The Bottomless Bad Faith of Conservative “Debt Hawks”

A handful of conservative economists and senior fellows from the Hoover Institute have written an opinion piece in the Washington Post warning about the dangers of debt while simultaneously praising the recently passed tax cuts for rich people and corporations that will increase that very same debt by at least $1.8 trillion over the next ten years. The column is filled with rhetorical sleights of hand, unsupported assertions, and logical leaps. But I’m not here to debunk it.

I’m going to praise it. I am glad they wrote this piece. I am glad they wrote it and I am glad the Washington Post published it because it is proof positive that conservative “debt hawks” are dripping with bad faith and there is absolutely no reason that any Democrat should engage with them, or even care about what they think.

Now before I get too far into this, let me throat-clear a bit. There are genuine “fiscal hawks” in the world. These are people whose concerns about debt and deficits are sincerely held and approach the issue with a good faith intention to address what they see as a big, looming problem. They can sometimes be sanctimonious, treating those who see the issue differently then they do as either dullards or radicals. They often suffer from tunnel-vision. But whatever their faults, they are honest about their views, and they don’t misrepresent their intentions. This type of true “fiscal hawk” is pretty rare and definitely does not exist in the Republican Congressional caucus at all.

This picture is a reference to a piece I wrote 8 years ago.

The authors of the Washington Post piece are the other, much more common type of “debt hawk,” the kind that doesn’t actually care about the debt. What they actually care about is low taxes, especially for rich people. They are worried that the aging of the population and the rising cost of health care will create pressure to raise taxes, especially on rich people, so that senior citizens can retire with some measure of security. They are probably right about these dynamics. The public strongly supports Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and they do not want to cut those programs. And it is true that those programs will grow as more Americans retire, and so we probably will need more tax revenue.

But conservatives who want to keep taxes low for the rich know that they can’t come right out and just say, “I’d like to keep taxes low for rich people rather than make sure all senior citizens have quality health care.” That’s not a popular position and it also doesn’t earn them the respect of very serious people like Fred Hiatt. The solution to their problem is to pretend to care about debt instead.

Usually, the scam goes like this. First, you start by gravely warning about the dangers of debt. Often, this involves rhetorically exaggerating the size of the debt and also making bold predictions about the effects of too much debt. Then you intone that the cause of the debt is spending increases alone. Generally, you simply assert that this is true, even though current debt levels are more the result of tax cuts and economic conditions than they are of spending increase, and furthermore there are many different valid interpretations of the causes of projected future debt levels. Finally, you conclude by saying that, because debt is bad and is caused by spending increases alone, we must therefore cut spending. Voila, you have now transformed your ideological preference for low taxes into an apparently serious-minded concern about debt.

The authors of the Washington Post column follow this pattern precisely.

Gravely warn about the dangers of debt: “We live in a time of extraordinary promise…But a major obstacle stands squarely in the way of this promise: high and sharply rising government debt.”

Intone that the cause of the debt is spending increases alone: “As is well-known, our deficit and debt problems stem from sharply rising entitlement spending.”

Conclude that we must therefore cut spending: “To address the debt problem, Congress must reform and restrain the growth of entitlement programs…”

A perfect 10.

But then they get cocky. Instead of just stopping after, “Congress must reform and restrain the growth of entitlement programs,” they give the game away in the next clause: “…and adopt further pro-growth tax and regulatory policies.” And by “further pro-growth tax policies,” they mean more tax cuts for rich people. I’m not putting words in their mouth, either. The very next sentence begins, “The recently enacted corporate-tax-reform plan is a good first step.” They then hand-wave away the $1.8 trillion price-tag for that recently enacted plan.

Again, I’m not going to get into the various ways in which their hand-waving is ridiculous. That’s not the point. The point is that one can’t seriously believe that debt itself is threatening the “promise” of America and also believe that it’s ok to add $1.8 trillion to that debt by cutting taxes. If someone asserts that they believe both of those things, then they must be lying about one of them.

And I love this column because it reveals so clearly that conservatives are lying about their debt concerns. They don’t believe that there is a debt crisis “on our doorstep.” If they did, they wouldn’t hand-wave away $1.8 trillion in extra debt, they would condemn it.

I suppose there is one other possibility. I guess it is possible that they do believe we are on the verge of a disastrous debt crisis and yet, they prefer that scenario to one in which we raise taxes on rich people a bit. If that’s the case, it’s even more despicable. I think I prefer to believe that they are simply lying about how much they actually care about the debt.

Either way, Democrats need to stop taking these people at their word. They are not interested in working with you to close a long-run fiscal gap. They don’t care about debt, or if they do, they don’t care more about it than they do about keeping taxes low. Their protestations to the contrary are made in bad-faith. Ignore them.

Budget and econ wonk. Pittsburgh native. Father of three. Aspiring to be Leslie Knope (would settle for Ben Wyatt). Personal account. Opinions my own.

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