Asymmetrical debt-reduction warfare

Updated
 
The Peter G. Peterson Foundation's 2012 Fiscal Summit was yesterday in D.C.
The Peter G. Peterson Foundation's 2012 Fiscal Summit was yesterday in D.C.

By now, everyone knows the score when it comes to bipartisan work on debt reduction: if there’s going to be a large, long-term deal, Democrats are supposed to make concessions on entitlements and Republicans are supposed to make concessions on taxes. Putting aside the question of whether any such “grand bargain” is worthwhile, those are the basic parameters.

The conventional wisdom is that such a deal is impossible because “both sides” aren’t prepared to compromise. The political establishment prefers to believe this, because to tell the truth – one side is open to concessions, the other isn’t – would be evidence of “bias.”

But as Suzy Khimm reported this afternoon, yesterday offered an illustrative example of reality.

[A]t the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s 2012 Fiscal Summit, there was a clear difference between Democrats and Republicans: Democrats talked constantly about how they should be talking about entitlements. Republicans reiterated their position that they won’t talk taxes. […]

For all that the Democrats tried to show they were willing to talk entitlements, you didn’t hear any Republicans at Peterson’s fiscal summit saying that they should be willing to compromise more by considering tax increases.

We know what’s driving the debt. We know Bush-era tax breaks are the biggest slice of the deficit pie. And we know Republicans don’t care.

It shouldn’t be controversial, but rhetoric about a “debt crisis” notwithstanding, Republicans are wholly unconcerned with fiscal responsibility, as the entirety of the Bush era helped demonstrate. They are an anti-tax, anti-government party, which cares about the deficit they created only insofar as it affects their anti-tax, anti-government agenda.

If the $15 trillion debt were actually the civilization-threatening menace the GOP pretends it is, they would, rather quickly, accept modest tax increases. If they were willing to work with Democrats on a major debt-reduction compromise, they’d necessarily keep at least some tax increases on the table, just as Democrats have been willing to put entitlements on the table.

But what we see is asymmetrical debt-reduction warfare – one side is ready to deal; one side isn’t. One side is ready to clean up a mess they didn’t create; one side will only accept a solution to the mess they did create on their own terms.

This is going to get worse before it gets better.

We talked earlier about Mitt Romney’s truly bizarre speech yesterday on debt reduction, which was completely detached from anything resembling reality. But Greg Sargent had a follow-up piece that stressed a point I glossed over: Romney’s platform not would not only increase the debt he’s vowing to increase, his agenda would be far worse for the debt than anything proposed by the Democrat Romney is trying to replace.

If you scan through all the media attention Romney’s speech received, you are hard-pressed to find any news accounts that tell readers the following rather relevant points:

1) Nonpartisan experts believe Romney’s plans would increase the deficit far more than Obama’s would.

2) George W. Bush’s policies arguably are more responsible for increasing the deficit than Obama’s are.

Greg talked to the Tax Policy Center’s Roberton Williams, who said, “The bottom line is that whatever baseline you use, until Romney makes good on his promise to pay for his tax cuts, he would increase the deficit far more than Obama would.”

For the record, I tend to think focusing on debt reduction while there’s high unemployment and weak growth is a mistake. There’s no point in searching for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist (an imaginary “debt crisis”), while ignoring solutions to a problem that does exist (a tepid, fragile recovery in the wake of a brutal recession).

But if we’re going to have a conversation about debt reduction – along the lines of the one we saw yesterday – the political world should at least be coherent and honest about it. Pretending both sides bear responsibility for their reluctance to compromise is neither coherent nor honest.

Debt

Asymmetrical debt-reduction warfare

Updated