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January 14, 2013 10:59 AM Solve This Problem

By Ed Kilgore

With a ponderous condescension that ill-befits a recently failed presidential candidate and a United States Senator who has largely distinguished himself by drawing attention to the vast gulf that separates him from his own party, Jon Huntsman and Joe Manchin have penned a WaPo op-ed that announces the formation of a bipartisan band of two dozen self-described “problem solvers” (two Senators, other than Manchin, and twenty-two House members) who are in theory willing to eschew partisanship and ideology to save the U.S. economy. They believe they can, it seems, achieve a legislative breakthrough by talking to each other:

While in past years members of Congress used to interact regularly with members of the opposite party, today members of Congress interact very little with people from the other party — or even members of their own party in the opposite body. Members’ daily lives are dominated by party caucus, policy and fundraising meetings that are focused on winning elections or destroying the opposing party. There isn’t much time left over to actually govern.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with talk. And yes, it would be nice if partisans did not treat their differences as equivalent to the divisions that produced the Thirty Years War. But there are a few, well, problems with this abstract ideology of problem-solving.

One of the most obvious is the false-equivalency meme, the idea that all partisans are equally culpable for gridlock in Washington and thus must in equal measures abandon party discipline to “solve problems.” It’s understandable that any bipartisan group would accept as a point of departure this fiction, but it’s still fiction. One party is dominated by people who believe in a fixed, eternal set of principles and policies that are required of anyone expressing fidelity to the Constitution, to American traditions, and (for many) God Almighty. And the other is an unwieldy coalition of people who believe in all sorts of things, but is generally innocent of the conviction that its party platform came down from Mount Sinai or Mount Vernon on stone tablets.

But put that aside for a moment, if you can. The other problem is the conviction that reconciliation of the two parties’ points of view is simple if politicians agree to compromise.

At the moment, the impasse that is creating crisis after crisis in the fiscal management of the country is that Republicans contend the only real problem we have is the proliferation of domestic spending, mainly in “entitlements.” Congressional Republicans are largely unwilling to identify specific “reforms” that must be initiated to “solve” this problem—in part because they have selectively championed unrestrained entitlement spending (i.e., for Medicare) when it was to their electoral advantage. To the extent a Democratic position can be identified, it is that we have a short-term economic problem that militates against deep short-term spending reductions, and a long-term fiscal problem that must be addressed with a combination of economic growth, restraints in both domestic and defense spending, a reform of a tax system that is insufficient to pay for the government Americans consistently profess to want. Democrats, moreover, typically believe the key to domestic spending restraint involves reductions in heath care cost inflation that require more, not less, government intervention of a type that Republicans have denounced in terms usually reserved for the great totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.

A fiscal compromise between these two points of view that just “splits the differences”—i.e., the type that can be produced by Washington pols cutting deals across party lines—will not only be messy and offensive to ideologues and the two parties’ “bases” and interest groups, but will also be incoherent and internally self-cancelling to a degree that it may not solve any problem other than the most recent impasse in Congress.

That is most obvious, by the way, with respect to the economic problems Huntsman and Manchin cite as the emergency requiring all this bipartisan talk:

We need to attempt those things and to seek solutions now from the system and the leaders we already have. Businesses are not hiring, and investors are not investing as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Washington. Too many would-be workers are not working. The coming generations are being doomed to a worse standard of living than previous generations.

This, folks, is an ideological statement, not a statement of pragmatic abandonment of ideology. Our principal economic problem, it is asserted, is “uncertainty.” If that is true, then any long-term set of fiscal and economic policies is desirable.

But what if liberals are right and the real problem with the economy is a dearth of aggregate demand? What if conservatives are right and the real problem is the perpetuation of the twentieth-century welfare state and regulation of “job-creators?” Compromises that pull in opposite directions on the basic diagnosis of what is wrong with the economy—particularly the preferred Beltway Fiscal Hawk “consensus” of adopting both sharp spending reductions and tax increases—are very likely to damage and reverse our fragile economic recovery more than all the “uncertainty” in the world.

So fine, talk across party lines all you want. Some sort of impure compromises between irreconcilable points of view to keep the government functioning may well be inevitable. But let’s don’t pretend there are obvious “solutions” that fair-minded people would instantly adopt if not for the equal blindness of partisans on both sides. And those who doesn’t understand that problem shouldn’t be self-righteously posing as the only problem-solvers in the room.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Peter C on January 14, 2013 11:38 AM:

    I have a really bad feeling that Joe Manchin is going to turn out to be the next Ben Nelson of the Democratic Party.

    Before both parties can come together to fix the economy, I really like them to come to concensus about what facts best describe and explain our current situation. Here's a hint: the budget defecit is not one of them; it is not the root-cause of our woes.

