Why Peter Orszag Reminds Me of John McCain

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I just got off a conference call with Budget Director Peter Orszag in which he talked about the newly released details on the Obama budget. Most of what was under discussion was the $17 billion in new cuts, which has been gently mocked as a drop in the $3.4 trillion ocean of a budget. Orszag's defense was this: "We can no longer afford broken window budgeting." Which meant: Even if the program cuts are small, perpetuating small, crappy programs sends the wrong signal -- namely, the signal that we are willing to perpetuate small, crappy programs.

Now, I think this argument is perfectly fine. Obama himself made a similar argument a couple of weeks ago, discussing the administration's even more anemic plans to cut $100 million from the budget: "Cumulatively they make an extraordinary difference because they start setting a tone." And maybe that's true.

But more than anything else, what all this talk about changing the tone and sending the right signals reminds me of is John McCain. Specifically, this talk of sending a $17 billion dollar signal reminds me of this exchange -- about earmarks -- from the first presidential debate:

MCCAIN: Well, the first thing we have to do is get spending under control in Washington. It's completely out of control. [...] We Republicans came to power to change government, and government changed us. And the -- the worst symptom on this disease is what my friend, Tom Coburn, calls earmarking as a gateway drug, because it's a gateway. It's a gateway to out-of-control spending and corruption.

OBAMA: [...] But let's be clear: Earmarks account for $18 billion in last year's budget. Senator McCain is proposing -- and this is a fundamental difference between us -- $300 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, $300 billion. Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important.

MCCAIN: [...] Maybe to Senator Obama it's not a lot of money. But the point is that -- you see, I hear this all the time. "It's only $18 billion." Do you know that it's tripled in the last five years? [...] It's a system that's got to be cleaned up.

Substitute "broken windows" or "tone" where McCain says "system," and isn't this the same argument you hear from Orszag and Obama?

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Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.
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