Some Thoughts on a Pseudo-Wonk’s Thoughts on the Coming Fiscal Cliff

I don’t ordinarily take guys like Ezra Klein seriously.  He is, after all, the pseudo-wonk who claimed in all seriousness, during a December 2010 interview on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown,” that our Constitution doesn’t matter; it’s just an inconvenient scrap of paper too often in the way of the Progressives’ Proper Way:

[The Constitution of the United States] has no binding power on anything.  …the text is confusing because it was written more than a hundred years ago….

However, since he is taken seriously by so many on the Left, and he’s just written another tendentious piece of misunderstanding, I find myself drawn to comment.  In writing for Newsday just after Christmas, he made the remarks described below.

I’ll begin by briefly addressing Klein’s windy argument concerning Conservative distrust of Democrats’ spending cut promises.  Klein insists that welching on such promises is a good thing:

The point of austerity is to solve a deficit problem, not yoke the future to the imperfect forecasts of the past.  Once the deficit problem goes away, so too does the reason for austerity.

He also makes his view of the moral appropriateness of breaking promises explicit:

After 1997, spending rose.  But by then, the economy was roaring, and within a few years, we were at surpluses.  So why shouldn’t Congress have been a bit looser with the purse?


But if the economy in eight years is far better than we expect it to be today, Congress should change course.  If the cuts to spending don’t need to be so deep, then huzzah! Ratchet them back.

Because—well, Klein never offers a reason.  For him, Big Government spending Americans’ money is the Natural Order.  Big Government is its own raison d’être.

I’ll address his disingenuousness in claiming that leaving more money in the hands of Americans, rather than those of Big Government—reducing government spending, making possible reducing taxes—is somehow austere later.  First, I’ll talk about his outright lie:

[Conservatives’] goal isn’t to reduce deficits.  If it was, they’d be open to tax increases.


[Conservatives’] real goal: Not smaller deficits, but smaller government.

Because raising taxes is the One True Way to reduce deficits.

Actually, on one level, Klein’s charge isn’t a malicious slur, at all: Conservatives aren’t interested in reducing deficits; they’re interested in eliminating them altogether.  But Klein wasn’t going there.  Here’s the thing: Conservatives are interested in…reducing…deficits, by cutting spending.  Conservatives also see the optimal long-term path to this—especially in light of Progressives’ view that breaking promises is morally sound—as being to shrink government back to a small, limited entity that the Sovereign people can better control.  The existence of these alternate paths proves the lie in Klein’s charge.

Interestingly, Klein makes his lie as if he believes, in all sincerity, that smaller government is somehow bad.  But one of his movement’s founding forebears, Herb Croly, has already enshrined that concept in the Progressive religion:

To be sure, any increase in centralized power and responsibility, expedient or inexpedient, is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy.  But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition must yield before the march of constructive national democracy….  [T]he average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.

Klein argues, to return to the question of austerity and to questions of spending, taxes, and Big Government:

The point of austerity is to solve a deficit problem, not yoke the future to the imperfect forecasts of the past.  Once the deficit problem goes away, so too does the reason for austerity.

Of course, it should go the other way, too. The Bush tax cuts, which were passed to pay down a surplus, should be rescinded now that deficits have returned.  But Republicans don’t see it that way.

Based on what theory, exactly, should taxes be increased?  Klein declines to offer any support at all for this bald, unsubstantiated claim.  Not the first particle of a fact, not a single line of logic.  Part of his failure, though, stems from his misunderstanding that the Bush tax cuts were intended to “pay down a surplus” (has there been a more cynically offered non sequitur—”pay down a surplus?”) rather than to leave more of Americans’ money in their own hands.  But this is symptomatic of Klein’s blinders (yes, that’s contradictory.  Deal with it).  Big Government is such an obviously positive wonder that explanation seems contained in the statement.

He adds to his curious remark above this:

Rather, austerity is one of many arguments marshaled toward the long-term end of shrinking the size of government.  That’s why a deal that solves the deficit problem and then sees government spending rise in its eight year is a failure rather than a success—it betrayed the actual goal of shrinking the size of the government, even if it succeeded in the putative goal of balancing the budget.

Here’s the cynicism of his austerity claims.  Klein conflates austerity with reduced government spending, austerity with leaving more money in the hands of the individuals otherwise taxed—as though more money in private hands makes somehow for a more limited existence.  No, what is austere is taking money away from those who already are paying far more than their share by raising taxes on them; or taking money away from anyone by raising taxes in the middle of a failed recovery or while deficit spending remains out of control.

He does states a truth, yet fails to recognize it.  A budget that grows government is, rather tautologically, a failure.  One of the points of the goal of shrinking the size of government (beyond facilitating the preservation of individual freedoms and duties) is to exercise better control over its budget—so as to eliminate deficits (not just reduce them), so as to pay down (if not eliminate, from time to time) the debt and keep it under control.

Moreover, Conservatives don’t see the effectivity of raising taxes in times of deficits.  Of course, they don’t—spending cuts also reduce/eliminate deficits, and more efficiently so.  Spending cuts are immediate and direct (note that I’m talking about actual cuts, not the accounting games that both parties play, wherein they claim a reduction in the rise in spending rate is a cut).  Tax increases, though, however well-intended, get diverted into funding another neat program—there’s always a neat program waiting for money—rather than get used to reduce deficits.

But Klein, like all pseudo-wonks of the Left, simply can’t conceive of spending cuts.  He can’t conceive of letting Americans see to their own ends without (his) Big Government hanging over their shoulder making sure that the ends are appropriate and that their satisfaction is via an approved means.

Klein concludes

There’s little doubt that a mixture of tax increases and spending cuts could bring deficits to manageable levels within a few years.  Add in some stimulus and we could even protect the recovery between here and there.  Moreover, since the discretionary spending cuts have already been made, the next set of spending cuts will likely focus on entitlements.

“Add in some stimulus….”  So much for the spending cuts.  He just doesn’t understand the whole premise of reducing spending.  But economics also is more than 100 years old, and so confusing to someone who finds it inconvenient.

And, yes, Ezra, there is considerable doubt that “a mixture of tax increases and spending cuts could bring deficits to manageable levels.”  That’s why there’s this debate in DC.

Finally: shrinking government would accomplish all of this, too, and it would make the manageability of the deficits more permanent.  But Klein ignores the larger point (I’m confident that he sees it, for all his confusion): even a manageable deficit represents debt growth, and our current debt of $161/3 trillion and growing already is at unsustainable levels—interest payments alone currently run to $220 billion/year and that’s only going to get worse as the coming Bernanke Inflation begins to take hold, driving up interest rates.  Imagine the precious entitlements that could be funded with that money were it not wasted on the debt of the profligate.  Imagine the national defense capability that could be had for that kind of money (which would represent a one-third increase in the 2012 DoD budget).  Imagine the real stimulus our economy could have were that money committed to a $220 billion reduction in the taxes Americans pay to Klein’s bloated government.

Spending cuts, though, as the means to eliminate deficits in order to enable paying down national debt, and shrinking government to a proper size so as to maintain that reduced spending and taxation, is inconceivable to today’s Progressives.

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