    We can't fix the economy until we are trying to solve the right problem.

  • c u n d gulag on January 14, 2013 11:43 AM:

    Amidst all of this "uncertainty" that the politicians, business leaders, and the chattering classes in DC are bloviating on and on about, there is one thing that IS 'certain:'
    Businesses and rich people are 'certainly' saving a ton of money, socking it away someplace, and not spending it on hiring and training people.

    To end the "uncertainty," you can either get a more graduated income tax, since it really is ludicrous that the Koch Brothers will pay, theoretically anyway, the same percentage of their individual taxes, as the single person making over $400,000, or a couple making more than $450,000, which the government can then "redistribute" to make the economy more fair, or, we can lower income taxes across the board - this will encourage spending, boosting the economy - and have Asset Taxes, for individuals and corporations.

    The more you sock away, the more assets you have, or buy, or hold, the higher your tax.
    Want tax breaks?
    Hire and train people for jobs and careers, and keep them.

    If we can't sell a more graduated rate of income tax on the wealthiest, threaten the rich with the Asset Tax.

    What do you will scare Mitt, the Koch Brothers, and our other Galtian Overlords?
    A higher tax on ALL income?
    Or, a tax on ALL of their assets, foreign, and domestic?

    My guess is, that latter.

    I'd expand on the Asset Tax, but I think you get the idea, and I've been long-winded enough.

  • Rick Groves on January 14, 2013 1:27 PM:

    But what if liberals are right and the real problem with the economy is a dearth of aggregate demand? What if conservatives are right and the real problem is the perpetuation of the twentieth-century welfare state and regulation of “job-creators?”

    What if you actually looked at all of the evidence we have right now, which very clearly supports the liberal hypothesis. The problem is not that we don't compromise. It's that our policy makers are more worried about stroking their own egos and confirming their existing philosophies than actually making policy based on a rigorous study of evidence.

    Pretending like the problem is a lack of evidence to support one position or the other is the problem. We don't need compromise. We need politicians who are willing to a.) accept the possibility that they might be completely wrong and b.) vote for the policies that are implied but what the evidence actually says.

  • Rick Groves on January 14, 2013 1:29 PM:

    But what if liberals are right and the real problem with the economy is a dearth of aggregate demand? What if conservatives are right and the real problem is the perpetuation of the twentieth-century welfare state and regulation of “job-creators?”

    What if you actually looked at all of the evidence we have right now, which very clearly supports the liberal hypothesis. The problem is not that we don't compromise. It's that our policy makers are more worried about stroking their own egos and confirming their existing philosophies than actually making policy based on a rigorous study of evidence.

    Pretending like the problem is a lack of evidence to support one position or the other is the problem. We don't need compromise. We need politicians who are willing to a.) accept the possibility that they might be completely wrong and b.) vote for the policies that are implied but what the evidence actually says.

  • Keith Roberts on January 14, 2013 1:39 PM:

    The real difficulty in any discussion with the Republicans just now is that there is no discernable "Republican" position on any of the political issues apart from the crazy Tea Party views, even as it becomes clear that those views are alien to most Republicans. It's important that we have a responsible Republican party, because any party in power too long becomes corrupt and overreaching. But right now there is no Republican Party at all, responsible or otherwise. They have some real work to do.

  • bigtuna on January 14, 2013 1:40 PM:

    They way I distill this is that you can imagine in a normal world we might assign a number to each parties ideology or fiscal thinking, and that some "solution" = 1/D+1/R. That is, in simple math, D and R are numbers. However, in the current state, R = 0, so .... 1/0 is undefined.

  • derek on January 14, 2013 3:17 PM:

    well put sir

  • El Cid on January 14, 2013 4:35 PM:

    'I say we shoot and kill this person!'

    'I say we *don't* shoot and kill this person!'

    'Oh, both you extremists. We need to compromise, come together -- let's shoot him but only injure him very badly!'

    'Yay! We have bridged our partisan divide!'

  • bjs on January 14, 2013 8:16 PM:

    There is something to that 'uncertainty' argument though. We have a lot of uncertainty due to a party in congress continuing to threaten to crash the economy if they don't get their way, with 'their way' being massive cuts to popular government programs and massive changes to the social compact. Such threats, along with the risk that they may succeed in getting their way, can cause a lot of uncertainty. But Huntsman and Manchin aren't off the hook; their failed diagnosis of the illness means the disease grows untreated.

  • denim on January 15, 2013 6:24 AM:

    I agree with Rick Groves above. Policy must be supported by evidence. Hard evidence. There should be no compromise that ignores evidence. To ignore evidence and compromise with error makes one not only a supporter of a known lie, but a constructor of falsehood.