NRO’s eye on debt and deficits . . . by Kevin D. Williamson.

Reframing the Trillions


Let me introduce you to the Worrell Professor of Anglo-American Studies (really!) at Wake Forest University, Prof. David Coates, the even dimmer Democrat’s George Lakoff. Professor Coates, writing in the Huffington Post, is interested in (can you guess?) “Reframing the Deficit Debate,” as his headline puts it. “Reframing” means “engaging in rhetorical obfuscation,” i.e. bamboozling the proles, which is fun to do but doesn’t make the numbers come out any different.

Yeah, I know, all this panicky deficit talk is just part of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy — the one apparently headed by former Clinton chief of staff and Obama deficit-panel appointee and dyed-in-the-wool Democrat Erskine Bowles, who co-authored a warning that the country is headed for “the most predictable economic crisis in its history.” Predictable by whom? Not by Prof. David Coates of Wake Forest U.

(Okay, before I go on: “Professor of Anglo-American Studies”? What in hell is that? I picture a guy spending long, fruitless, frustrated grad-school afternoons poring over ancient Brooks Bros. inventory lists and real-estate listings in Greenwich, Conn.)

The guy’s a professor, but he writes like an undergraduate circa 1993, one who has just discovered the words “dominant discourse”: “The dominant discourse in national American politics these days is a discourse on deficits.” (The discourse is a discourse!) The phrase “dominant discourse” reappears, and it is Professor Coates’s goal to correct it. He proposes to do this by repeating things that are at best half true and at worse less than half true. Item No. 1 on his rhetorical agenda is declaring: “We are not broke.” You’ve heard that one a lot lately, no? It’s like there was a memo or something.

Here’s Coates: “We are not broke. We are certainly not broke in the sense of facing any immediate problem of financing public debt. On the contrary, the federal government is currently able to borrow at a historically low rate of interest — lower indeed now than immediately before the 2007–8 financial melt-down.” He does not write, though I assume he knows, that one very large factor influencing those currently low interest rates is that the federal government is not selling a lot of bonds to the real bond market. The Fed, under the “quantitative easing” program, is buying most of what Uncle Sam is selling, and it is simply printing the money to do so. As readers of this column know, players in the real bond market already are saying that they will not finance U.S. borrowing until interest rates go up. Which means that we probably will face an “immediate problem of financing public debt” at the current artificially low rates once the government has to actually, you know, sell all those bonds to willing investors. But if you define “Not Broke” as “Ben Bernanke can still exnihilate money into existence, can’t he?” then, true, we’re not broke, and never will be. And neither will Zimbabwe.

Coates “reframing” ploy No. 2:  Cutting spending won’t really reduce the deficit. Here’s our man: “Cutting programs is not the best way to cut the deficit.  . . . At least 75 percent of the current shortfall in government revenues is a product of the recession. Another 11 percent is a product of decisions taken, by this administration and its predecessor, to wage a series of Middle Eastern wars. The best way to cut the deficit is to end those wars and to retrigger sustained economic growth, not least by greater public expenditure on infrastructure and human capital.” But we were running a deficit before the recession, and the recession does not explain the generally negative fiscal outlook that preceded it. Neither do tax cuts for “the rich.” As the CBO puts it: “The sharp rise in debt stems partly from lower tax revenues and higher federal spending related to the recent severe recession and turmoil in financial markets. However, the growing debt also reflects an imbalance between spending and revenues that predated those economic developments.” Spending on what? At the height of the Iraq War, the federal government was spending more on education than it was on the war. (And state and local governments spent far more on education than Washington did.) The Iraq War, CBO reports, cost $709 billion; the Obama stimulus will cost more than that ($814 billion) by the time it has run its course, CBO finds. (An excellent exploration of all this and more is here.) Coates complains about the Bush tax cuts and says we need tax increases on “the rich” to balance things out; in reality, Bush’s tax cuts for the middle class ($2.2 trillion) cost far more in forgone revenue than the cuts for “the rich,” which can be measured in measly billions, rather than trillions.

You see how this reframing thing works, right? You get tenure for this stuff, which is awesome.

Given the obvious deceit of the deficit hawks’ campaign, it is “little wonder then,” as Professor Coates puts it, “that public opinion polls regularly put deficit reduction low on the list of the nation’s pressing issues.” Except for the 40 percent of Americans who listed it as their No. 1 or No. 2 concern (as opposed to 56 percent for jobs).

How broke are we, really? This broke:

Our national debt is $14.3 trillion or so. Our GDP in 2010 was about $14.7 trillion. On the more commonly cited metric of publicly held debt to GDP, the United States, at 59 percent, is closer to European bailout-bait such as Spain (63 percent), or even basket case Portugal (83 percent), than it is to responsible countries like Australia (22 percent), New Zealand (26 percent), or Canada (34 percent). Under CBO’s most realistic scenario, our debt would hit 185 percent of GDP by 2035. I write would because, of course, it won’t: Unsustainable levels of U.S. debt will cause a major global financial crisis well before reaching that level. Probably more like the 110 percent CBO sees us hitting by 2025. The year 2025 is not some Buck Rogers date in the sci-fi future; that’s fourteen years from now.

All of this could be dealt with, and dealt with good ’n’ proper, Coates thinks, if our stumbling president would just learn how to reframe it. (Question: If a professor of Anglo-American studies says our first black president suffers mostly from failure to heed the advice of professors of Anglo-American studies, does that make him a racist? Discuss among yourselves.) 

Coates: “The President would do well to remember that the important thing about legacies is that they have to be defended. Given the accommodatory strategy now prevalent in his White House, there is a genuine and growing danger that his administration may yet be the first in U.S. history to have surrendered its legacy before it has even left office.” (Confession: I included that last bit only as a pretext to note that “accommodatory” is a word unknown to the rascals who edited my Webster’s Third. Maybe it’s not English, but Anglo-American.)

But never mind all that: No problem here, nothing to see, move along, we’ve got reframin’ goin’ on! And when those Social Security checks stop showing up (or when you start cashing them for radically devalued dollars), remember that Professor Coates of Wake Forest U. assured you that it was only a matter of reframing. But keep this in mind: Lots of really bright people with real money on the line (as opposed to political rhetoric, which is not cheap, but free) are betting their own that this does not work out well.

—  Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, just published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.

Tags: Debt , Deficits , Despair , Nutty Professors


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