Willie Sutton Wept: There are three things you need to know about the current budget debate. First, it’s essentially fraudulent. Second, most people posing as deficit hawks are faking it. Third, while President Obama hasn’t fully avoided the fraudulence, he’s less bad than his opponents — and he deserves much more credit for fiscal responsibility than he’s getting.
About the fraudulence: Last month, Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center described the president as the “anti-Willie Sutton,” after the holdup artist who reputedly said he robbed banks because that’s where the money is. Indeed, Mr. Obama has lately been going where the money isn’t, making a big deal out of a freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending, which accounts for only 12 percent of the budget.
But that’s what everyone does. House Republicans talk big about spending cuts — but focus solely on that same small budget sliver.
And by proposing sharp spending cuts right away, Republicans aren’t just going where the money isn’t, they’re also going when the money isn’t. Slashing spending while the economy is still deeply depressed is a recipe for slower economic growth, which means lower tax receipts — so any deficit reduction from G.O.P. cuts would be at least partly offset by lower revenue.
The whole budget debate, then, is a sham. House Republicans, in particular, are literally stealing food from the mouths of babes — nutritional aid to pregnant women and very young children is one of the items on their cutting block — so they can pose, falsely, as deficit hawks.
What would a serious approach to our fiscal problems involve? I can summarize it in seven words: health care, health care, health care, revenue.... [A]nyone who is really serious about the budget should be focusing mainly on health care. And by focusing, I don’t mean writing down a number and expecting someone else to make that number happen — a dodge known in the trade as a “magic asterisk.” I mean getting behind specific actions to rein in costs.
By that standard, the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, whose work is now being treated as if it were the gold standard of fiscal seriousness, was in fact deeply unserious. Its report “was one big magic asterisk,” Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. So is the much-hyped proposal by Paul Ryan, the G.O.P.’s supposed deep thinker du jour, to replace Medicare with vouchers whose value would systematically lag behind health care costs. What’s supposed to happen when seniors find that they can’t afford insurance?
What would real action on health look like? Well, it might include things like giving an independent commission the power to ensure that Medicare only pays for procedures with real medical value; rewarding health care providers for delivering quality care rather than simply paying a fixed sum for every procedure; limiting the tax deductibility of private insurance plans; and so on.
And what do these things have in common? They’re all in last year’s health reform bill.
That’s why I say that Mr. Obama gets too little credit. He has done more to rein in long-run deficits than any previous president. And if his opponents were serious about those deficits, they’d be backing his actions and calling for more; instead, they’ve been screaming about death panels....
[W]hile the budget is all over the news, we’re not having a real debate; it’s all sound, fury, and posturing, telling us a lot about the cynicism of politicians but signifying nothing in terms of actual deficit reduction. And we shouldn’t indulge those politicians by pretending otherwise.