The Soaring Deficits of Conventional Wisdom

Robert Borosage

What’s striking in the debate over America’s budget deficits isn’t the stridency of the anti-government Right. That’s expected and they don’t deviate from script. No, most impressive is the steely strength of a conventional wisdom that is flat out wrong.

In its morning editorial, the New York Times sensibly decries the chaos that is caused by “government by the week,” the funding of government agencies with short-term continuing resolutions. (Congress is about to pass another three week extension, insuring continued disruption of normal operations).

Eventually, given the zeal of the House Republican caucus for slashing spending — most notably on education and energy — and for ideological jihads — most notably against Planned Parenthood, the Times argues, a confrontation must take place. The White House and Senate Democrats have to say no. The House zealots will likely force government to shut down. The American people will have to decide who is to blame for the folly.

Then convention imposes its errant wisdom. “Responsible governing, the Times concludes, “means agreeing quickly to a deal to finish out the fiscal year, and then starting a serious talk about entitlement programs and taxes — the real causes of a soaring deficit.”

Ah no. Got that exactly wrong. The greatest single cause of the current high deficits is the Great Recession and accompanying mass unemployment, that lowers tax receipts and raises costs on unemployment insurance, food stamps, health care and more. The single greatest remedy to high deficits is recovery, which is why the premature turn to austerity is so destructive.

The greatest cause of future soaring deficits is not “entitlement programs;” it is our broken health care system. Soaring health care costs threaten to bankrupt everything – families, companies, states and the federal government. Medicare and Medicaid and the VA aren’t driving those costs; they are simply the budgetary expression of a system so dominated by corporate interests – drug companies, private hospital complexes, insurance companies – that iit costs twice as much per capita as health care in other industrial nations. Putting a lid on Medicare and Medicaid and the VA does nothing to stem the rising costs; it simply imposes more of them on the most vulnerable. Long term deficit reduction requires focus on reforming our health care system, and taking on the entrenched interests that drive up its costs.

The conventional wisdom echoed in the Times is wrong and dangerous. It supports the mock tough pose that “serious” politicians stand up to cut Social Security and Medicare. This will be the next chapter in the budget debate. In reality, courageous leaders would challenge the insurance companies and the drug companies, not kick seniors and the disabled by cutting the relatively modest programs that workers support with payroll taxes to insure a retirement in a modicum of dignity.

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