When Ronald Reagan was running for President, one of his most dependable applause lines went like this: "Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem." As soon as Reagan became President, however, he expanded the size of government and increased the deficit.
When George W. Bush became President, he moved to reduce taxes on high-end earners. His Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O'Neill, objected on the grounds that reducing revenue into the treasury would increase the deficit. Vice President Dick Cheney put O'Neill in his place, saying, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."
Taxes were cut. The deficit rose, and O'Neill was soon gone.
Fast-forward to the Obama presidency, and our Republican friends are telling us that not only do deficits matter, they matter more than anything else. What they are really saying is that when they are in charge, they don't want talk of deficits to constrain their actions (taxes, defense spending, credit card wars). But when Democrats are in charge, all spending must be viewed through the lens of its impact on … The Deficit.
Unfortunately, the press has somewhat bought into the Republican side of the argument. They tend to do more stories on the dangers of the deficit in Democratic administrations than in Republican administrations, irrespective of what is actually happening to the deficit.
So, if you're at a Memorial Day barbecue, and a crazy uncle (CU) wants to jump up in your face and play the Deficit Game, here's how you play and win.
Small Ball. This approach is designed to quickly neutralize the CU and disengage.
First, tell the CU that of course the deficit is high. The economy was losing 800,000 jobs per month at the end of the Bush Administration. Each of those lost jobs represented a decrease of revenue to the government in the form of income taxes not received, and an added expense to the government in the form of benefits paid to the unemployed … unemployment compensation, food stamps, other benefits.
Under the Obama Administration, the economy has been adding jobs for 36 straight months, and the deficit, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, has declined for three straight years.
Finally, point out to the CU that there are only three entities that spend money in the economy: consumers; businesses; and government. When, for whatever reason, consumers and businesses reduce their spending, it is incumbent on the government to fill the void by increasing its spending on needed repairs to our infrastructure and other worthwhile projects. This spending benefits the country as a whole by speeding the flow of commerce and puts money in workers’ pockets who, in turn, spend it creating a virtuous cycle.
This is classic Keynesian economics, which is very troubling to "Movement" Conservatives who prefer to believe that government cannot do anything useful or effective. Stimulative spending in a weak economy is both. People who believe otherwise are usually being paid to hold that belief. End of story.
Big Picture. Suppose the CU is really not so crazy, and actually has a bit of a philosophical bent … let's call him Philosophical Uncle (PU). Here is how you engage and deflect a PU on the subject of the deficit.
PU's vary. They are often deeply hostile to everything and anything that involves Obama. But a PU will generally be savvy enough to recognize that overt anger and hostility is Bad Barbecue Form (BBF). Such a PU is likely to engage by proclaiming that he "actually likes Obama" but that he is "deeply concerned that Obama's policies are bankrupting the country and destroying the future of his grandchildren."
Be of good cheer. You're in the driver's seat.
Forget about the bankrupting the country part … he can't prove it, and you can't disprove it … go right for the grandchildren.
Assure the PU that based on the fact that his grandchildren will be the product of his gene pool, he has nothing to worry about. They will be so intelligent and resourceful that they will take the gifts and sacrifices of preceding generations (Military, Court System, Universities, Technological Advancements, The Arts, Infrastructure, Etc) and make advancements that we cannot even imagine. Indeed, the thing that his grandchildren will find most incomprehensible about our generation is that there were once enough people in a place called Minnesota to send a woman named Michele Bachmann to Congress.
Conclude by reminding the PU that the country is not a business. It did not come into being to make a profit. The Preamble of the Constitution describes our reason for existing as follows: 1) To form a more perfect union; 2) Establish justice; 3) Ensure domestic tranquility; 4) Provide for the common defense; 5) Promote the general welfare; and 6) Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
The PU, who was heretofore blissfully unaware that the Constitution had a Preamble, and probably thought it had only a Second Amendment, will be looking for an opportunity to disengage.
Let him go.
PS. I have nothing to add to the developing hagiography of Margaret Thatcher, except to repeat an observation by the former President of France, Francois Mitterrand, who dealt with her on a regular basis. According to Mitterrand, Thatcher "had lips like Marilyn Monroe, and eyes like Caligula."
I will post again on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 (or before, if the news flow dictates) and, for the time being, I will post on the first Wednesday of each month.
Comments are welcome at tomc[at]wednesdayswars[dot]com. Name and town if you wish to opine. Comments will be addressed in subsequent posts.