Deficits Don't Matter?

Here's Yglesias, responding to the complaints from conservatives (and some Democrats) that the stimulus bill is being larded up with spending on possibly-worthy but non-stimulative programs:

... a lot of this stuff whether or not it really "belongs in the stimulus" seems irrelevant to me. If you have a program that actually is worthy, then funding it will make the country better, whether or not it truly "belongs" in the stimulus. If you have a program that's worthy, and that doesn't really belong in the stimulus, and you have a Republican who doesn't think the program is worthy, and he'd be willing to vote for the stimulus if you stripped that program from the bill, then it seems to me that you have a decent case for dropping a worthy program. But if you're Ben Nelson and you think the program is worthy, then why not just support the worthy program? It's true that doing so doesn't fit a perfectly pristine notion of how the legislative process should work, but anytime the process is working in favor of worthy programs rather than crappy ones, that's a lot better than the normal functioning of the legislative process.

Well, sure. This is the basic liberal calculus at the moment: The stimulus bill is thick with non-stimulative spending increases because it's a chance to, well, pass spending increases that Democrats think are worthy. Which is fair enough; they did, after all, thump the GOP two election cycles in a row. But surely even the most deficit-happy liberal ought to worry a little about how all of this is going to be paid for - and by extension, whether a spending binge on existing programs today will make it harder to pass, say, an expensive overhaul of the health care system tomorrow. At some point, barring an economic miracle, the GOP will be able to get at least some traction by playing Ross Perot and arguing against out-of-control spending. Maybe the whole liberal wish list will be passed into law before that happens: As Yglesias says in a subsequent post, it's possible that at a time like this there's no "fixed sum of political capital" for liberals to spend down, and so the thing to do is go for broke, quite literally, instead of trying to prioritize health care reform over Pell Grants, or climate change legislation over Head Start. But there's also a chance that the Democrats will look back on the stimulus bill as an instance where they gained ground in the short run, but at the expense of their longer-term ambitions.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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