Think Tanked

by Neil H. Buchanan

My new Verdict column, "Budgetary Nonsense Across the Republican Landscape," uses the Trump candidacy as an excuse to talk about the Republicans' uniformly crazy attitudes about deficits and the national debt.  I quote extensively from Trump's appearance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on September 22, in which Trump's series of laughable statements included this bizarre assertion about the federal debt: "You know, when you get up to the 24 trillion . . . 23 . . . 24, that’s like a magic number . . .  They say . . . Can I tell you what? They say it’s the number at which we become a large-scale version of Greece, and that’s not good. And we’re very close to that number. Not good."

I had never heard anyone make this "magic number" claim before, which is yet further proof of the bizarre anti-genius that is Trump.  Yet we have all heard Republicans -- presidential candidates and otherwise -- make similarly uninformed statements.  At this point, it resembles a nervous tic, with Republicans blurting out, "We owe 18 trillion dollars!" almost at random.  Context?  No thank you.  Defensible claims about exactly why that is bad?  No way.  Consideration of the trade-offs that would be necessary, if we did decide to reduce that number?  Please.

Instead, as I note later in the column, we find that the alternatives to Trump, the supposedly serious and sober guys whose fortunes will soar as soon as Trump begins to implode, all sound as bad or worse.  In particular, Ohio governor (and former Gingrich lieutenant during the Contract on America years) John Kasich is being touted as the kind of serious, experienced guy that we should all be happy to see the Republicans nominate.  Who cares that his big issue -- the issue that he used to launch his candidacy, but that has not yet come up in the mosh pit of the pre-primary campaign -- is a call for a constitutional convention to pass a balanced budget amendment?

What is amazing about all of this -- even setting aside the separate insanity of trying to accomplish this through a constitutional convention, which even Justice Scalia has rejected -- is that a balanced budget amendment is exactly the kind of unserious, content-free proposal for which Trump is famous.  "Hey, Trump, how are you going to stop illegal immigration?"  "I'm going to stop illegal immigration, because you have to stop illegal immigration, and people are going to love me for it!"  "Hey, Kasich, what's your policy on federal debt?"  "I'm going to stop debt from growing, because you have to stop debt from growing, and people are going to love me for it!"

OK, so we know that the Republican presidential field is unimpressive.  And the less said about the Republicans in Congress, the better.  But surely there are impressive, serious statesmen who no longer have to worry about re-election but who remain engaged with policy.  They have answers, don't they?

As I noted in today's column, there are a lot of former politicians who stay in Washington and spend their time trying to put lipstick on the "debt is going to destroy us" pig.  Because far too many Democrats have bought into this idea, the group is depressingly bipartisan.  Certainly, the kings of bipartisan budgetary nonsense are Bowles and Simpson, who even to this day are given reverent attention by the Beltway press and other would-be serious people, notwithstanding their utter lack of seriousness.

Unfortunately, Bowles and Simpson are hardly alone.  In fact, their shtick has long been institutionalized in Washington, in the form or various lobbying organizations that masquerade as think tanks.  There is so much of this nonsense out there that, earlier this year, I coined a catchall name for such groups: The Generic Deficit Hyperventilation Committee (GDHC).  Being completely interchangeable, I saw no need to pick on any particular GDHC (or to increase its trackback numbers) by naming it.  Much like the extra-crazy House Republicans who pushed John Boehner out of the House, GDHC's are a pack of undifferentiated zealots.

In a July post, I revived the GDHC concept, and a frequent reader of this blog asked playfully on the comment board: "Why not name names?"  He noted in particular that it appeared that the Heritage Foundation fit my description, based on the news of that moment.  As I described above, my general policy of not naming the particular GDHC to which I respond on any given day is based on the belief that to treat them as separate entities is to give them credit for independence of thought, which they clearly lack.  However, it actually is important to be clear that there are different types of think tanks in DC, and Heritage is actually not a GDHC, even though it often parrots their lines.

Any description of the DC think-tank world must begin with Brookings, which has a mostly deserved reputation for leaning left, although it (like a lot of center-left types) takes great pains to prove that it is not biased.  Brookings is huge, and it sponsors research on virtually every public policy topic.  In my area of policy research, Brookings covers the map by working jointly with the Urban Institute to sponsor the Tax Policy Center (TPC).

The success of Brookings on the center and center-left encouraged imitators on the right and far right.  The most well-known of these groups are the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Heritage Foundation, and the strictly libertarian Cato Institute.  Each of those organizations has tried to maintain a nonpartisan veneer, although Heritage pretty much dropped that masquerade over the last decade or so, throwing off all pretenses when it brought on former Senator Jim DeMint to head the group.  Although AEI tries to be the respectable right-wing alternative to Brookings, it still toes the party line and houses people who are anything but respectful of divergent views (although they might be good at pretending not to be extremists).

All of those think tanks are essentially one-stop-shopping destinations, the virtual department stores of the policy wonk world.  They are surrounded by a universe of think tanks that focus on specific areas of policy.  In my corner of the world, the economics/tax/budget-oriented think tanks include the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).  There is another group called Third Way, which holds itself out as the ultimate bipartisan shopping center, but its approach is essentially warmed-over Clintonian triangulation of the style of the Democratic Leadership Council during the 1980's and 1990's.  (There are right-leaning groups, too, of course.)  Each has a slightly different approach, and they succeed in producing work that is (of necessity) not of academic quality but is respectful of the norms of reasoned debate and evidence-based argumentation.

Although all of the groups that I have discussed above issue documents relating to deficits, and although some of those documents (but certainly not all, especially not those from CBPP and EPI) repeat the nonsense on debt that I have described above, they are not GDHC's.  The genius of the GDHC world is that it mimics the form of the think tank world, with none of the content.  As I have noted in previous posts, much of the GDHC world was created by an obsessed billionaire (who is also a former Commerce Secretary under President Nixon).  These groups most prominently include the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and Fix the Debt.  The Bipartisan Policy Center is slightly different, but it probably belongs in this group.

These groups have deep ties to Republicans and what used to be called Blue Dog Democrats, some of whom got the GDHC concept rolling years ago by creating the Concord Coalition.  Fix the Debt has notable ties to Wall Street, and it has tried to create astroturf campaigns among college students, in an attempt to make it appear that the anti-debt campaign is not a front for a bunch of out-of-touch business types who want to dismantle Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

In short, there is a multi-layered world of organizations and people in Washington who are using the national debt as a Trojan horse to roll back the New Deal and the Great Society.  That world surely includes people who mistakenly think that the debt is intrinsically bad, but that merely makes them useful to the people who know what they are really trying to accomplish.  It is not a conspiracy.  It is, instead, a very well financed campaign to distract people by making us think that we are all going to become Greece by being fiscally profligate.  That none of that is true means nothing to them.