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What Is a Deficit Hawk…or Panda…or Peacock?

April 26th, 2011 . by economistmom

deficit-hawks-cartoon(Cartoon by Tim Eagan.)

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent questions the true “hawkishness” of some who label themselves “deficit hawks”:

As I noted some time ago, the term “deficit hawk,” as it’s commonly used in Beltway discourse, simply doesn’t mean “someone who fully committed to reducing the deficit by any means necessary, even if it means tax hikes and — paradoxically enough — new government programs.” Rather, it means “someone who is fully committed to reducing the deficit through tax cuts, entitlement reform and an unswerving adherence to general hostility towards expansive government.”…

[I]magine if everyone who used the term “deficit hawk” agreed that it should refer only to those want to reduce the deficit by any means necessary, with nothing at all taken off the table. The conversation would start to sound very different, wouldn’t it?

It sounds to me like Greg’s saying a lot of Tea Party types label themselves “deficit hawks”–and that’s probably true.  But I cringe when I hear that, because to be opposed to deficits does not mean one is opposed to big government.  It just means that if I am for big government but against deficits, I have to be for higher taxes.  And if I am for smaller government and lower taxes, but against deficits, I have to be for the tough benefit cuts that make that math work out.   I think Paul Ryan has pretty clearly spelled out that he is a deficit hawk of the latter type (even if the details of the proposed benefit cuts are not yet spelled out), that the Progressive Caucus in Congress has spelled out that they’re deficit hawks of the former type (closing the deficit with mostly tax increases–but also defense cuts), and that President Obama is trying to forge a deficit-hawkish path somewhere in the middle.

In my opinion, anyone who sincerely offers a plan to reduce the deficit can deserve the label “deficit hawk”–no matter how different their preferred approach may be from my own or even society’s consensus view.  Ruth Marcus suggested that deficit hawks who still value a strong role of government might be more appropriately labeled “deficit pandas”–but that’s probably a little too wimpy sounding for most people’s tastes.  (Pandas are cute and cuddly, yes, but they also seem pretty fat and lazy.)  A year ago Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress explained that those who are insincere in their commitment to deficit reduction–but use their claimed commitment to fiscal responsibility to get what they really want, which is a small government still larger than the much lower taxes they’re willing to pay–are more properly considered “deficit peacocks.”  (Paul Krugman liked this CAP guide on “how to spot a deficit peacock” a lot, and he even called the President one at the time.)

So whether any of us perceive someone as deserving of the “deficit hawk” label depends on our own individual interpretations of the sincerity and seriousness of the deficit-reduction strategies offered.  There’s so much distrust in this town though, so those deficit-reduction approaches polar opposite to our own (that we just fundamentally dislike) are automatically dismissed as insincere and not serious.  And then we say we won’t even honor the other side with any conversation about their “crazy” plan versus our serious plan.  We label them (cocky) “peacocks” or “pandas” (of the fat and lazy variety) and claim that we, as true “hawks,” don’t need to work things out with them.

I don’t know what the political solution is (nor what some other fitting animal descriptions might be for the various factions in this deficit-reduction debate), but so far this common-good, shared-sacrifice, fiscal responsibility effort that the President says we need to make, is not working out so well–even with the mix of true deficit hawks already involved.

9 Responses to “What Is a Deficit Hawk…or Panda…or Peacock?”

  1. comment number 1 by: Vivian Darkbloom

    I detect a lack of symmetry (and objectivity?) in your classifications.

    I’m OK with the discussion of “deficit hawks”–the point here is well taken. But, when it gets to Pandas and Peackocks, this discussion isn’t objective, or at least our taxonomy is not complete. First, we’ve got Pandas, who are described as persons who are “deficit hawks”, but who still value large (r) government. In other words, they are sincere. But, then, we’ve got Peacocks, the supposed opposite, who value smaller government but who are *insincere* about deficit reduction. You wrote:

    “A year ago Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress explained that those who are insincere in their commitment to deficit reduction–but use their claimed commitment to fiscal responsibility to get what they really want, which is a small government still larger than the much lower taxes they’re willing to pay–are more properly considered “deficit peacocks.” ”

    Although I’m sure that Linden leans to the left, his definition of “Deficit Peacock” was, on its face, ideologically neutral. In other words, it is those who strut about pretending to be concerned about the deficit, but whose proposals and actions are actually only for show. This would include those who favor larger government and who fail to call for the tax increases necessary to support it.

