Fiscal Orthodoxy is for Big Fat Idiots, and Other Observations.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my FindLaw column this week (published here yesterday), I return to two of my favorite topics: Social Security, and intergenerational obligations. Many readers of this blog will recall that I have been rather obsessed with the question of justice between generations for the last several years. (See, e.g., here, here, and here.) In fact, my sabbatical is largely devoted to expanding my work on generational justice beyond the fiscal policy questions that motivated my interest in the subject in the first place.

Until now, I have been surprisingly successful in avoiding bringing this part of my academic life into my FindLaw columns; but in this case, I was provoked: David Brooks wrote an especially uninformed and misleading column last week repeating the "greedy seniors are cheating the young" mantra that sparked my earlier work in this area.

The bulk of my FindLaw column is devoted to summarizing the major analytical finding in the article that I published in the GW Law Review's symposium issue last Fall. (That volume also included articles by DoL stalwarts Mike Dorf, Sherry Colb, Bob Hockett, Jamie Colburn, and Ori Herstein.) Specifically, relying on the (generally pessimistic) forecasts from the Social Security Trustees, the economic fortunes of future generations -- even in the face of deficits in the Medicare and Social Security programs -- are astoundingly promising. In terms of the "stuff" that GDP measures, Americans in 2084 are projected to be 2-4.5 times richer on average than Americans in 2009. That's 2-4.5 times, not 2-4.5 percent!! I then point out that this gives us the opportunity to be truly benevolent to future generations by giving them a better environment in which to live. Happily, the natural environment can be improved while still leaving future generations significantly better off in material terms than we are.

Early in the column, I point out that this "save our grandchildren from these awful entitlement-fueled deficits" meme is entirely, and sadly, bipartisan. Not just Blue Dog Democrats, but even supposed liberals like Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) have made these arguments quite loudly. I specifically cite Franken's hilarious book (the title of which is especially funny in its full form), Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, which includes a bizarrely out of place chapter in which he laments the fiscal irresponsibility of his generation toward his son's generation. His message is numbingly familiar to anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with this debate: Children can't vote, so we Baby Boomers have shamelessly stolen the birthright of future generations by lavishing out-of-control entitlement spending on ourselves.

One interesting question is why someone like Franken would believe this reactionary nonsense -- nonsense that fed Bush's nearly-successful push to privatize Social Security and that still feeds the efforts to strangle Social Security and Medicare. A couple of possible explanations:

(1) He no longer believes this. The book was published in 1996, and Franken's views might have changed in the interim. I have not been following his short Senate career, so I can only say that I have not heard him say anything to repudiate his former views. Of course, he has not been pulling a Lieberman and siding with the Republicans, either.

(2) Franken is not a liberal but rather a partisan Democrat. He is certainly at his best when ridiculing Republicans, and it is impossible to imagine a more committed party man. That does not make him a liberal. Indeed, he has long identified himself as a "DLC Democrat," referring to the pseudo-centrist Democratic Leadership Council that was formed in the 1980's to move the party to the right (producing, among others, Bill Clinton). These are the people who, for example, pushed Clinton to adopt a goal of annual budget balance in response to the Gingrich revolution.

Whether or not Al Franken in particular still holds these orthodox views on fiscal policy and entitlement spending, however, it is clear that many current Democrats do. One such Democrat is Barack Obama, who is making noises about "fixing" Social Security, even though there is simply no need to spend the political capital today to address a problem that might never come into being at all and that can certainly be handled responsibly at a later date.

A few weeks ago, I accused the Democrats of panicking and pandering about budget deficits. (Link here.) While it is true that there would be political peril if Democrats were to come out strongly in favor of deficit spending, it is also true that they are getting hammered about deficits anyway, even though it is manifestly true that deficits rose faster (and for worse reasons, which is really the point) under Republican rule. Moreover, it is not necessary for Democrats to say, "We were wrong, and we now agree with Neil Buchanan that budget deficits are not always horrible and can in fact be good for the economy." They can simply do everything that they can to talk about other issues that resonate with voters -- and to advocate policies that would actually make people better off (unlike their deficit-reduction plans).

What makes Social Security and Medicare different, however, is that the public does not really want either program to be changed. Bush's privatization plan was defeated, even in the shadow of the faux-mandate from Bush's re-election and with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The successful opposition to Obama's health care proposals, moreover, was fueled in part by Republicans' scare tactics that portrayed attempts to control cost increases in the Medicare program as "Medicare cuts." And who can forget the famous "keep the government out of Medicare" hilarity from some of Obama's fiercest critics at town hall meetings?

In short, while I can at least see (but ultimately disagree with) the arguments of those who refuse to run the political risk of seeming to be "soft on deficits," there is not even an expedient political reason to adopt the fiscal orthodoxy regarding entitlement spending. There is no excuse for giving ground (in particular on Social Security), especially when even the most pessimistic forecasts show a materially richer future for generations to come.