For Kicking the Can Down the Road

By Mike Dorf

"Kicking the can down the road" is not usually a positive metaphor.  One who engages in can-kicking fails to tackle a problem, instead deferring it to later, when it may be far worse.  But can-kicking may sometimes be a good policy, or at least a better option than the alternatives.  In my latest Verdict column, I argue that the President and Congress would do well to kick the can down the road, punt, cop out, etc., rather than addressing the supposedly "real" problem represented by the fiscal cliff.  Republicans want to avoid tax hikes for the wealthy, while Democrats want to avoid deep spending cuts.  I argue that they can both get what they want (for now) if they simply agree to let the short-term deficit grow.

But won't that add to the debt?  In the short run, yes, but in the long run maybe not.  The Bush wars and tax cuts (the latter renewed by Congress and President Obama two years ago) are major drivers of the deficit and debt, but so are reduced revenues due to the economic downturn of the last four and a half years.  A policy that spurs economic growth--or avoids reductions in economic growth--could do more for the federal government's fiscal health than an austerity program that cuts short-term deficits but then sends the economy back into recession.

Anyway, even if I'm wrong about this particular set of policy questions, I want to put in a good word for kicking the can down the road more generally.  It seems to me that can-kicking is clearly a bad idea in the face of a known problem that is very likely to get worse if not comprehensively addressed.  But we don't always face such circumstances.

Global climate change is probably an example of a problem that will get worse if unaddressed.  The Republican approach is to deny the existence of the problem.  The Democratic approach recognizes it's a problem but doesn't propose to do nearly enough to combat it, mostly because key constituencies would strongly oppose the sorts of measures needed: very high energy taxes; the phasing out of animal agriculture; etc.  And yet, such large-scale adjustments would be better than doing nothing now and reaping the whirlwind when the polar ice caps finish melting.

But even global climate change is not a slam-dunk for immediate action.  After all, such action is expensive and, for many people, inconvenient.  What if someone comes up with an easy technological fix in ten years?  Assuming we can just hang on in the interim, that might be much cheaper.  (Some of the steps to address global climate change would be worth doing anyway, for other reasons, of course, but I'll put that aside.)  My own judgment is that the downside risk of doing nothing or nearly nothing is too great to simply hope for a technological fix.  It may come, but it may not, and so prudence suggests we should assume not.

The fiscal cliff example is nearly the exact opposite because the "something" that is being proposed now--dramatic deficit reduction--would likely do affirmative harm, so can-kicking is actually superior as an affirmative policy choice.  In that sense it's not really can-kicking at all.

So, do I have a good example of genuine can-kicking that is, at least viewed ex ante, genuinely preferable to a concerted good-faith effort to solve some underlying problem?  I'm not sure, but I think I know what such an example should look like: A delicate equilibrium in which there are great risks in each direction and mitigation/prevention efforts are expensive.  Population may be an example.  Globally, we currently face greater risks from overpopulation but many developed countries face a local under-population problem.

Let's focus for now on the global situation.  Current projections have the world human population topping 10 billion by the end of the 21st century.  Suppose we conclude that both the long-term likelihood of and risks from overpopulation are greater than the likelihood of and risks from underpopulation.  If the costs of measures taken now to address future overpopulation are quite large, we might nonetheless conclude that we should not take such measures yet due to the uncertainty in future population projections.  Perhaps we'll end up with an underpopulation problem after all and our efforts will have been both expensive and harmful.  And vice-versa, if we take measures now based on the fear of underpopulation--but it turns out that overpopulation was the real threat--we will make things worse.  The can-kicker says let's not do anything very costly for the time being, waiting to see whether a problem goes away on its ownor comes more clearly into focus.

To be clear, I'm not saying that I know enough about uncertainty and the risks from over versus underpopulation to advocate can-kicking.  I am simply saying that if it has the characteristics I've described, then can-kicking would make sense.