Posts Tagged ‘ Yuval Levin ’

Honesty and the Debt Ceiling

Frequent readers of this blog will find that my biggest pet peeve is dishonesty. I truly don’t mind people with opinions different than my own (and I love to debate with them) but I really can’t stand it when people lie or are intellectually dishonest. So, much of my blog will focus on calling out and correcting lies floating around in the public sphere. This week, I start with a particularly bad and dishonest column on the debt ceiling.

The political negotiations on raising the United States’ debt ceiling are extremely important because they will determine whether the US is plunged back into recession this year and what our government programs will look like in the years to come. Because of the importance of these negotiations, there is a lot of demagoguery and dishonesty floating around about the US debt and about the political talks which are aimed at bringing down the debt. One particularly egregious example is this column by Yuval Levin in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard entitled “We Don’t Estimate Speeches.”

He starts by talking about a recent report by the non-partisan, score-keeping Congressional Budget Office (CBO) where it finds that if the US Congress continues on its current, likely spending trajectory, the US will rack up a large (and unsustainable) amount of debt in the coming decades. He does this to scare his audience and to let them know that the US debt is, indeed, a huge problem. However, along the way he conveniently forgets to mention that the CBO, in the same report he cites, also produced another scenario, one in which the debt is not as large a problem in the US’s future. But, the CBO’s “extended-baseline scenario” projects that the Bush tax cuts will fully expire (as they are scheduled to) while letting the Alternative Minimum Tax expand (as the law says it should), along with a couple other fixes which are anathema to Republicans, so Levin just talks about the scarier scenario. (More on this at the CBO and at Ezra Klein’s blog)

Anyway, now that his audience is sufficiently scared about the prospects of an ever-growing and strangling US debt, Levin starts talking about the debt negotiations. Along the way, he offers the obligatory praise for the Ryan budget that is now mandatory among Republicans. (I’ll address the Ryan plan at a later date but here’s a nice non-partisan evaluation of the tax cuts for the rich in the plan.) Here’s his summary of the debt negotiations:

Until last week, that fight had been focused on negotiations led by Vice President Biden. Those talks certainly revealed something about the Democrats’ priorities: In the midst of a spending-driven debt explosion and a weak economy, Democrats in Washington want to raise taxes. But the negotiations also revealed the continuing unwillingness of the president to make specific proposals about how to reduce spending, reform entitlements, and bring the debt under control. On June 23, House majority leader Eric Cantor (who had represented House Republicans at the negotiations) decided he’d had enough, and left the talks in order to force the issue to a higher level and compel the president to get specific.

Egads! Tax increases? The nerve of those Democrats! You mean that in the middle of debt-reduction talks, the Democrats are proposing a way to decrease the debt by raising revenue?? Insane! Let’s forget for a minute (Levin certainly has) that total federal tax revenue is already at the lowest levels since 1950 (table 1.2). Acknowledging that inconvenient fact would mean that we are not in the middle of a “spending-driven debt explosion,” but, in fact, in the middle of a debt explosion caused by the government taking in too little revenue (Hellooooo Bush tax cuts).

Levin is probably right though. We are in the middle of a weak economy and now is not the time to raise taxes because when the government taxes, it takes dollars out of the economy, and right now the economy needs all the extra dollars it can get. Of course, if Levin was being intellectually honest he would oppose any government spending cuts for the same reason. If the government cuts spending, it also takes dollars out of the economy, hurting economic growth at a particularly fragile economic moment. That contradiction, sadly, is central to Republican thinking at this time. In their view, the government can’t raise taxes because it will hurt the economy, but the government can cut spending all it wants, even though that too will certainly hurt the economy.

Also, its not like Democrats just proposed increasing taxes out of nowhere. They proposed taxes as a deficit-reduction measure in negotiations over how to reduce the deficit. Its not like they just enjoy raising taxes for the hell of it.

Then Levin tries to say that the President is not being “specific” enough in the debt negotiations. Huh? The debt negotiations are going on behind closed doors. Levin doesn’t know what’s been specifically proposed. None of us do. Eric Cantor, the lead Republican negotiator, was the one who withdrew from the talks. When he stopped negotiating for the Republican side he said it was because he could never support a tax increase as part of the deal, not because the President wasn’t being “specific” enough. By all accounts, the negotiators have plenty of very specific cuts hammered out, the only sticking point is whether taxes will also be raised as part of this deal. Republican obstinacy on taxes killed this round of negotiations, not a lack of “specificity” on the part of the President.

Levin’s account of the negotiations is all the more confusing because the President wasn’t even involved in the negotiations. Vice President Joe Biden was handling them for the Democratic side. The President presented a debt reduction vision in a speech earlier this year (the “Speech” referred to in the title of Levin’s column) but has wisely left the actual deal to be worked out by the VP and the Congressmen who will actually be voting on the deal. Would it make any sense at all for the President to be out making speeches and policy proposals while negotiations are still ongoing? Wouldn’t doing so just undermine and distract from the talks that were already happening? In one last hypocritical moment, Levin fails to mention that the Ryan plan that he adores also fails to specify what cuts it will make in tax expenditures. The Ryan plan has to make huge cuts in tax expenditures in order to afford lowering taxes on the rich, but Levin doesn’t take Ryan to task for being mum on what specifically he would cut.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll stop my critique there. Its a shame that you can get a job writing this kind of drivel. Disputes? Questions? The comment box awaits!