Political Animal


December 21, 2012 3:49 PM Begone, Deficit Scolds, and Never Darken My Towels Again

By Ryan Cooper

The negotiations around the “fiscal cliff” have driven a goodly swath of the DC elite into such paroxysms of hypocrisy that it’s beginning to distort space and time. It’s almost mind-boggling how complex the awfulness is (ht). Today Noam Scheiber gives us a profile of one of the primary scolds, Maya MacGuineas, and how she made deficit scolding “chic” (chic used in the DC sense, which is to say not in the same galaxy as actual chic). The timeline is a nice breakdown of the wretched, pointless cruelty of the whole deficit scold class.

First we have a group of rich elites who have been wrong about every single major economic event for the past decade howling about the apocalyptic consequences of not reducing the deficit right now (even though people are literally paying the government to borrow money), trying to force through a “deficit reduction” deal using the debt ceiling:

During the House Republicans’ experiment with refusing to raise the debt ceiling last year, MacGuineas issued a press release stating that “[t]hreatening to blow up the nation’s credit rating and potentially the economy should not be seen as a legitimate negotiating strategy.” She then added: “At the same time, failing to use this debt ceiling ‘hammer’ to force serious fiscal reforms would be a dangerous lost opportunity.” It was a bit like condemning hostage-taking in the strongest terms, then warning that failing to use hostages to, say, secure a Palestinian state would be downright irresponsible.

The scolds got Congress to write itself into hangman’s noose, consisting of a bunch of blunt cuts to defense and domestic spending, if they couldn’t get a deal, which of course they couldn’t. Remember, that noose—the “fiscal cliff”—would massively reduce the deficit. But it would also cause a big recession. So what do the scolds do? Use it as leverage to try and get a “deficit reduction” deal:

Less than one year later, with the dinner still fresh in her mind, MacGuineas launched the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a lobbying organization bent on persuading Washington to prune the deficit. Under MacGuineas’s stewardship, the group has raised over $40 million and run ads instructing the capital’s powerbrokers to “Just Fix It!” It has dispatched CEOs across the cable dial and to all corners of Beltway officialdom to deliver stern talking-tos about fiscal responsibility. It has even spawned 17 state chapters to spread the word through the hinterlands.
With the fiscal cliff looming this fall, “it seemed like everyone wanted to do Maya’s group,” said an aide to a leading CEO. As it happens, this it-ness is the product of MacGuineas’s remarkable hustle. She has signed up Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, currently the two biggest celebrities in corporate America, as her “co-founders,” and stacked her steering committee with well-connected bigwigs, like Steve Rattner, the private-equity magnate and former Obama auto czar, and JP Morgan Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee.

Just to restate, these people ostensibly dedicated to deficit reduction above all else, people who start organizations called “Fix the Debt,” have spent most of the last few months arguing that the current path of massive deficit reduction is bad because of the danger of the national debt. I literally can’t imagine a more incoherent position. (They don’t actually believe this schlock, of course, they just want lower taxes and cuts to social insurance.)

But this kind of nutty sloganeering has real consequences. I’m pretty confident the president and House Republicans will work something out to avert the worst of the fiscal cliff, but I’m not certain. Left unchecked, it would cause serious damage to the economy and throw millions of people out of work. If so, that would be entirely the fault of the scolds—it’s their creation.

If nothing else, this whole sorry episode should stand as proof that Maya MacGuineas and her pack of scoundrels are morally and intellectually bankrupt, who if they had any honor left would apply for work tomorrow as garbage collectors. If all you can achieve in politics is repeatedly hanging the sword of Damocles over the heads of the American people, it’s time to pack it in.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • T2 on December 21, 2012 5:16 PM:

    When the Speaker of the House of Representatives is asked how we avert the Fiscal Cliff, and he answers "god only knows" , then 1) he's not much of a leader, 2) his House ain't worth beans.

  • bbleh on December 21, 2012 5:45 PM:

    You miss the point. They are like the media whores. They crave one thing only: ATTENTION. That they are right or wrong, vindicated or disproved, praised or condemned, is irrelevant. All they want is eyes and ears (and invitations).

    Weird. But not unlike politicians. Only less courageous.

  • MuddyLee on December 21, 2012 5:51 PM:

    Kill the country to fix the debt crisis. Great strategy. If debt was so bad, people wouldn't buy houses, companies wouldn't issue bonds. So if you're one of these debt crisis people, what do you do when you have a health problem - kill yourself? Or do you choose the least worst treatment alternative?

