Friday, January 09, 2009

Move me to the “Undecided” column

I voted for Barack Obama in both the New Hampshire primary and the general election. I’ve blogged on his behalf and campaigned aggressively for Joe Biden during the primaries. Yet after this week, you’ll have to move me from his “approve” column to the “undecided” column.

I’m a big fan of Obama’s Cabinet picks – particularly Robert Gates at Defense and Tom Daschle at HHS – but while he gets an A- in that department (I have small doubts about Leon Panetta, among others), I’ve got to drop him to a C- so far for leadership. What’s sticking in my craw is this statement from the president-elect at a news conference on Tuesday:

One of the measures of irresponsibility that we've seen is the enormous federal debt that has accumulated, a number that has doubled in recent years. As we just discussed, my budget team filled me in on - Peter Orszag now forecasts that, at the current course and speed, a trillion-dollar deficit will be here before we even start the next budget, that we've already looked - we're already looking at a trillion-dollar budget deficit or close to a trillion-dollar budget deficit, and that potentially we've got trillion-dollar deficits for years to come, even with the economic recovery that we are working on at this point.

Did you catch that? Everybody’s favorite Democrat says we are potentially looking at “trillion-dollar deficits for years to come.” We all knew he was running on the promise of change, but whenever I thought of our record-high $450 billion federal budget deficit, I naturally thought “change” meant a return to fiscal responsibility, not bigger deficits. Yes, he was saying that these deficits would only happen if there is “a change in the way that Washington does business,” but he did not tell us how to make that change or what it would look like, only that his advisors were studying the issue.

Given the economic, environmental, and infrastructure crises currently facing this country, I understand the need for a trillion-dollar deficit this year and maybe even next. As a friend observed last night, at least there’s a reason for this deficit, unlike the Bush 2 deficits based on tax cuts for the rich and an unnecessary war. But to suggest that there’s a better-than-even chance that we’ll see such deficits for more than two years is to give up all hope of fiscal responsibility. Surely the budget can be back to more-sensible deficits within four years and balanced by the end of eight. These deficits aren’t just economically unsustainable, they are also a threat to our national security, and anyone who refuses to try and bring them under control demonstrates a failure of leadership.

To be fair, Obama’s statement was a part of larger remarks regarding government accountability and transparency: “The reason I raise this is that we're going to have to stop talking about budget reform. We're going to have to totally embrace it. It's an absolute necessity.” Still, when asked what measures he would take to balance the budget or when it might happen, he did not answer, and as a member of the generation that will have to pay China’s bill, that really bothers me.


Jordan said...

And that's why I voted for McCain; among a large amount of other reasons.

This fact that his advisors are the only ones looking at the budget as of today doesn't surprise me in the least. In fact I'd be surprised if he had any involvement with the creation of "his" health care plan.

Nathan Empsall said...

No one in DC, save the Blue Dog Democratic caucus, is looking at the budget in the right way, including the Republicans. McCain kept saying he could find $100 billion to slash in a day, but never bothered to take that day and make those proposals. It's a failure of Washington in general.

And Obama is a policy wonk. Like all policy and all administrations of all parties, the advisers will handle most of the details on issues because the President is too busy to specialize, but he will give direction and get involved with details where needed. On that, I'm not worried. What's got me ticked is his "direction" on long-term budget issues, but I don't have much more faith on McCain about the issue either - especially since he's now focusing on earmark reform. Don't get me wrong, that's important and I have no problem with a Senator focusing on something like that, but if he's trying to show us what he would have been like as President, I have to roll my eyes; earmarks, for all their symbolism, have zero impact on the real bottomline.

Jordan said...

Yes you're right; programs that have outlived their usefulness like Social Security and Medicare do.

Nathan Empsall said...

When you say programs "like" SocSec and Medicare, I assume you mean they're still good but there are similar programs to them that could be done away with. :P

I'd be ok with scrapping Medicare and Medicaid if a better system replaced them - part of larger health care reform. Social Security needs some changes, but I support the basic concept.

Max said...

i'm not sure who jordan is, but they're obviously insane (there's no shame in seeking help, jordan!); nathan, i think here's you're simply well-meaning but misguided. take a look at this:

now the important chart is not the first one, it's the second one - public debt as a percentage of gdp, since inflation and economic growth render a tracking of the nominal dollar value of the nation debt less than meaningless, but in fact actively misleading.

you'll notice that our public debt was nearly double what it is now shortly after world war two. and i'm sure you'll remember what a disastrous economic time our nation had from the mid-1940s through the early 1970s. oh wait - it was a period of massive economic growth and widespread prosperity. never mind.

my rough estimates (based of course on my training as a world-class economist) tell me that we would have to run a trillion-dollar deficit every year for the next decade just to approach the 120%-of-gdp level of debt we faced after wwii.

so, quite frankly, given our healthcare crisis, our economic crisis, our infrastructure crisis, and numerous other national challenges, fiscal irresponsibility would entail prioritizing debt reduction over real national priorities.

and, hey jordan, if you really wanna cut spending, maybe you should stop looking at things like social security and medicare, which helped build and continue to sustain the world's first middle-class society, and instead look at defense spending, which accounts for half of all federal discretionary spending without even including our multi-trillion-dollar occupations of iraq and afghanistan. surely a nation with several thousand nuclear weapons doesn't need to spend more on defense as the rest of the planet combined to ensure the safety of its citizenry.

Nathan Empsall said...

Jordan is a friend from high school.

Max said...

to be fair to jordan, having read your two blog posts, you're obviously quite brilliant and far better versed in scientific knowledge than i'll ever be. i hope you'll not take my passionate politics too personally.