Which, of course, proves you’re not “serious.”

Consider this snippet of media repartee, captured by the always-serious Digby, about the Bowles/Simpson “deficit reduction” proposal:

JIM LEHRER: Well, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, said, this is — just right off the top, is unacceptable, right?

LORI MONTGOMERY (Washington Post): Simply unacceptable, that’s exactly what she said.

There’s an interesting dynamic developing … Many of the members, except for the most liberal members, the champions of Social Security, are very reluctant to outright criticize this thing …

They’re calling it a serious effort, something that they have to respect … It’s like, you know: This is a serious plan .. these very extreme reactions are coming from the far end of the party, of each party. I think that there is a middle ground that is going to try to massage this thing, and — and could bring this whole debate back to life…

In this clip a prominent journalist is saying that it’s “serious” to solve the deficit problem by cutting a program that doesn’t contribute to the deficit. She’s lauding “serious” people for finding the “middle ground” – between what the public doesn’t want and what it really, really doesn’t want. And she’s marginalizing anyone who thinks otherwise as “extreme,” “liberal”, and from the “far end” of the party. (Remember: Most Republicans polled don’t like this idea either.).

Then there’s Jon Cowan of Third Way, who writes: “It’s now time to put up or shut up, in short to lead or leave. This (the Erskine/Bowles proposal) is the first real leadership test for both parties in a divided capitol: will they embrace the Fiscal Commission recommendations, or cop out and pick the plan apart?”

Leaving aside the misstatement of fact – the Bowles/Simpson proposal doesn’t come from the “Fiscal Commission,” a group that would never endorse such extreme positions – let’s consider the nature of this “leadership test.” As the perpetually unserious Paul Krugman observes, this proposal “represents a major transfer of income upward, from the middle class to a small minority of wealthy Americans.” This drain on middle-class income to benefit the wealthy is the through-line that links Bowles and Simpson to Conrad and the other so-called “deficit hawks.” Jon Cowan’s position is that this upward redistribution of wealth doesn’t even warrant public debate, and that politicians who submit to it without protest have passed a “leadership test.”

Now, as it happens I’ve met Jon Cowan. He’s a very nice, very bright guy. But this is another example of the unserious nature of “serious” thinking in Washington. Pols must “put up or shut up” – but it’s not the public who decides what gets “put up.” And if you speak up for what most people (including most Republicans) want, that’s a “cop out.” You’re “picking the plan apart.” C’mon now: Do you want to be a leader or a decision-dodging nitpicker?

I’m gonna have to go with “nitpicker.” If that’s the new term for representing the people’s wishes and acting in their best interests, I’d say we need a lot more nitpickers in Washington.

None of this is really “serious.” It’s play-acting, dress-up. It’s like wearing daddy’s overlarge clothes and repeating how-mommy-talks-in-the-office words that sound important, even though you don’t know what they mean. We’re talking tough, we’re making the hard decisions, we’re rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. Except we’re not doing any of those things. This radical position is becoming the new Washington consensus. Going along with the crowd is easy, comfortable, and convenient.

The problem isn’t Lori Montgomery or Jon Cowan. They’re probably driven by the best of motives: the desire to work together, to collaborate, to go beyond rigid ideological boundaries to solve problems. But collaboration and bipartisanship are means, not ends. They’re ways of getting things done, not the things themselves. When a culture prizes the method more it does the results, it’s gone astray.

The “unserious” truth is this: Simpson and Bowles, like Conrad, would accelerate an upward restribution of wealth that’s already rolling ahead like a freight train. They’d pay for it by taking money out of the pockets of soldiers, lower- and middle-income college students, and the elderly. That’s a debate we need to have, and it’s not a “leadership test” to run from it.

So, you want to hear an old joke? A drunk goes into a restaurant and orders a cup of coffee and a bun. The waiter says “I’m sorry, sir, we’re all out of buns.” The drunk thinks for a second and says, “Okay, I’ll have a cup of tea and a bun.” The waiter says “Sorry, we’re out of buns.” The drunk says “Fine, I’ll have a glass of orange juice and a bun.” After a few more exchanges like this the waiter loses his temper: “How many times do I have to tell you we’re out of buns? No buns! No buns! No buns!”

The drunk says “Jeez, pal, if you’re going to get so upset I’ll just have the bun.”

These so-called “deficit hawks” are the drunk, the public is the waiter, and the “bun” is any policy that benefits the wealthy at the expense of middle- and lower-income people. No matter how many times voters say that’s not on the menu, they’re going to keep ordering it. And they may very well get it.

But seriously, folks.
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This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign.

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