  • Keith M Ellis on December 21, 2012 6:23 PM:

    I find this situation to be almost literally incomprehensible. It's almost as if God created a situation specifically designed to test whether conservatives actually believe the things they've been arguing, loudly and incessantly, that they believe:

    1) The deficit and debt is bad and is an imminent danger to the economy; and

    2) Government spending cannot act as an economic stimulus because, at best, it is merely a diversion of resources and, at worst, it's a more inefficient use of those resources and therefore worsens the situation.

    So, God the Experimentalist, sets up a situation where there's a huge automatic mechanism whereby government spending, and the deficit and debt, are all radically reduced. Which, according to the previously described conservative doctrine, should:

    1) Create an economic boom because of, well, the confidence fairies, mostly, and the relief from all those things asserted to be imminent economic dangers resulting from the deficit and debt; and

    2) Either be a wash, because a drastic reduction in government spending won't cause a problem because it'll just shift to the private sector; or, even better, will create a boom because the private sector will use them more efficiently.

    So ... Big Win! Right?

    Well, weirdly, no, they've all been accepting and arguing that doing this will Destroy the Economy.

    To be fair, it's not entirely incoherent because this also includes tax increases, the cost of which they might argue economically outweighs all the other benefits.

    But, mostly, what's really happening is that this reveals their true colors. Conservatives have never cared about the deficits or debts except when they can use them as an argument against government programs they don't like. To be fair, that's true of liberals and the Democrats, too. Except that the programs liberals don't like are the "blowing people up" programs while the programs the conservatives don't like are the "feeding and housing people" programs. Otherwise, though, conservatives are happy to borrow massive amounts of money to a) blow people up, and b) give tax cuts to the wealthy.

    And the fiscal cliff directly threatens those two core principles: blowing up people in other countries and ensuring that wealthy people don't pay taxes.

    None of this is incomprehensible. What is incomprehensible is that basically no one, certainly not the national media, is reporting on or apparently even noticing that conservatives (especially the Tea Party folk) have been proven liars. (Well, the man-on-the-street is probably just dumb as a box of rocks.)

  • c u n d gulag on December 21, 2012 6:25 PM:

    When Democrats control a chunk of DC, Jayzoos H. Keerist on a cross, tasered, shot, and disembowled, deficits are worse than the death by trillions of minus symbols.

    And when a Democrat like Bill Clinton leaves a surplus, well, then, that surplus is worse than a Gazzilion dollars of debt!
    Time for deficit-causing tax cuts for the rich!!!

    But when Republicans are in charge, as Dick
    "The Dark Lord" Cheney said, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter."
    And they run-up record deficits that dwarf the prior Republican deficits.

    And then, when another Democrat is elected President, then Jayzoos H. Keerist, on a cross, tasered, shot, disembowled, emasculated, and with his pocket's picked, deficits are worse than a Bazillion Gazillion Trillion dollars of debt.

    Funny how that works, ain't it?
    Uhm... not so much.

    Oh, if Republican hypocracy could be tapped, the Middle East would have nothing worthwhile to sell!

  • LL on December 22, 2012 11:01 AM:

    This situation, btw, is exactly analogous to the position taken by the neocons in the run-up to the most recent invasion of Iraq: Saddam had NOTHING to do with the 9/11 attacks, but, hell, let's invade his country anyway, and use 9/11 as an excuse.

    Virtually no difference between this criminal mendacity and what the deficit scolds are doing now.

    Royalists, and their toadies, always have to lie about what they want, and what they're doing, because if they told the clear truth--or if that truth was actually reported accurately and repeatedly in our Mass Media--said Royalists and toadies would be stripped naked, tarred, feathered, and run into the Atlantic in January.

  • Tobie on December 22, 2012 5:03 PM:

    Thanks for pointing out the superficiality, if not stupidity (or alternatively mendacity) of the Fix the Debt crowd. It strikes me as telling that not a single figure associated with the group is an actual economist, and that no one in the media has ever bothered to question the fundamental premise of the group, i.e., that we need to lower the debt now in the middle of brutal recession. Judy Woodruff of the NewsHour on PBS fawns over Maya MacGuineas whenever she has her as a guest on the show. It's depressing that no one cares to ask how austerity is working out in Europe given that this is MacGuineas's one recommendation and that it's assumed that the cuts must come from social programs, not the military or other expenditures. Keep up the good work exposing the Fix the Debt crowd for what it is: a collection of media whores or CEOs with questionable motives.