Mad About Spending Cuts? Blame the Voters


The Washington Post's Greg Sargent has a theory that we're caught in a Beltway deficit feedback loop "in which the relentless bipartisan focus on that one topic to the exclusion of others is leading more and more people to tell pollsters they're worried about it." Here's how he defines the feedback loop:

When you have leading officials in both parties -- starting with all Republicans and a handful of moderate Dems -- acting as if reining in the deficit is so urgent that it requires more attention than creating jobs, people start to tell pollsters they agree. This helps create a climate in which Dems lose any incentive to make the case for more government spending to prime the recovery, which begins to vanish from the conversation.

Meanwhile, the other side continues to hammer away at reining in spending as the way to resuscitate the economy. Dems, anxious that Republicans will be seen as the only ones proposing solutions, nod in agreement and pick a fight over how much we should cut. The public hears an ever growing chorus of bipartisan agreement that the deficits and spending are our number one problem. The case that government can create jobs continues to fade. And so on...and so on...

I don't want to misrepresent Sargent, but it sounds like he blames Republicans for nudging -- duping, even -- people to care about the deficit. That is one way to tell the story, and it might be the right way, but it's not how I'd frame it.

In 2009, the economy was in the dumps, and Democrats borrowed a lot of money to fix it. The deficit went up but that didn't stop the job losses. This hurt the case for more spending. In 2010, Republicans ran on a promise to cut spending. They won a landslide. Washington heeded the public "mandate" by focusing on spending cuts. That's not a feedback loop between the politicians, the public and the media. It's just economic fundamentals driving elections, and elections driving policy.

Progressives tend to see deficit reduction and job creation as incompatible. But Americans don't. Instead, they see deficit reduction as the best way to grow the economy:

 November 2010: Which of These Do You Think Would Be the Best Approach for Congress and the President to Take in Dealing With the U.S. Economy -- Increasing Government Stimulus Spending, Cutting Taxes, Reducing the Federal Budget Deficit, or Increasing Taxes on the Wealthy?

The spending-cut frenzy is counterproductive. We need more targeted stimulus today, not brinkmanship over the debt ceiling. But that doesn't change the fact that Americans sent scores of Republicans to Washington because they wanted the GOP to cause a frenzy about spending cuts. The bad economy swamped the stimulus, the case for more spending lost the debate, and Democrats lost the election. Sometimes, democracy is a bummer.

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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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