…because I’m an economist and a mom–that’s why!

Getting Specific and Creating a Movement

April 20th, 2010 . by economistmom


Last week’s USA Today article by Richard Wolf makes it clear that the status quo way of talking about the need for fiscal discipline just isn’t working.  From the story (my emphasis added), the co-leaders of the presidentially-appointed bipartisan fiscal commission pretty much tell it like it is:

The White House, Congress, budget experts and typical Americans are growing anxious about the nation’s mounting debt, which is helping to fuel the rise of the anti-tax, anti-big government Tea Party movement.

Yet the only solutions capable of raising enough money are politically dangerous for the president and Congress: tax increases and major reductions in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to take the first step.

The debt hasn’t stopped conservatives from saying tax increases should be off the table when the panel debates how to close Washington’s budget gap — an estimated $1.5 trillion this year alone, equal to the entire federal budget in 1995. Nor has it stopped liberals from saying Medicare, Social Security and other entitlements must be protected.

[Erskine] Bowles, [one of the co-leaders of the commission and] outgoing president of the University of North Carolina and a White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, says neither taxes nor benefits can be off-limits.

“We can’t do this without a lot of pain,” he says.

His partner leading the panel, former senator Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, eagerly awaits the howls of protest from both sides.

“I’ll be called the Republican toady,” says the 6-foot-6, salty-tongued Simpson. “I don’t give a crap.”

In case you’re wondering, the photo above is of a toad actually giving a crap (sorry if that grosses you out)…which is actually true of Simpson and Bowles in terms of the fiscal commission coming up with the specifically hard choices that would actually reduce the deficit–and both in the near term as well as over the more fundamentally challenging longer term, well beyond the 2015 goal of 3 percent of GDP deficits.

I think Bowles and Simpson well understand that policymakers (the experts and the politicians) need to get more specific about the necessary and tough policy choices (which are as difficult to look at as that toad above?)–and the need to talk about them with the American people very often and very openly.  Some examples of these specifically hard choices are outlined in Richard’s USA Today article.  And as the rest of Richard’s story emphasizes, to make real progress on this issue we need to create “a movement” (aha–also depicted above!)–and not just “educate.”  That “talk” about the tough choices needs to be engaging and not just informative.

It’s what we try to do at the Concord Coalition everyday because, yes, as a matter of fact, we do give a crap.  ;)

20 Responses to “Getting Specific and Creating a Movement”

  1. comment number 1 by: SteveinCH

    Call me a skeptic but I see no specificity beyond a math exercise…that is, if we do X then Y happens to the deficit.

    That’s nowhere close to good enough.

    Other than Paul Ryan’s plan, which frankly takes too long and is silent on revenues, there is no plan with specific steps and impact that I can find.

    If this is such an important issue, you’d think maybe it would be different.

    Guess I’ll have to finish my book even though it’s a pain in the rear.

  2. comment number 2 by: AMTbuff

    I criticized Concord’s recent attempt at a do-it-yourself budget balancing exercise as hopelessly tilted toward tax increases. Aside from that fatal flaw, it was indeed specific.

    I’d like to see the exercise expanded using input from advocates of cutting spending to define additional proposals, scored by Concord or TPC as best they can.

    An ideologically neutral Chinese menu budget balancing tool, meaning one that contains all the favorite ideas of both the left and the right, would be invaluable.

    No partisan has any interest in playing fair on this issue. That’s why I was so very disappointed that Concord lent its name to NextTen’s heavily slanted effort. Concord seriously damaged its non-partisan image. A revision that included all the spending cuts that Steve and others can think of would restore Concord’s image of impartiality.

  3. comment number 3 by: BillSmith

    Maybe the neutral Chinese menu should be forced to take 2 items with each selection. One from the right and one from the left?

  4. comment number 4 by: SteveinCH

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Chinese menu works here. I think you need to present packages that solve the problem. Otherwise, there’s just too much complexity to process.

  5. comment number 5 by: AMTbuff

    What’s wrong with options of 10% VAT, 15% VAT, 20% VAT, along with raise Medicare age to 68, 70, 75, along with phase SS out above $100k income, along with cut Medicaid 25%, 50%? Each item has a deficit reduction, and you can pick any combination.

  6. comment number 6 by: SteveinCH

    Because there are a lot more options. What about limiting eligibility as opposed to raising the retirement age? etc, etc, etc.

  7. comment number 7 by: VAT Brat

    If think tanks wanted to be truly helpful, they would embark on the following process.

    Start by identifying the percentage of deficit reduction coming from spending cuts and the percentage coming from tax increases. The specifics of how you enact policies to accomplish those targets is a second-level problem.

    Suppose we say 50% comes from spending cuts and 50% comes from tax increases and budget must be balanced within 20 years.

