What if they balanced the budget and nobody knew or cared?
OK, the federal budget hasn’t actually been balanced. But the Congressional Budget Office has tallied up the totals for fiscal 2014, which ran through the end of September, and reports that the deficit plunge of the past several years continues. You still hear politicians ranting about “trillion dollar deficits,” but last year’s deficit was less than half-a-trillion dollars – or, a more meaningful number, just 2.8 percent of GDP – and it’s still falling.
So where are the ticker-tape parades? For that matter, where are the front-page news reports? After all, talk about the evils of deficits and the grave fiscal danger facing America dominated Washington for years. Shouldn’t we be making a big deal of the fact that the alleged crisis is over?
Well, we aren’t, and once you understand why, you also understand what fiscal hysteria was really about.
First, ordinary Americans aren’t celebrating the deficit’s decline because they don’t know about it.
That’s not mere speculation on my part. Earlier this year, YouGov polled Americans on fiscal issues, asking among other things whether the deficit had increased or declined since President Barack Obama took office. (In case you’re wondering, the pollsters carefully explained the difference between annual deficits and the level of accumulated debt.) More than half of those polled said it had gone up, while only 19 percent correctly said that it had gone down.
Why doesn’t the public know better? Probably because of the way much of the news media report this and other issues, with bad news played up and good news played down if it’s reported at all.
This has been glaringly obvious in the case of health reform, where every problem with the Affordable Care Act has been the subject of headlines, while in right-wing media – and to some extent in mainstream news sources – favorable developments go unremarked. As a result, many people –even, in my experience, liberals - have the impression that the rollout of Obamacare has been a disaster and have no idea that enrollment is above expectations, costs are lower than expected and the number of Americans without insurance has dropped sharply. Surely something similar has happened on the budget deficit.
But what about people who pay a lot of attention to the budget, the self-proclaimed deficit hawks? (Some of us prefer to call them deficit scolds.) They’ve spent the past few years telling us that budget shortfalls are the most important issue facing the nation, that terrible things will happen unless we act to stem the flow of red ink. Are they expressing satisfaction over the fading of that threat?
Not a chance. Far from celebrating the deficit’s decline, the usual suspects – fiscal-scold think tanks, inside-the-Beltway pundits – seem annoyed by the news. It’s a “false victory,” they declare. “Trillion dollar deficits are coming back,” they warn. And they’re furious with Obama for saying that it’s time to get past “mindless austerity” and “manufactured crises.” He’s declaring mission accomplished, they say, when he should be making another push for entitlement reform.
All of which demonstrates a truth that has been apparent for a while, if you have been paying close attention: Deficit scolds actually love big budget deficits and hate it when those deficits get smaller. Why? Because fears of a fiscal crisis – fears that they feed assiduously – are their best hope of getting what they really want: big cuts in social programs. A few years ago they almost managed to bully the nation into cutting Social Security and/or raising the Medicare eligibility age; they even had hopes of turning Medicare into an underfinanced voucher program. Now that window of opportunity is closing fast.
But isn’t the falling deficit just a short-term blip, with the long-run outlook as dire as ever? Actually, no. Falling deficits right now have a lot to do with a strengthening economy plus some of that “mindless austerity” the president condemned. But there has also been a dramatic slowdown in the growth of health spending - and if that continues, the long-run fiscal outlook is much better than anyone thought possible not long ago. Yes, current projections still show a rising ratio of debt to GDP starting some years from now, and uncomfortable levels of debt a generation from now. But given all the clear and present dangers we face, it’s hard to see why dealing with that distant and uncertain prospect should be any kind of policy priority.
So let’s say goodbye to fiscal hysteria. I know that the deficit scolds are having a hard time letting go; they’re still trying to bring back the days when Bowles and Simpson bestrode the Beltway like colossi. But those days aren’t coming back, and we should be glad.