Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Deficit Panic Again? Self-righteous Pomposity and Empty Moralizing About Debt

by Neil H. Buchanan
 
Last Friday, a Washington Post news article ran under this headline: "House aides weigh deficit reduction as way to revamp economic plan for Manchin."  Given that Senator Joe Manchin's statements about fiscal policy over at least the last six months have been either confused or dishonest (usually both), this was one of those recurring moments of deep frustration that are familiar to anyone who knows anything about fiscal policy.  It is understandable that House Democrats would feel the need to offer to take Manchin at his word, trying to rework the Build Back Better legislation to win his vote by giving him a bill that would lead to "deficit reduction" -- even though the original legislation that Manchin has rejected was "paid for."
 
But it is also inevitably not going to work, because of Manchin's confusion and/or dishonesty.  Moreover, even if this does somehow win him over, it will be at the cost of kowtowing to economic illiteracy.  Long-term public investment spending should be paid for with borrowed funds, which is the way that state governments finance such spending (notwithstanding "balanced budget requirements" that governors brag about obeying) and that private businesses finance their long-term investments in future growth.

This has nothing to do with inflation, by the way.  Last week on Verdict (here and here) and on Dorf on Law (here and here), I indulged in a veritable orgy of analysis of the misinformation and confusion that is being peddled on the right, the center, and even in some places on the left about the recent uptick in US inflation (an uptick that is mirrored in other countries, making it clearly not the result of a US policy error).  But even if I were wrong and inflation in the US were as worrisome as others say it is, nothing that is at stake in the debate over spending and deficits in a stripped down (even more than it has already been stripped down) Build Back Better plan has any implications for inflation.  The amounts of money that would be spent each year in that bill (even if not paid for with offsetting tax revenues) are too small to have any nontrivial impact on inflation.

Yet the deficit story and the inflation story do have a common element: preening self-righteousness from those who complain about them.  There are, unfortunately, no backups in the supply chain that delivers uninterrupted nonsense wrapped in smug certitude among those who complain about economic policy when Democrats are in power.  The less the speaker knows about the issue, the worse it becomes.  And when the speaker's entire stock in trade is to deliver self-satisfied sermons about why other people must continue to suffer for the greater good, pronouncements about economics become a black hole.  Yes, this column will discuss George F. Will.
 
Those who, like Will, condemn the supposedly deep immorality of not-right-wing economic policies rely on an unchecked presumption that deficits are obviously, completely bad, and so is inflation.  Before turning our attention to the dean of uninformed punditry, however, it is important to note that the problems with press coverage of economic issues -- and especially deficits -- are not limited to the editorial pages.
 
On multiple occasions, I have quoted Ezra Klein's 2013 observation that, "[f]or reasons I've never quite understood, the rules of reportorial neutrality don't apply when it comes to the deficit. On this one issue, reporters are permitted to openly cheer a particular set of highly controversial policy solutions."  Klein then referred to a reporter who asked a politician whether then-President "Obama would do 'the right thing' on entitlements -- with 'the right thing' clearly meaning 'cut entitlements.'"  It is bad enough that attacking Social Security and Medicare was all the rage in Washington at the time, on a largely bipartisan basis.  Klein's point was that it is far worse for supposedly objective reporters to treat as TRUE a set of policy preferences that are at the very least contestable -- not even treating them as merely presumptively true, because there is no rebutting the presumption.

Where does this come from?  As my columns last week discussed, deficits and inflation are not conceptually simple, and they are thus difficult to explain and understand.  Because the topics are inherently complicated, the economic analyses of both issues are also often counterintuitive.  No matter how often Paul Krugman uses his lofty media perch to try to set the record straight, the standard response is: "Yeah, sure, whatever.  So anyway, everyone knows that deficits (or, in other contexts, inflation) are terrible, terrible, terrible."

Krugman's repeated efforts to debunk all of this have hardly been couched in academic niceties.  After the 2020 election, he worried that after Biden took office, the conventional wisdom would rear its ugly head once again.  Recounting Obama's fateful mistake to "pivot" toward anti-deficit pandering before the Great Recession had even ended, Krugman pointed out that the hoary, timeworn conventional anti-deficit wisdom had again won the day.
Where did this conventional wisdom come from? Not from the markets, which showed no concern whatsoever about U.S. solvency. Not from the math, which didn’t suggest any problem with running large deficits for multiple years. Not from history: advanced countries like Britain for much of the 20th century and Japan for much of the 21st so far saw debt exceed 150 percent of GDP without experiencing any kind of crisis.

But going on about debt, talking about the need to make tough choices, sounded serious and hardheaded. It sounded even more serious because all the other serious-sounding people were saying the same thing.
Much of my writing about policy issues (very much including last week's columns regarding inflation) is of necessity largely aimed at the nonsense that we see on the op-ed pages of the major papers and in their talking-head equivalents on TV news.
 
Some commentators appear regularly in high-profile venues, but their analysis is so sloppy and their influence so obviously minimal that it is almost never worth calling them out.  For example, I only highlighted a column that The Post's Henry Olsen had written last year when he crossed the line from tedious right-wing talking points to constitutional nonsense.  Otherwise, the usual prattling from that corner of the punditocracy is so vacuous that it does not even raise one's blood pressure.

Other columnists ought to know better, however, which is why I find it more worthwhile to call out nominal liberals and centrists like The Post's Catherine Rampell or Dana Milbank, or David Leonhardt of The New York Times.  There is at least some basis on which to engage with what they write, which is necessary to be able to respond with anything beyond "Oh brother!" -- which is my usual reaction to the Frank Brunis of the world, to say nothing of the in-house outrage machines that The Post inflicts on its readers.

