Ezra Klein is a self-styled “wonk blogger” for the Washington Post. His work does, indeed, have a wonkish quality. But if you strip that veneer away, he’s just another liberal columnist who writes intellectually dishonest pieces intended to show that Republicans are intellectually dishonest. In other words, E.J. Dionne with a calculator or Dana Milbank with a smaller smirk.
Consider the recent column in which Klein argues that conservatives aren’t interested in deficit reduction, but rather in shrinking the size of government. The conservatives I know are interested in both reducing the deficit and reducing government size. And nearly all of them are alarmed by the size of the debt — both current and projected — which, of course, is different from the deficit in a given year.
In insisting otherwise, Klein makes two arguments. The first is the familiar non sequitur that if Republicans were interested in reducing deficits they would be open to tax increases. It’s a bit like arguing that if someone were truly interested in losing weight he would cut off his legs. There are different ways to reduce the deficit. Rejecting methods one considers self-destructive or counterproductive isn’t evidence of lack of concern about the problem.
Klein’s second argument is, I suppose, a “wonkish” one. Klein notes that Republicans distrust agreements to cut spending over a period of time because Congress can ignore the promises of past Congresses to cut spending in the future. But, in Klein’s view, this shouldn’t be a concern because if the economy improves, promises of spending cuts ought to be ignored. As he puts it: “The point of austerity is to solve a deficit problem, not yoke the future to the imperfect forecasts of the past. Once the deficit problem goes away, so too does the reason for austerity.” Unless, so his argument goes, the real goal is solely to shrink the government.
But at this stage in our history, the point of austerity is to solve our long-term debt crisis. The Congressional Budget Office has produced an “alternative fiscal scenario,” which many conservatives believe is the most likely scenario. It forecasts that by 2022, debt held by the public will climb to 90 percent of GDP, higher than at any time since shortly after World War II. And, given increases in spending on the major health programs and Social Security, the alternative fiscal scenario projects that debt, as a share of GDP, will approach 200 percent in 2037.
Even if one rejects these particular projectionss, given the size of the debt and the additional strain that indisputably will occur due to the advancing age of baby-boomers, a strong economic upturn would not eliminate “the reason for austerity” — at least not as conservatives view the world. A short term decline in deficits would still leave us with a serious, if not frightening long-term debt problem. For most conservatives, an upturn would represent an additional opportunity to address that problem, not the occasion for a spending spree.
Klein notes that, as the economy boomed in the late 1990s, Congress ignored spending limitations that had been agreed to by an earlier Congress. But this doesn’t demonstrate the wisdom of going on a spending spree during good economic times. And nearly all conservatives believe it was a mistake to have done so.
For conservatives the lesson of the late 1990s is that promises to cut future spending aren’t worth much. The lesson is not that such promises should be broken when the economy is going strong.
Klein disagrees with this view. But he fails to show that, by wanting to rein in future spending even in good economic times, conservatives are betraying a lack of true concern about the debt.
A true wonk would be content to argue the merits without wondering off into a partisan-style attack on the sincerity of those who disagree with his policy preferences.