Sympathy for the White House Budget

Having compared the president's 2012 budget to a spork, Edsel of the utensil family, I think it's fair to point out that the White House faces a remarkably difficult, and perhaps impossible, task. A budget that protects the economic recovery, makes a real downpayment on deficit reduction and attracts the approval of Republicans would have to somehow maintain a high level of spending while finding trillions of dollars in savings that could only come from spending cuts. That's ... well, tricky.

Maya MacGuineas is absolutely right: This budget does not go far enough to reduce our debt. But she's also right to concede that crafting a passable but fiscally pragmatic budget in this day and age is darn near impossible, because what's passable ain't pragmatic and what's pragmatic ain't passable.

Andrew Sullivan is "livid" about the "rank recklessness" of the president's budget, and he's looking to Paul Ryan to offer the adult response. I'm not sure what Andrew is waiting for, because we know Ryan's response: It's this. He would begin to privatize Social Security, effectively end modern Medicare, eliminate taxes on investment, and ask the richest Americans to pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than the poorest. I don't doubt that Ryan is a serious man, but this plan is seriously radical -- so radical, in fact, that his own party stared, turned, and proceeded in an orderly fashion to the exits when he released it. In his response to the president's State of the Union address, Ryan didn't mention it either.

So here's the White House telling the Republican House, We'll meet you halfway. We acknowledge that the deficit is a crisis of spending and taxing. We're willing to get this thing rolling with two parts spending cuts to one part tax increases. Republicans have their chance to rebut. But if the GOP refuses to meaningfully cut defense, health care or Social Security (60% of the budget) while also refusing to raise taxes by even a cent forever, then who exactly is being childish here?

To be sure, the White House needn't be graded on a curve based on the childishness of its opposition. I would be much happier if the 2012 budget made sensible cuts to offset higher spending on R&D and infrastructure and also adopted the framework of the deficit commission. But in this climate, that's asking for better bread than can be made of wheat. The White House budget is a small step in the right direction that shows a willingness to compromise with the other side. That's not cause for celebration, but it's not exactly rank, either.

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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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