What if Wonks Ruled the World?

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Now that the Washington's policy community has zeroed in on reducing the deficit, the conventional wisdom has crystallized around the idea that budget reform is much more a political challenge than a policy challenge. I'm not so sure.

You could point to the Bipartisan Policy Center proposal yesterday and say, Look a group of non-elected smartypants came to a compromise about raising taxes and cutting spending, but electeds still cannot break the political stalemate to incorporate the these changes into law. As Catherine Rampell writes in the New York Times, "the country's budget woes are not a failure of wonkish ingenuity, but a failure of political willpower."

This is true: The failure of political willpower outshines all other failures when it comes to the deficit. But it's worth pointing out that if wonks ruled the world, compromise on the budget would still be elusive. Scan the magazines, the think thanks, the non-partisan institutions, and you won't see much more agreement on the deficit than you did for health care reform, climate change reform, or any number of complex questions where the right, left and middle stare at one problem and see three or more solutions.

The chairmen's report was criticized not only by liberal writers, but by moderate scholars like Henry Aaron at the Brookings Institution. If Rep. Jan Schakowsky's plan to close the deficit by raising taxes exclusively on companies and rich people has any advocates in the conservative policy community, I would be pretty shocked. The Bipartisan Policy Center proposal yesterday (which might be my favorite) was panned by some at National Review and other conservatives who accurately noted that it would raise taxes on 80 percent of Americans, and reduces income for the richest by more than 10 percent. Paul Ryan's Roadmap, hailed by the right, takes the opposite approach, handing those same folks a $1 million tax cut.

The modern right's religious belief that higher taxes are verboten is equaled only by the left and moderates' opinion that higher taxes are necessary to close the budget deficit. The last few weeks have done little to convince one otherwise. I wish I could say that the only roadblock to budget reform are the folks in Congress, but I don't see consensus inside or outside the beltway, between caucuses or between think tanks. I'm not throwing my hands up and despairing at the system. I'm just pointing out that there are deep and difficult philosophical differences on the budget that make compromise within a large group elusive -- whether or not that group is running for reelection in two years.


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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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