What the Stimulus Debate Is Really About

Sick of the debate over stimulus and the deficit? I don't blame you. It's endless, confusing, and endlessly confused. Ezra Klein does the world a good service by breaking down the debate into camps. The quick and dirty version:

1. Deficits now/Deficits later. Deficits don't matter. Very few people live here.

2. Stimulus now/Save later. Spend more now to speed the recovery, and raise taxes later to pay down the debt. Most Democrats live here, and they bunk with Keynesian economists.

3. Pay for small stimulus/Save later. Use spending cuts to pay for a modest stimulus today, and pay down the debt later, with mostly spending cuts. Most Republicans live here, and they bunk with Ben Nelson.

4. Save now/Save later. Start cutting today and keep cutting. Some Republicans live here, and they bunk with Niall Ferguson.

I think we can make this even easier. Electeds are facing two questions:

(1) Do you want to tax?

(2) Do you want to add to the deficit?

Congress breaks down into two groups. Republicans are saying: "Don't add and never tax." Democrats are saying: "Add now and tax later." The end. That's pretty much the debate.* If Democrats OK'd a smaller stimulus that didn't add to the deficit, that bill would pass. If Republican OK'd a moderate stimulus that would add a small amount to the deficit, that bill would pass. We're not really having a new debate about how to stimulate. Some mixture of unemployment insurance and state aid could get us to 60 votes. We're having an old debate about deficits and taxes. Republicans are universally opposed to both, now and forever. Democrats are open to both -- deficits now and taxes later.

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*Even the debate within the debate is about taxes and deficit-adding. For example, Republicans won't vote for the Democrats' plan because it pays for the stimulus with new taxes. Democrats won't vote for the Republicans plan because, as they add nothing to the deficit, they are too small.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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