Friday, January 29, 2010

A deficit in common sense

When it comes to finances, I'll bet you were taught the same points I was. Live within your means. Save your money for the proverbial rainy day. Borrow money when you absolutely need to do so. If there are more problems than dollars, make tough choices.

So if I run my checkbook like that, and you do it like that, and most people do it like that, why doesn't Congress do it that way?

Because it can do it another way. The government can either borrow money like crazy or print more money; the former is better because it's less inflationary, but either method is not exactly a prescription to long-term economic health.

There has been a great deal of talk about the national debt and government deficits lately, some of it coming from the politicians themselves. And it really does make me a little ill to hear it. Since when do most of these people care?

The only recent President to manage a surplus in recent decades was Bill Clinton, who left office with one. As you recall, Ronald Reagan cut taxes in the early 1980's and then, as David Stockman pointed out right away, counted on some sort of magic to fill in the gap. It never came. The economy improved, but the excess federal spending throughout the Reagan years provided some of the reason why -- thus passing along the burden to the next fellow in office, and the one after him. That's in spite of the fact that even Reagan raised some taxes while in office, no matter what the image holds.

I had to laugh recently when Peggy Noonan wrote about how many of her friends and acquaintances, mostly Republican we assume, were worried about the current budget deficit and "hidden taxes." Where were those people from 2001 to 2009? During that time, the Bush Administration had to deal with the effects of 9/11, plus it fought two wars and put in a costly prescription drug benefit to health care. What was the response to that? Lowering taxes. (Indeed, the Republicans seem to want to lower taxes when times are good too, even while passing programs that cost money along the way. So when do we pay for anything?)

But there are no heroes here on either side of the aisle. The Democrats have charted a course that has us running billions of dollars in the red each year for the rest of the decade, which is only 29 days old. And they traditionally have been the bigger spenders of the two parties. In Robert Reich's book about life in the Clinton cabinet, he writes about how a little deficit spending wouldn't hurt too badly if it could fund some pet projects to help people. And the current health care reform debate sure could be sharpened if we had a much better idea what this might all cost.

Sometimes a crisis comes along that requires borrowing, and fast. The bank/housing meltdown of 2008 certainly qualified. An immediate response to 9/11 fits that standard too. We didn't need General Motors going under when unemployment was destined to hit double digits. And so forth. But the economic crunch is easing, and there's no sign of any more fiscal restraint on the way.

The same problem exists on a smaller basis on the state and local level. Here in New York, which has quite a net of social programs, paying for everything has become a problem -- based on the budget shortfall that is in the billions. And when a leader puts away some money for rainy days in "fund balances," he or she is criticized for hording the taxpayers' money.

A balanced budget is at a tactical disadvantage in Washington these days. Particular bills have an army of supporters, including lobbyists and supporting groups. And there is sometimes a political price to pay for a particular vote. Remember when some were criticized for slashing school lunch aid -- even though it was merely the rate of the increase that was slashed, and not the amount of aid itself?

This doesn't represent an endorsement for the "tea party" crowd either, who seem to want to say "no" to practically all government expenditures. We do need the government to take some actions. The question is, which ones?

You'd think someone would be willing to make some of the so-called hard decisions. Let's figure out what we need to do, and then come up with a way to pay for it. Should that be so hard?

After all, that's what the rest of us do every single day.

1 comment:

Glenn Locke, The Tall Thin Guy said...

The crazy thing is not the deficits we run now, during a severe recession, but the deficits we have run during good times. Keynes suggested it was a good idea for the govt to overspend in times of recession, not all the time.

The problem lies in a stupid public, who elect politicians who tell them they can have low taxes and lots of govt services at the same time. They tell us what we want to hear. That means we need to get our heads out of our asses.