Will Another $1.2 Million Buy a Smarter Budget?

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The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the nation's most famous organ of deficit reform, announced a new $1.2 million grant program to give six "think tank" organizations $200,000 each to develop plans to fix the budget. If you're bored of the deficit debate already ... well, I'm sorry.

The recipients span the ideological spectrum from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, to the moderate Bipartisan Policy Center and Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, to the more notably liberal Center for American Progress and Economic Policy Institute.

I'm sure some folks will respond to this new program cynically. Don't we have enough ideas to raise taxes and cut spending already? Do we really need more research on the budget? Isn't the thing we really need the political will to enshrine that research into law? Stop buying public policy papers; start buying off senators!

Part of me is sympathetic to this view (minus the last clause). Another part remembers that deficit reform is the kind of issue that requires media attention that might have to be, well, bought. Some national crises announce themselves loudly. The Arizona shootings thrust gun control into the media cycle, and terrorist attacks demand discussion of homeland security and counter-terrorism efforts. But sometimes the most difficult issues don't come with dramatic, 72-type font punctuation. Slow-burning, burgeoning crises like our debt burden and climate change are mostly invisible. We don't know for certain that the country will face a fiscal crisis in 2017, or that global climate change will drown southern Florida or fry sub-Saharan African farms. The best we can do is insure against the possibility that they'll strike. For climate change, that means pricing carbon and nudging the world's largest carbon producers toward cleaner technology. For the deficit, that means building a plan to slowly raise taxes and cut spending.

The next question has to be: What's the best way to get Congress to raise taxes and cut spending, besides wait for interest rates to spike and force immediate government action? I don't have the answer here, but I'll nominate some ideas. One idea is build a national campaign to persuade average Americans that our long-term budget needs reform and that insuring against a fiscal crisis should be as paramount for the country as buying health insurance is paramount for a family. The problem here is that the most successful national campaign work through fear or inspiration. Inspiration and budget items go together like oil and water; and a fear campaign about rising interest rates lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

Another idea is to build a campaign within Washington to persuade lawmakers to act by inundating the city in deficit reform plans, so that deficit hawkery overflows on cable TV, op-ed pages, reporters' inboxes, and America's magazine covers, to make reform feel essential, inevitable, unavoidable. That seems to be the Peterson plan. I don't know that it will work. But I do think you can mount a good defense that a smart budget is worth another $1.2 million down-payment.

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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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