    Hand over those targets to respected budget wonks at Brookings, AEI, etc. and have them grind out policy proposals that hit those targets. Each will have varying ideas about how to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Defense, and other policies.

    Then offer the following additional combinations to the think tanks for balancing the budget in 20 years:

    Spending Cuts 100% 65% 35% 0%
    Tax Increases 0% 35% 65% 100%

    See what they come up with. Then you’ll actually have rational, mathematically sound policy proposals that fall along the political continuum.

    For members of Congress to actually have the desire to commit to voting for a mathematically sound budget policy, there must be a sword of Damocles hanging above them to punish them if they don’t keep on the straight and narrow pathway.

    A Debt Limit Referendum (see ) would be the best mechanism for ensuring that elected members could not revert to their old habits.

  8. comment number 8 by: AMTbuff

    Suppose we say 50% comes from spending cuts and 50% comes from tax increases

    Using those percentages or any variant thereof ignites a fight over the choice of baseline. Better to avoid it by using dollar spending and revenue levels or percent of GDP spending and revenue levels with no reference to any baseline. After all, we know that any baseline you choose is not sustainable, therefore irrelevant.

  9. comment number 9 by: SteveinCH

    I agree. The easiest thing to me is to use the CBO current law baseline as the basis and argue off of that. Both sides generally agree it’s a fair baseline and the forecasts that underlie it are only slightly rosy as opposed to the sunshine and light forecasts from the OMB.

  10. comment number 10 by: Matt Franko

    Bowles: “We can’t do this without a lot of pain,” he says.

    “Yes we can” say many others!

  11. comment number 11 by: Brooks


    Re: For what it’s worth, I don’t think Chinese menu works here. I think you need to present packages that solve the problem. Otherwise, there’s just too much complexity to process.

    If your point (or part of it) is that we should consider the interdependencies, synergies, etc. among the different elements rather than picking and choosing each independent of the others, good point. In fairness to Chinese menus, though, such holistic thinking is not precluded by the presence of many options listed individually. It’s up to the individual to consider the interactions*, and in fact some folks, when choosing which “Chinese”** foods to eat in a meal, will seek to balance foods that are “hot” in the body with those that are “cool” in the body (you know, yin and yang, balance, harmony). Or put differently, and borrowing the phrasing of the old NRA slogan***, “Chinese menus don’t suboptimize for people, people suboptimize for people”

    * although many people may not be aware of those interactions or have correct assumptions about them, and thus those with such expertise should in some cases present options that group elements appropriately, which I assume relates to your point.

    ** Some of my Chinese friends think that food across China is so diverse that they consider the term “Chinese food” useless and/or silly for anyone familiar with that variety.

    *** “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

  12. comment number 12 by: SteveinCH


    That’s part of my point but the bigger part of the point is that there literally are infinitely many menu options to be considered and that the selection of menu items (as every budget calculator/budget game) has proven is a policy choice unto itself.

    Take any single issue and you can generate a myriad of proposals, all of which have differing budgetary impacts. Sure, you can simplify to the point of making the complexity go away but I don’t think that helps.

    Just take Social Security. I can save money by raising the retirement age, changing the overall benefit schedule, changing the scaling of benefits (e.g., their progressivity), means testing to zero or to a smaller sum, on income or wealth or both. Just off the top of my head.

    Now you can put that into a Chinese menu by saying it reduces to the average number of beneficiaries, the average payment per beneficiary, and average time receiving benefits, but, having reduced it to a manageable number of factors, you’ve lost the policy specificity since any of those can be done in a multitude of ways.

    While I understand your argument, I think the Chinese menu approach either injects policy preferences by the nature of the limited menu or is too complex to be effectively processed.

    To your second footnote, our Chinese menu would certainly cover the whole of China and maybe all of East Asia as well.

  13. comment number 13 by: VAT Brat

    “Using those percentages or any variant thereof ignites a fight over the choice of baseline.”

    Chinese menus are not a process for mediation and reaching consensus.

    The CBO will have to be the arbiter so we use their baseline and assumptions. Everyone understands that their models weren’t built for projecting real economic performance, but so far Republicans and Democrats abide by their decisions.

    Imagine that you’re a relationship counselor and you’ve got Republican and Democrat members of the Natl Comm on Financial Reform and Responsibility sitting together, and you’re trying to get them to agree on a PROCESS. Not a final budget, but a process.

    We know that Paul Ryan wants to balance the budget in 62 yrs., no tax increases, and 100% spending reductions. He used CBO’s modelling assumptions to get there. Now have each caucus vote on their preference for time to reach balanced budget, and percentages of tax increases and spending reductions used to achieve that. Post those percentages on a board for the other caucus to see.

