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May 08, 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another Robert Samuelson Edition)

Mark Thoma directs us to Robert Samuelson in Newsweek on Washington's apparent lack of concern about the budget deficit:

MSNBC - A Deficit of Seriousness : There's no one in Washington--no one with any power--trying to balance the budget. President George W. Bush's budget did not ever envision reaching a balance. The Republican Congress's new budget resolution purports to halve the budget deficit by 2010 but does so only on the basis of optimistic assumptions. Balancing the budget is simply too much trouble. It requires asking unpopular questions about who deserves help, which government programs actually work--and how to pay for the rest. Plenty of programs could disappear without serious ill effects....

In this debate, there is no high moral ground. To critics, the Republican budget strategy is 'starve the beast'--cut taxes and use the resulting deficits as an excuse to squeeze spending. Agree or disagree, that's principled; it's a means to an end (smaller government). In practice, the real Republican strategy is more cynical--cut taxes and feed the beast. As a share of national income, federal taxes in fiscal 2004 were 16.3 percent, the lowest since 1959. Meanwhile, budget increases go well beyond defense and homeland security. Even excluding these categories and 'mandatory' programs (Social Security, Medicare, etc.), federal spending has risen 4.8 percent a year (after inflation) under Bush, estimates Stephen Slivinski.... In 2003, Bush proposed and Congress approved the biggest new spending program since Lyndon Johnson, the Medicare drug benefit. It was all deficit financing; there was no new tax for any of it. Gone is any sense of shame about overspending and undertaxing. For 2006, the... estimated deficit close to $400 billion. Bridging that gap would require Republicans and Democrats to do what neither want--scrub government of less useful spending and then raise taxes. Democrats prefer to deplore Republican 'irresponsibility.' Republicans prefer to tax less and spend more...

My first reaction was, "Huh?" I thought that the Democrats in the House of Representatives had offered a plan to balance the budget--by 2012, in fact.

But Samuelson explains this away:

In floor debate, the Democrats never offered a realistic balanced budget. The closest they came was in the House, where they promised balance by 2012. But that happens only by assuming that all of Bush's tax cuts expire in 2011--a position that even many Democrats reject...

Ah. Now I see. The Democratic leadership's plan was not "realistic." The only "realistic" plan, in Samuelson's eyes, is one that (a) keeps the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and (b) balances the budget by cutting spending.

But then shouldn't somebody make his lead be different, and accurate? It's not "There's no one in Washington... trying to balance the budget," it's "The Republicans are cynical feckless cowards who aren't trying to balance the budget, and the Democratic leadership is trying to balance the budget in a way that I don't like." Truth in packaging would be a good thing, after all.

Posted by DeLong at May 8, 2005 05:22 PM