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Here's the Deal (Kindle Single)

av David Leonhardt

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Leonhardt is a New York Times columnist who does good reporting work on the economy, and this is a short piece of about 60 pages that tries to explain the federal budget deficit, its causes, and some proposed solutions in an admirably clear, calm, and numerate manner.

I'll lead with the money quote: "In the simplest terms, Republicans have won the debate on taxes, and Democrats have won the debate on benefits. We, the voters, have chosen the winner of each. In exchange, we have a federal government facing enormous deficits in coming decades." This short-termism is yet another product of our penny-wise pound-foolish broken political system. However, the word "benefits" in that sentence turns out to mean "benefits that go increasingly to the old and wealthy", and at this rate our funding for the military, Social Security, Medicare, and the like might render us unable to make the kinds of vital investments in infrastructure (think dams, interstate highways, the electrical grid, the school system, etc) necessary for future growth. "Eating your seed corn" is the popular phrase.

So the deceptively simple choice of higher taxes or lower benefits can be finessed in a way that in large part is the cutting edge of modern technocratic proposals from the Democratic Party: building on the medical payment reforms of Obamacare to improve care while lowing costs, tweaking the funding and payment structure of Social Security by raising revenue and the retirement age, removing wasteful tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction, reforming the corporate tax code to reduce loophole-gaming, and the like. The long-term gap between revenues and expenditures is about 5 percent, and thought some of the changes to the Big Three of Social Security, Medicare, and the military might be arguable (e.g. raising the Social Security eligibility age would disproportionately hurt poor seniors with no other sources of retirement income, and they tend to die sooner than wealthier seniors who need Social Security less), overall he presents a good framework for thinking about budget choices.

The problem is that our political system, with its endless veto points, interest groups, and opportunities for corruption, is not well-situated to begin acting on the deficit. While it's important to understand that a large deficit is not the biggest problem in a world where the government can borrow at negative real interest rates (i.e. investors are literally paying the government money for the privilege of lending to it), this world won't last forever. The interview in the beginning with former VP candidate Paul Ryan is yet another reminder of how unserious and disconnected from reality the modern Republican Party is on any issue related to budget policy, yet they currently have the power to block any more major progress from being made. Investments in the future that will lead to economic growth are a vital policy tool, yet the Republican outcry over the stimulus gives little hope that they'll come around any time soon.

In the meantime, Leonhardt has written a clear guide that is very helpful for thinking about how to approach the fiscal side of deficit reduction. His regular columns provide useful supplements on how policymakers are either addressing or ignoring various aspects of the problem he talks about here, so this is a good place to start reading.My favorite long-term guide to thinking about the budget remains Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal, but this is a welcome and more up-to-date addition to that stable. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
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