But George F. Will is not in any of those categories.  He is wrong almost all of the time (occasionally taking a Tory anti-Trump position that causes him to say the right thing for the worst reasons), but not in the boring way that we see in his imitators.  He is simply so far gone that, even when he is saying something unexpected that might otherwise provoke a response, the better path is to say, "Wait, Will is still pumping out his weird brand of nonsense?  Who knew?" and then move on.
 
One of my favorite examples of how ridiculous Will can be was when he offered an explanation for why liberals support spending on public transportation: "[T]he real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism."  Whatever else one might think after reading a gobsmacker like that, no one would ever claim that it was the conventional wisdom or the same-old-same-old.  And even within the universe of snide red-baiting, this is sui generis.  Liberals, Will assures us, do not want people to ride trains because of all of the economic, health, and environmental damage caused by our car-obsessed culture.  No, we are trying to regiment people into the brave new world of collectivist groupthink.  A-plus for originality.

Even though Will has always been in the lightly populated category of pundits who can repeat completely standard, boring conservative talking points ("Democrats are commies," "taxes on the rich are bad") in unusual ways, I have all but ignored him over the years.  I rarely read beyond his headline and first paragraph, because it only takes that long to figure out whether he has anything at all to say.  The lack of substance dominates his occasionally clever "hot take," leaving little or nothing with which to engage.
 
Indeed, searching through the fifteen-plus years that Dorf on Law has been up and running, I found exactly one column in which I mentioned Will at all.  (I noted there that, even when Will was still relatively young, The Harvard Lampoon in about 1980 had parodied his style by publishing a column by "George Fwill" titled "Why I Love the Feudal System.")  My Dorf on Law column mentioning Will was published in 2010, when he had managed to find and mangle an obscure economic theory in the service of arguing that people should be thrown off the unemployment relief rolls during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

That Will is almost never worth talking about, however, does not mean that his influence is not problematic.  He has spent decades on the chat shows, spouting his safe bromides mixed with self-righteous mumblings.  He also figured out how to make himself -- the most gleefully elitist self-caricature of his time -- into a supposedly relatable character by writing a pretentious book about the beauty of baseball.

Without Will, there never would have been a David Brooks, and therefore not a Ross Douthat -- very self-conscious poseurs who succeed in selling prejudice and middle-brow thinking as deep analysis.  If Newt Gingrich was rightly called "a dumb person's idea of a smart person," then Will and his offspring are what people with college degrees (and sometimes more) think true intellectuals sound like.  Brooks even managed to be invited to teach at Yale based on that shtick, and these are also the people who are called upon by politicians of both parties to provide "outside" advice.  That is not to say that Will invented this role, as he merely copied William F. Buckley's example of using pretentious word choices and world-weary "realism" to sell himself as the real intellectual deal.
 
Most of the time, of course, Will's best efforts are still rather dull.  When the Supreme Court was hearing a challenge to a huge Christian cross on public land in suburban Maryland, Will thought it quite the takedown to call the complainants "persnickety."  Last week, he decided to wade into the Right's favorite target -- universities that are supposedly indoctrinating the young and attacking put-upon conservatives -- by emptying his thesaurus.  Before referring to one university's administrators as "prissy bullies" (an especially unwise adjective from someone like Will), he offered this:
Today, bureaucrats parasitic off academia’s scholarly mission outnumber actual scholars. These threat-discerners, diversity-planners, bias-detectors, sensitivity-promoters, sustainability-guarantors and other beneficiaries of today’s multibillion-dollar social justice industry are doing well during the nation’s supposed apocalypse.
Unlike his claim that trains are Stalinist proto-gulags, this is merely a series of empty insults.  But at least he might try to defend himself by saying that -- at some point long, long ago -- he had direct experience in a serious academic environment (as a Ph.D. student at Princeton).  He knows nothing about academia today beyond what he picks up from the Right's culture wars websites, but he at least is not talking about a subject in which he has no expertise, knowledge, or experience.

Which brings us back to deficits and the national debt.  While everyone around him was writing uninformed, panicky pieces about inflation, Will decided to write an uninformed, panicky piece about deficits.  The short opening paragraph says it all: "There is an exception to the federal government’s general inability to accomplish anything briskly. It drove the national debt past $30 trillion this past week, which only two years ago it had not been expected to accomplish until 2026."
 
So we are immediately off to the races with an article that focuses on "gross" debt rather than "net" debt, which means that Will is including in "the debt problem" money that the federal government owes itself.  And I mean that literally.  He then scolds politicians for not acting like "prudent people" (getting the moralizing going full bore), sneeringly dismisses the reliance of "deficit doves" on crazy things like, say, what the financial markets think, and so on.  The entire piece, moreover, is essentially a shouting near-plagiaristic rewrite of a recent anti-deficit screed that he happened across on some conservative think-tank's website.

In pure Will-ian fashion, the piece ends with an irrelevant reference to the Washington Football Team's new name (the Commanders, which is boring but at least has the delightful side-effect of making it possible to call a billionaire's team in the nation's capital the Commies), going out of his way to print the team's previous, racist name for no apparent reason other than to be gratuitously hateful.

The upside of this rare moment of reading one of Will's columns all the way through is that it reminds us that even the most successful practitioner of right-wing opinionating has nothing new to say about federal budget deficits.  If George Will, who can turn anything into pseudo-intellectual righteous moralizing, cannot say anything new or unique to spice up anti-deficit panic, then maybe that well has finally run dry.  One can hope.