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[The Anti-Economist]

A Republican Magic Trick


Deficit misdirection

It’s becoming increasingly clear that America’s deficit hawks are using the classic magician’s trick of misdirection: wave your right arm around frantically, and you’ll distract your audience from your left hand as it pulls a card from your sleeve. In their version of the trick, Republican lawmakers and well-financed right-wing think tanks (some of whom call themselves centrist) are sounding the alarm about a huge rise in the U.S. budget deficit when we reach the 2030s. Then, they pick the pockets of Americans by getting concessions on cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and other vital programs.

The long-term deficit scare is based on projections of rapidly rising health-care costs that will almost definitely not occur. In the past four years, these costs have been growing slowly. Moreover, America spends so much on health care, it has a lot of room to become more efficient without undermining quality — maybe even while improving it.

The projections come from the supposedly non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. But the office is making simplistic extrapolations from the historical data. The CBO’s economic model is demonstrably conservative, lending far too much weight to the deleterious consequences of future budget deficits; the office’s economists are big advocates of the “crowding out” thesis that federal deficits reduce business investment, and great deniers of Keynesianism. To base fiscal policy on their twenty-year forecasts would be like betting the ranch on a Farmer’s Almanac prediction.

It may be time for the president to hire a professional magician himself. Or at least time for him to tell Americans they’re being bamboozled, and to stop buying the Republican line that program cuts are necessary.

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February 2014

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