Pork, Leather, and Electroshock Therapy: Deficit Debate Needn't Be Boring!

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We can all agree that balancing the budget is a serious matter. Last week, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait discovered online a video in which Reason editor Nick Gillespie demonstrated the simplicity of balancing the budget without tax increases. The video, which featured Gillespie in a chef's hat slicing pieces of pork, accompanied an earlier Reason article which the editor co-authored with Veronique de Rugy, explaining the same concept. Upon viewing the video, Chait began pointing out errors in Gillespie's demonstration--specifically that cutting 3.6% of the budget, total, as Gillespie claims to do, is very different than cutting 3.6% one year, "then another 3.6% the next year, then another 3.6% the following year, and so on," which appears to be what is actually being proposed. This isn't just nitpicking, adds Chait:

The specific claim that you only need to cut 3.6% of the budget, and the broader claim that you just need to trim a little bit of fat here and there, are utterly false. The idea that the budget can be balanced without any increase in tax revenues and without imposing substantial pain is one of the most debilitating pathologies of right-wing thought.

Them, it appears, is fighting words. Have a look at the fight that ensued, complete with sartorial commentary:

  • 'The Gale Gordon of the Liberal Punditocracy'  This is what Gillespie calls Chait. He explains: "as the hapless Mr. Mooney on The Lucy Show, Gordon was the perpetually put-upon straight man whose eye-rolling and ribs-elbowing were never recognized by a single other human being, including the audience." Gillespie also attempted to clarify that pieces of his article that Chait contested as inaccurate.
First off, don't forget that the $1.3 trillion that we're talking about cutting over the next decade comes out of budgets that are projected to increase every year from 2012 on (see above) and that total federal spending over the next decade will come to over $42 trillion. I wonder if Chait is willing to name any functions of the federal government that he thinks we can live without? Maybe the two ongoing wars that his magazine happily supported (at least until recently). Maybe the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which gives relatively wealthy seniors free or reduced-price drugs regardless of ability to pay? Indeed, why not take a longer look at Medicare in toto, a program that former Obama adviser Christina Romer has said wastes 30 percent of its funds?”
  • Apologies for Not Wearing Leather Chait fires back at Gillespie's response, saying that no point had been made other than that "Gillespie is cooler than me." (Chait concedes this point: "Everybody is cooler than me" and "Gillespie wears a black shirt and black leather jacket in virtually all his public appearances, and obviously you can't get cooler than that.") Chait counters, though, that Gillespie's defense doesn't acknowledge Chait's original criticisms.
He simply retreats to sputtering about government programs he hates. ... He's a pretty good writer, but he doesn't understand these issues at all. He thinks he can make up for his lack of understanding by relying on a co-author who, by dint of her total fealty to libertarian dogma and the ability to throw around a few numbers, has him convinced she knows what she's talking about. In reality she's a total hack.
  • 'A Spray of Seltzer to the Face' Gillespie is prompted to take one last stab at proving himself right and Chait wrong. In particular, he wants to address Chait's "charge" that he doesn't "understand the article he co-authored." Responds Gillespie:
The crux of it for Chait is that I either pulled a fast one in the Reason.tv video or played Lennie to Veronique's George because I did not explicitly mention the compounding of annual budget cuts in the march to a balanced budget in 2020. Except that I did. As I say around the 1.20 minute mark, "By making small, systematic cuts in the fatty parts of the budget over the next decade, we'll compound all our savings. ...

[Chait] is given to characterizing differences of opinions not in terms of disagreements but in terms of psychological dysfunctions and moral failings. ... This is a reflexive debating tactic for Chait, who has recently insisted that opposition to the individual mandate in Obama's health care plan is "a sign of right-wing hysteria." If people who disagree with him are not in need of electroshock or a spray of seltzer to the face, then it is only because they are "total hacks," as he grossly mischaracterizies my coauthor Veronique de Rugy (who, he says, practices "voodoo economics" and "goes all Laffer Curve" at the drop of a hat).
  • Bringing the Wonk  Veronique de Rugy, Gillespie’s co-author of the article that sparked this whole debate, weighs in on National Review Online. She suggests that "the New Republic blogger doesn't understand that most of the cuts are in the growth of spending (or, if he does, he thinks that it is unacceptable to not allow the budget to grow as fast as it was on track to)." She also attempts to get the original Reason article's point across in the face of all this confusion, which is that balancing the budget is possible.
  • The Last Word?  In a blog post on a different topic this afternoon, Chait is reminded of his back and forth with the Reason writers and decides to take on their most recent responses.
Gillespie's latest reply launches yet another diatribe against government, again missing my objection, which is purely arithmetic. They want to balance the budget in 2020 while keeping all the Bush tax cuts in place. Okay, fine. I wrote that it would require a 24% cut in spending, but that was too small, because their baseline assumes the expiration of the tax cuts on income over $250,000 a year, and it ignores debt payments, which you can't cut. The real figure is closer to 30% of the budget. You can't imply this can be done just by trimming a bit of fat. And you can't imply, as Gillespie does in his video, that you simply need to take a tiny nick out of each year's budget, because their plan would require progressively deeper cuts each year until the final result was a 30% cut.

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