What Does Joe Scarborough Really Believe About the Deficit?

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There's no doubt in my mind that Joe Scarborough "won" last night's debate with Paul Krugman on the debt, at least as a media event. But the conversation left me deeply confused about what the Morning Joe host himself really thinks about the deficit.

Does Joe Scarborough support more or less spending in 2013? That sounds like an easy question to answer. It's not.

On the one hand, it's fairly clear that Scarborough supports more spending this year on jobs. Up to $200 billion on top of the current budget. He said so himself. Here's the money segment from last night. Transcript below.

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Charlie Rose: In terms of the short term, Paul doesn't think we have a spending problem. You think we have a spending problem, right now? This year? Next year?

Joe Scarborough: Next year? I don't think over the next, three, four, five years it's going to cause a serious problem.  I think-I think if you look again at the projections, if you look at what we need to do for Medicare, Medicaid, I think we need to start planning for that right now.  And that's, I think, where we disagree. I think Washington can do two things at once.

Paul Krugman: Let me ask a serious question. Would you support an extra $200 billion a year in spending on infrastructure and education right now?

JS: Oh yeah. I talk about it all the time.

Okay, there we have it. Scarborough supports much more spending this year.

So he should be horrified by the cuts in the sequester, right? In his recent New York Times column on the $85 billion guillotine to the budget, Scarborough had a perfect occasion to denounce the cuts and call for more spending. He didn't.

Scarborough wrote that it was "a fact" that the sequester "will not do great damage to domestic and defense programs." Rather than demand that Democrats and Republicans repeal the cuts and replace them with $200 billion in spending on infrastructure and education, he said "Democrats and Republicans need to retarget these cuts." And here's Joe -- who we just saw on the record that the economy needs more spending -- now on the record that the economy can easily take less spending:

Does Mr. Obama really want to claim that his administration, which has added $6 trillion to the national debt, is unable to save a penny out of every dollar it spends? Does he really expect Americans to believe -- after four years, the banking and auto bailouts, several stimulus bills and a run of record deficits -- that our $16 trillion economy cannot absorb $42 billion of spending reductions?

The Times column wasn't an outlier. Scarborough is very clear that he wants to cut spending, and very inconsistent in claiming he wants to raise spending.

Rather than paint Krugman as a defender of the middle class (after all, Scarborough agrees with his short-term budget), he's consistently painted him as an extremist. Rather than use the work of liberal economists to make the point that we should raise spending, he's distorted the work of economists like Alan Blinder to make make Krugman look radical. (Blinder had to write a column correcting Scarborough to clarify that he agrees with Krugman about the deficit.) Does this mean that Scarborough is lying about wanting higher deficits in 2013? Not necessarily. But selectively quoting left-of-center economists to skewer the defenders of deficit-spending is a weird way to advocate for deficit spending!

There's more. In the two weeks after Krugman first went on Morning Joe and raised this fracas, Scarborough tweeted up a storm. Five of his tweets that I counted mentioned the debt. Zero mentioned jobs. In the same two weeks, Scarborough wrote three columns for Politico. The word debt appeared in two headlines. I saw it eight more times in the columns. I didn't see one single mention of the word job.

I don't know if Scarborough is right or wrong about the economy (time will tell, I guess), but can we all agree that Joe Scarborough's position on the deficit is really, really confusing? He agrees with Paul Krugman that we should spend more in 2013, but he paints Krugman as a radical. He aligns himself with liberal economists, but distorts their work so badly they have to publish a correction. He calls for higher deficits, but defends the size of the cuts in the sequester, writes column after column about spending cuts, and never mentions jobs. And then he goes on Charlie Rose and says that of course he supports higher spending today and "I talk about it all the time."

Why does this matter? It matters because Krugman's basic point -- which looks more persuasive by the day -- is that Washington can't focus on more than one thing at a time. Attention paid to the deficit is attention not paid to jobs. I used to think Paul was wrong. The last five weeks have essentially proved him right.

Scarborough says he trusts Washington can focus on jobs and deficits simultaneously because it's easy to walk and chew gum at the same time. There's still time for him to lead by example.

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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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