    Then, we’ve got President Obama who, as ever here, is portrayed not as as a deficit Peacock, but as the honest broker who is trying to forge a path in the middle. In fact, according to Linden’s definition, Obama clearly qualifies as a Peacock. (This is one of the rare instances in which Krugman was right—Obama’s use of gimmicks is no substitute for real budget reform. What was ironic about Krugman’s post is that he calls for additional deficit spending in the short term and long-term deficit reduction without spelling out how the latter would be acheived).

    So, your newly invented taxonomy, which exlcudes insincere progressives, misses a significant percentage of those on the left, which I think currently includes President Obama, who want even larger government but are insincere in their commitment to cutting the deficit. If he were sincere, he would come out today and call for higher taxes on the middle class. So, if you want to stick to your definition of Peacock, I think we need to add yet another animal to the barnyard. Deficit Pigeon has some alliterative allure.

  2. comment number 2 by: AMTbuff

    Thanks, Diane for calling Greg Sargent on his straw man accusation: “someone who is fully committed to reducing the deficit through tax cuts”

    As you said, this is a case of “those deficit-reduction approaches polar opposite to our own (that we just fundamentally dislike) are automatically dismissed as insincere”.

    We need an honest and completely specific (much more than Ryan’s plan or Obama’s metaplan) debate between cutting spending to match revenues or raising revenues to match spending, or something in between. Caricaturing the other side is not helpful.

  3. comment number 3 by: Jason Seligman

    And before someone chimes in with a “err well, I mean Budget Hawk” - while that term has merit, it is limited insofar as a “Budget Hawk” would be someone who matches scope to resources. Put another way such a ‘Hawk’ would be against waste fraud and abuse.

  4. comment number 4 by: Shadowfax

    Great graphic! A deficit hawk is someone who wants the goverment to match its spending to revenue. Whether that is 18% GDP or 23% GDP is a question of ideology.

    I’d like to see a discussion of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ “The People’s Budget” which focuses on tax hikes and defense spending cuts and proposes to balance the budget by 2021.

    As Krugman pointed out when he discussed the CPC plan yesterday in a column, if you don’t cut defense and raise taxes, you can’t have a shot at balancing the budget in the next decade. And if we don’t do that, interest gets out of control.

  5. comment number 5 by: Josh

    I’m pretty sure Paul Ryan isn’t a deficit hawk. See Brad Delong’s post:

    http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2011/04/is-paul-ryan-a-deficit-hawk-i-say-no-diane-lim-rogers-says-yes.html

    In sum, Ryan voted for unfunded wars, tax cuts and entitlements. Hard to take this person seriously. I know that somehow makes me partisan, but really, these are the facts.

  6. comment number 6 by: Jim Glass

    Yes, and Obama and Reid voted against increasing the debt limit, denouncing it as the embodiment of fiscal irresponsibility.

    Now, some people are talking as if actually believing what they said — and O & R are horrified at the thought of such fecklessness, and apologizing for formerly saying what they pretended to believe.

    And everywhere people continue to be shocked, shocked to find politics in politics. (Though only among the other side’s politicians - not their own, of course).

  7. comment number 7 by: AlanDownunder

    If, as it seems, you’re Paul Ryan’s mom, you’re not an economist’s mom.

  8. comment number 8 by: AMTbuff

    >If, as it seems, you’re Paul Ryan’s mom, you’re not an economist’s mom.

    I’m not anybody’s mom, but are you sure Paul Ryan has no brothers or sisters who might be economists?

  9. comment number 9 by: John

    Raising taxes never seems to decrease the deficit, usually it just means less income to the government and if income did increase I am sure our politicians would find a way to spend the extra income.

    All to often I see where the various government entities are giving away money to individuals or groups to entice some particular behavior. I don’t see where this accomplishes much and it wastes money we don’t have.