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Charting the Policy and Democratic Perils of Ideological Extremism



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In recent columns I have discussed the marked difference that exists between the actual current situation regarding federal spending and the hue and cry concerning it, especially among a cadre of House Republicans. These lawmakers claim paradoxically that the nation’s fiscal situation is so grim that it justifies blackmailing those who disagree with them by using the threat of despoiling the good faith and credit of the nation as a bargaining chip. These legislators, led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R, Va.) and others, have also indicated a willingness to drive the country back into recession because, they claim, our finances are in such dire shape that draconian budget cuts in non-defense spending must occur immediately. This same group has called loudly for dramatic changes in Social Security and Medicare, among other social services programs, as necessary to address this so-called crisis.

Many in Washington, especially those associated with the GOP, but also many journalists, appear to have accepted this line of argument. Yet, however shrilly its advocates may press it, this scenario is simply not true. Nor, does it justify jeopardizing the nation’s good faith and credit or possibly throwing the country back into recession. Instead, these are ideological claims that bear little relationship to reality. Here are some facts to bear in mind as these arguments are offered:

Despite widespread use of the analogy by these legislators, the United States government is not a household and need not act as if it is when developing its budgets. Economists have long agreed that the nation needs to help stabilize natural fiscal swings occasioned by market forces. With unemployment obstinately high currently it makes sense for the federal government to run short- term budget deficits as long as that condition continues. We may expect the Treasury to reap the benefits and that deficit to decline as economic growth returns to near normal levels as the economy recovers. Indeed, that is exactly what occurred in the 1990s and it helped to eliminate a large federal deficit developed in the 1980s, occasioned, too, by imprudent tax cuts and an economic slowdown.

The United States presently has no trouble obtaining the revenue it requires in the bond markets and can do so at historically low interest rates. We may reasonably doubt that situation would continue were the “Young Guns” GOP group in the House to use the nation’s debt ceiling as a blackmail negotiating device and either so concern bond market participants that they demand higher interest returns to buy treasuries or simply refuse to buy that debt. A share of these lawmakers have gone further, of course, and called for the nation to default on its debt obligations. The results of that act would be calamitous and much worse than forcing interest rates higher. Considering the implications of either case, however, illustrates the folly of these Members’ stance.

Contrary to much jarring rhetoric from the House GOP caucus, Social Security remains in substantial surplus ($2.7 trillion). The nation must indeed deal with the longer-run vitality of that program, but such may occur with relatively modest policy changes. The fund is not now in crisis, nor is it in imminent danger of being so, nor is Social Security in any way responsible for the nation’s current accounts deficit. Indeed, Congress is using current surplus Social Security funds for other priorities it considers pressing.

Understanding the actual situation of Social Security points up another fact now being lost in rhetorical and ideological flights of fancy among GOP House members (and some in the Senate as well): policy-makers and citizens alike need to distinguish prudent short-term versus long-term policy steps. The nation needs first to do all it can to support the slow recovery now under way and provide such assistance as it can to the jobless. It can deal thereafter with longer-term budgetary needs. As many eminent economists have been arguing, a time of high national joblessness is not an apt moment to reduce federal spending markedly. Were any additional evidence needed on this question, analysts need only point to Europe whose policy-makers have helped to create depression conditions in Spain and a double-dip recession in England by too quick recourse to massive public expenditure reductions.

It is also useful to recall that Medicare operates within a much larger U.S. health care system and it is that structure which is creating the annually escalating costs with which the Medicare program is grappling. Our nation needs to have an honest debate about those challenges rather than pretend that somehow Medicare is their source. That program is not the motive force for cost escalation in the industry, but it certainly must cope with the consequences of that reality. Our policy-makers need to open a dialogue about these concerns rather than scapegoat this federal program for a larger set of difficulties. Medicare may need changes, but not because it is creating the issues to which GOP House members are so strongly pointing.

Given these facts, it is difficult to explain GOP House Representatives’ claims as anything other than what they appear to be at face value: evidence of ideological extremism and rhetorical posturing designed to frighten many into policy choices they would not otherwise support. There is no historical evidence for the economic claims on offer and much evidence to suggest they will lead to a far worse situation. These leaders meanwhile have demonstrated their extremism by embracing tactics to gain negotiating leverage that almost no one believes will do anything but harm the nation these individuals are sworn to serve.

Finally, I continue to be concerned about what the gerrymandering of legislative districts means for the electoral security of many of the zealots offering these arguments in the House and what that fact says, in turn, about the electorates supporting them. I have no problem with individuals pressing competing ideological claims in our politics. That has ever been so. What appears to be changing as we speak, at least for this GOP House group, is a willingness to countenance opposing perspectives as legitimate and to compromise when appropriate. These members’ positions, meanwhile, are sufficiently clamorous and misinformed, or worse, as to make one wonder how they garner support, even among those who might agree broadly with their political aims. That concern raises another issue ever vital for democratic regimes, assuring an electorate sufficiently informed so as to be able to make judicious choices. It is not clear that GOP supporters in these House districts are any longer able to consider alternative views or willing to understand the facts of the issues in play. They appear instead, for a complex array of reasons, to be in thrall to deeply misguided and misinformed rhetoricians who themselves evidence little command of reality, but do appear to know how to use values claims, fear and scapegoating to mobilize their constituents. While hardly new as a phenomenon in historical terms, this situation cannot be healthy in the longer pull for our polity.

Publication Date

January 13, 2013