Night of the Simpson-BowlesThis is from an article this morning in Politico: "Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are back at it, pushing the White House and congressional Republicans to get off the partisan sidelines and strike a deal that can keep government debt in check." This is why we have major problems in this country. This is why basic economic facts don't matter. This is why people who have been wrong again and again and again are still treated as thoughtful policy thinkers.

There are so many things wrong with this. Perhaps most important, this is editorial masquerading as journalism. The writers don't know what Bowles and Simpson are up to; they only know what these two men say they are up to. As I've reported in the past, Simpson and Bowles are not honest brokers when it comes to the deficit. Their first task is to reduce the top marginal tax rate. There second task is to gut entitlement programs. After that, if the deficit gets reduced, great! But that isn't their main concern.

Also: who says government debt is not in check? And how exactly is the White House on "the partisan sidelines"? Obama has been only too willing to make these deals. But this is the same old false equivalence that exacts no price from Republicans for being extreme and obstructionist even while giving Democrats no credit for compromising.

Matt Yglesias points this out the Simpson-Bowles bait and switchin a surprisingly funny article today, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles Unveil "New" "Deficit Reduction" Plan. He notes that Obama has already taken their recommendations for a $4 trillion cut to the deficit over 10 years—$2.5 trillion of that having already been enacted. That leaves $1.5 trillion of deficit reduction to go. But suddenly, these gentlemen are back saying we must reduce the deficit by $2.4 trillion:

The reason Simpson and Bowles are moving the goalposts is that thus far, none of the deficit reduction has cut spending on programs designed to bolster the living standards of the elderly, and what Simpson and Bowles think America should do is cut spending on programs designed to bolster the living standards of the elderly.

The problem with the $1.5 trillion figure, from this viewpoint, is that you could achieve it without substantially cutting programs designed to bolster the living standards of the elderly. That's especially true if you're allowed to achieve the $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction in a "balanced" way that features tax increases. But if you accept the combined premises that cutting programs designed to bolster the living standards of the elderly is an urgent national priority and also that everything needs to be framed in terms of the budget deficit, then the only way to reconcile those views is with a little burden-shifting. I don't know why this framing has come to be accepted, but it has.

I can tell you why it has: the big media figures are all economic conservatives. They all love the idea of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor while giving themselves a tax break. What could be better?

In a later article, Yglesias points out that most of the increase in the deficit reduction demanded by the new Simpson-Bowles plan is due to it just being later. But this doesn't really fly when you consider that much of the savings that Obama has made in the budget has been in effect for almost two years now. Of course, it doesn't really matter. The fact remains that their primary goals have nothing whatsoever to do with the budget; they just think that the government should spend its money differently: less for the poor and more for the super rich. And with a big assist from the major media, they will eventually get everything they desire and more.



This article title refers to Night of the Simpson-Bowles.

Update (19 February 2013 1:26 pm)

Ezra Klein shows that there is a big change in the new plan: they are calling for much less revenue compared to spending cuts. In other words, they are getting closer and closer to the Republican Plan of no taxes: put it all on the backs of the poor! But don't worry Simpson-Bowles are Very Serious!

Update (19 February 2013 7:43 pm)

It's amazing how many people have written about this subject. I thought about doing a round up, but there is just too much. It is all of two kinds. Much of it is the usual Very Serious People approach that claims that we should break out the champagne just to celebrate that we have great thinkers like Simpson and Bowles to show us the way. Obviously, you don't need to read any of that nonsense. Of the coverage that is worth reading, it is all pretty much the same as I've reported here. However, Timothy Noah wrote a piece that I think really gets to the heart of the deception that is the new Simpson-Bowles plan, Simpson-Bowles Is Back—With More Bad Ideas:

All this would lead you to think that Simpson and Bowles, nonpartisan truth-tellers that they're purported to be, would make Step Three enactment of Obama's $250,000 threshold (or, even better, my $100,000 threshold). I mean, they want to lower the deficit, right? But instead, Step Three is entitlement reforms (mostly Medicare and Medicaid) and … whaa? … lowering income-tax rates in exchange for eliminating or scaling back "most" tax expenditures. Step Four is to keep future spending in line. (Sure, whatever.)

Lowering income-tax rates while eliminating tax breaks would, Simpson and Bowles say, achieve some unspecified quantity of deficit savings. But if your aim is to reduce the deficit, why not get rid of as many tax expenditures as you can while leaving tax rates constant—or, better yet, raising them a bit? Simpson and Bowles would likely say they're just being realistic about politics. Republicans won't eliminate loopholes unless they can lower rates, too.

But as long as we're being realistic, why not be realistic about the likelihood that a lower-rates-for-fewer-loopholes swap will reduce the deficit? Which is about zero. Simpson and Bowles's insistence on clinging to the tax-reform fantasy demonstrates that their agenda is not limited to deficit reduction. They also want to lower tax rates. Why? They just want to, is all.