    Now let AEI develop a budget for the Republicans and Brookings develop a budget for the Democrats that achieves the targets set by the caucus. Hand those budgets back to each caucus and let them interactively tweek the budgets according to their political sensibilities.

    Now each caucus presents its results to the entire group. The moderator asks each member individually in secret if he prefers to campaign against the other side with their final product or does he wish to collaborate with other members to develop a compromise?

    At this point we hope that each member understands that the pain of putting our fiscal house in order is so great, and will be so widespread, that a grand coalition will be required to convince the voters of its urgency.
    Each side will have to make big sacrifices. Republicans will agree to big tax increases as long as the Democrats agree to huge spending reductions in their signature entitlement programs and elimination of other programs at the federal level.

    But we can’t get to this stage without a process. Chinese menus are not a process for mediation and reaching consensus.

  14. comment number 14 by: Brooks


    If I’m understanding you correctly (tell me if not), you’re saying that an exercise that could be manageable for a mass audience (as opposed to people with expertise and/or a great interest and time commitment) is (1) to excessively* oversimplify each item in a way that hides important specific means of achieving that item and thus neglects the choices to be made among those means, and/or (2) to introduce bias to limit the options sufficiently to achieve sufficient specificity and keep the exercise manageable. Is that what you’re saying?

    If so, I agree that it’s a challenge to find a balance — for each audience — that is manageable yet sufficiently specific and thorough to be helpful in moving public opinion toward support of fiscally responsible choices on a reasonably informed basis (and without introducing substantial bias on the options), but I think it’s probably achievable. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, Steve Ballmer comes up with, although my guess is that it won’t have the specificity and thoroughness you consider essential. I think the ideal would be a tiered program in which each individual can click to go a level (or two or three) deeper if he/she wishes, getting more info and, if he/she chooses, choosing options at a more specific level. From Wolf’s article:

    Bowles has been in touch with Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer about creating a deficit-reduction video game that would enable anyone with a computer to take a stab at balancing the budget, much like the 1994 commission did.

    Updated for 2010, Kerrey says, such a game could “go viral.”

    * “excessively” meaning to an extent that renders the exercise unhelpful or perhaps even misleading.

  15. comment number 15 by: AMTbuff

    The CBO will have to be the arbiter so we use their baseline and assumptions.

    My point is that you don’t actually need a baseline at all. That’s just a habit we have. It’s perfectly OK to look at spending projections and revenue projections and subtract the former from the latter.

    Comparing them to what would have been under some baseline scenario is not required, or even particularly useful. Especially if there is major disagreement about the choice of baseline.

    In other words, why would you pick a fight over baseline when the actual debate is about spending and revenue? Answer: If you can’t win the real debate and you think you have a better chance to cloud the issue by debating the baseline!

    When the car is heading toward the cliff edge, only the location of the car relative to the cliff edge matters, not the location of the car relative to where it would have been had you not applied the brakes.

  16. comment number 16 by: Matt Franko

    Mosler SHREDS Altman here.

  17. comment number 17 by: AMTbuff

    Bowles has been in touch with Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer about creating a deficit-reduction video game that would enable anyone with a computer to take a stab at balancing the budget, much like the 1994 commission did.
    It will be almost impossible for any such game to avoid bias. You would need to employ two development teams with opposite philosophies and include the best of both. The chance that such a product could emerge successfully from internal battles is approximately zero. For one thing, the person running the show would not be able to resist impressing his own bias.

    As evidence I present the political bias in Hollywood, which persists despite its clear financial cost to all involved. People will believe that slanting the product is more important than delivering a financially successful product, or at a minimum they will be blind to their own biases and deaf to outsiders’ warnings about those biases. People in positions of authority are accustomed to deference by others and they are confident in their opinions. That militates against an unbiased product.

  18. comment number 18 by: SteveinCH


    Let me be clear about baseline. I think you do need baselines for Macro assumptions, the future cost of policy options an so forth.

    I also believe that arguing from the current law baseline is easier for people to grasp than a zero-based approach. This, as an example, is why I favor letting the Bush tax cuts expire as a revenue approach as opposed to a wreck and rebuild of the entire tax code. While the latter is arguably preferable economically, it’s not easy to explain and is easy to demogogue.

    I totally agree on the video game. Like all these games, it’s not possible to be neutral in development. But if Ballmer needs beta testers, I’m sure we can help him out.

  19. comment number 19 by: SteveinCH


    I agree that balance is achievable but I think the public should be engaged on a set of options (with the option to tailor) as opposed to a blank sheet of paper or broad-based Chinese menu

  20. comment number 20 by: Brooks


    I see. Well, I’d like to see both approaches tried and at least some audiences given the option of choosing among pre-set “packages” or taking an a la carte approach, with useful information for choosing.