The Deficit Hawk Delusion: What the Krugman-Scarborough Slugfest Is Really About

By Derek Thompson

If the debt debate still seems too abstract to follow, maybe that's because it's two sides fighting over the one thing we know least about the economy -- its future

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Reuters

The showdown between Joe Scarborough and Paul Krugman over our debt is interesting and important, not merely as a media skirmish, but also as a keyhole into the way deficit "hawks" and deficit "doves" misunderstand and talk past each other. A great deal of the animosity and confusion between both sides of the debate would be improved with an honest assessment today's economy and tomorrow's debt.

Basically, this is a discussion about (a) what we know about the economy and (b) what we think we know about the economy.

WHAT WE KNOW

Here are six things we know about the economy. We know that unemployment is still high. We know that inflation is low. We know that 4 million people have been out of work, and looking, for more than a year. We know that GDP growth has been fine for normal times, but awfully weak for a recovery following a steep recession. We know that cutting government spending takes money out of an economy. We know that government spending cuts in the last few years have coincided with hundreds of thousands of lost government jobs, which has kept our unemployment rate from falling further.

And here are four things we know about our debt. We know that government borrowing rates are low. We know that global appetite for our debt is high. We know we borrow in our own currency, and not, like Europe, in a common currency that we don't control. And we know that makes us less vulnerable (but not invincible) from a debt crisis.

Out of these ten things we know, how many of them suggest that we should cut our deficits today? Basically, zero. And that's Paul Krugman's point. Everything we know about the economy today provides a clear argument for elevated deficits.

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW

Joe Scarborough understands this. He says he wants higher deficits and a game-plan for cutting our long-term debt (which is the accumulation of our deficits). But he doesn't fully understand -- or properly communicate -- how the argument for long-term debt reduction rests on assumptions about the future that are exquisitely sensitive to change. The precise dimensions of our 2020 debt are calculated from a matrix of variables (e.g. immigration, productivity growth, hospital construction growth, MRI inflation rates) whose very nature is to fluctuate, sometimes dramatically, on a quarterly or annual basis.

Here are four things we think we know about our future debt -- which is almost entirely a health care spending problem. We think we know that the cost of caring for Americans will continue to grow faster than the economy. We think we know that demand for this increasingly expensive care will grow along with our aging boomer population. We think we know that tax revenue will grow about in line with the economy. Thus, we think we know what the gap between future taxes and future spending will be, and how much we have to start saving today to cover it.

It's possible that the deficit hawks have it 100 percent right. But it would also take a rather astonishing clairvoyance for anybody to foresee the next ten years with even slightly useful clarity. Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski often talk about "math" when they talk about debt ...

... and our debt projections look like math, what with all of those numbers. But math is a law. Actuarial projections are not. They are smart guesswork facilitated by multiplying current trends over many years. There's an important difference.*

For example, what if health care inflation slows down?

Actually, that's not a "what-if." Two weeks ago, CBO revealed that health care spending has "grown much more slowly than historical rates would have predicted." It cut estimates of federal spending on Medicaid and Medicare in 2020 by "about $200 billion." That's a lot of money. It is much more than Washington would save by raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67. If you thought raising the retirement age was enough to calm the market's appetite for debt reduction, then guess what? We just got those 2X those savings by doing nothing.

It's generally considered goofy for somebody to pretend he can see the next 75 years in robotics, or software, or bio-sciences. But somehow it's not goofy for Joe Scarborough, Steven Rattner and other serious, well-intentioned media people point out that we have $60+ trillion in "unfunded liabilities" to Social Security, Medicare, and federal pensions in the next seven decades. That statistic isn't wrong. It's just kinda ... goofy. Medicare actuaries are legally obligated to predict the future of their program past 2070. But the press is not legally obligated to pretend that our actuaries are oracles.

Paul Krugman isn't an oracle either. He's just a very smart economist with an astonishingly good track record. And even he isn't saying that debts don't matter. In fact, he's saying almost exactly what Alan Blinder -- an economist Scarborough cites approvingly -- wrote in The Atlantic: Don't worry too much about deficits now, and put aside some worry about the future total cost of health care.

Deficit reduction is sometimes framed as stimulus. It's not. It's insurance -- insurance against the possibility that the market will turn against U.S. debt and drive up interest rates and badly hurt the country. Insurance isn't bad. But it's expensive. And money taken out of the economy too soon could prolong an unemployment crisis that is creating structural deficiencies in our atrophying workforce. Deficit doves should concede that there is a risk to doing nothing for too long. But deficit hawks must concede that there is also a risk to taking out that insurance policy too soon -- or distracting attention from everything we know about the economy.

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Please don't say that our debt is exactly like global warming. It is true that both global warming and debt are arguably subtle and gathering forces whose impact on the world could surprise us somewhere down the line. But unlike our 2020 debt, global warming isn't just an actuarial projection. It's a scientific finding about the world right now. And whereas even deficit hawks allow that there is good debt (right now) and bad debt (in ten years), there is no analogous argument I'm aware of that says global warming is great for the world today -- or that we actually we need more of it! -- but bad for the world tomorrow.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/the-deficit-hawk-delusion-what-the-krugman-scarborough-slugfest-is-really-about/273178/