Ken Macleod on the Liberalism of Fools
China's Leadership Cadre

Time for the Washington Post to Retire Robert Samuelson (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?)

People at the Washington Post periodically ask me why I don't presume that the employees of the Washington Post are people of good will, trying hard, who occasionally make mistakes.

Here's one reason why: Robert Samuelson this morning regurgitates a piece of mendacious Republican spin that I'm tired of. I've finally had enough.

He needs to be retired, and the sooner the better:

Getting Past Budget Blab: It's the Bill Clinton Delusion: that the Democrats are now the party of "fiscal responsibility," because Clinton engineered the first budget surpluses (1998-2001) since 1969. The reality is that those surpluses stemmed more from good luck than from Clinton's policies.... [F]ederal spending as a share of GDP dropped from 22.1 percent in 1992 to 18.5 percent in 2001. How can anyone doubt Clinton's achievement? Easy. He didn't plan or predict those surpluses. They resulted mostly from an unanticipated surge in taxes flowing from the economic boom -- something that Clinton didn't create. As for lower spending, that mainly stemmed from the ending of the Cold War -- something else Clinton didn't cause. From 1992 to 2001 defense outlays dropped from 4.8 percent of GDP to 3 percent. Once budget surpluses occurred, interest payments fell from 3 percent of GDP in 1996 to 2 percent in 2001. Elsewhere in the budget, there was little spending restraint. Indeed, Clinton didn't originally promise to balance the budget. In his early years, he merely pledged "deficit reduction" -- Bush's present policy...

The best way to do the math is to start out with the fact that the federal budget was in deficit of 4.7% of GDP in 1992, and projected (as of April 1993) to rise to a deficit of 5.5% of GDP by 2000. Instead, it swung to a surplus of 2.4% in 2000--a swing of 7.9 percentage points. Of this:

  1. Approximately 2.0% is due to a booming economy.
  2. An extra 1.0% to the high value of capital gains taxes paid in 2000 because of the high value of the stock market.
  3. 3.0% to the effects of the Clinton-Mitchell-Foley 1993 deficit-reduction package.
  4. 1.8% to the effects of the 1990 Bush-Mitchell-Foley deficit reduction package (overwhelmingly the effects of the 1990 discretionary spending caps on defense spending).

Some proportion of the booming economy was the result of good fiscal policy: deficit reduction allowed the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates lower than otherwise, and enabled businesses to more easily undertake the high-tech investments that produced so much American productivity growth in the 1990s.

Note that Samuelson is careful not to talk about how Clinton policies deserve credit for the reductions in the deficit that came from higher taxes. He is careful not to give credit to Clinton policies for reductions in the deficit that came from the fact that earlier deficit reduction reduced the outstanding debt on which interest had to be paid. He is careful not to give credit to Clinton policies for the effects of sane fiscal policy that allowed for lower interest rates and thus lower interest payments on outstanding debt. He is careful not to give credit to Clinton policies for deficit reduction produced by the caps on domestic discretionary spending.

Note Samuelson's phrase: those surpluses [of the 1990s] stemmed more from good luck than from Clinton's policies. That's "truthiness": without the stock market bubble and the economic boom, the U.S. would probably have had a trivial deficit in 2000. In that sense, that there were surpluses--rather than small deficits--is "mostly" from the economic boom. But that's not the truth: Clinton did a great deal of heavy lifting to massively improve America's fiscal situation in the 1990s. Whatever else you think of Clinton, this was a real accomplishment for which Clinton deserves credit.

Note that Samuelson doesn't quite say Clinton policies had little to do with the improvement in America's fiscal balance in the 1990s. But that's what he wants his readers to think: that Clinton policies did little.

Why? I don't know why he wants to misrepresent fiscal policy in the 1990s. I can't even call Robert Samuelson a right-wing hack. The real right-wingers I know openly and aggressively say that Clinton's fiscal policies were vastly, vastly preferable to Bush's. Republican hack? Establishment hack? Tell me what I should call Samuelson, and why he is doing what he is doing.

I do know that if the Washington Post wants to reduce its reputation as a swamp of mendacious Republican-biased spin, retiring Robert Samuelson would be a good start.