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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

 
The Deficit Club

by digby

Bill Clinton says that Democrats shouldn't fetishize the CBO because it's often well ... wrong.

Former President Bill Clinton, himself a victim of an errant Congressional Budget Office score or two, implied today that the agency wasn't connected enough to the real world to know whether programs would save money or not. Speaking a few days after the CBO estimated that the White House's latest "gamechanger," an independent Medicare Advisory Commission to set prices, would save little money over 10 years, Clinton urged policy-makers -- and here he means Democrats -- to not accept the CBO's scores without adding a dollop of common sense. " I recognize that if you're in that budget office, you've got to project the future," Clinton said. But certain programs would realize savings "regardless of whether the mathematical rules they are now up with will prove it or not." He said that those with a stake in changing the system "almost always get the short end of the stick" when it comes to budget projections. "In Washington, we strain a lot of gnats while we''re swallowing camels." Lost in the debate about how much health care reform will cost, Clinton said, is the debate about whether the reforms will work. (I took this to be an implicit criticism of Blue Dog Democrats who focus near-obsessively with the impact of health reform on the deficit and of committee chairs who have imbued the CBO with near mystical powers.)

Of course, we shouldn't forget that Obama is being hoist by his own petard with this by joining the fetish-fest over deficit reduction. He handed the industry the excuse they needed. Peter Orszag himself called Social Security "reform" a "test of manhood." The fiscal scolds have been given many seats at the table and are highly respected members on the inside.

They are all members of the same club:

It's easy to see why Orszag, 40, might be frustrated. As you might expect from somebody who makes a career out of churning budget numbers and hoping everything adds up to zero, Orszag, like Elmendorf, 47, places a premium on minimizing the federal deficit. You can imagine the two men joining the same chess club, or castigating a posse of tie dyed progressives for not appreciating the elegance and importance of a balanced federal budget. Though Orszag was mentored by liberal luminary Joseph Stiglitz and Elmendorf studied under conservative Martin Feldstein, Orszag eventually found himself under the spell of progressive bete noir Robert Rubin, many of whose views he appears to share. During the Bush era, he directed the Brookings Institution's decidedly middle of the road Hamilton Project--a Rubin initiative, which Elmendorf himself briefly ran in 2008.

But over the last several weeks, at the requests of members of Congress, Elmendorf has crossed his natural ally, repeatedly zinging the budget king, and fueling the efforts of health care reform's most entrenched opponents.

[...]

[W]ith so much on the line, it's easy to see why the administration is losing its patience. This is ultimately a familiar story. During the budget wars of the early 1990s, it was a CBO report that many Democrats claim dealt Clinton Care its fatal blow. Like Orszag now, Clinton's then OMB-chief, Alice Rivlin (a one-time CBO director herself) was furious with her successor, Robert D. Reischauer, for running the numbers the way he did.

What she couldn't have known at the time, though, is that one of the analysts who contributed to that report would later bedevil health care reform efforts in a more public role. His name: Doug Elmendorf.


Today Alice Rivlin is working with Pete Peterson, rending her garments right along side him about the deficit spelling the end of the world as we know it. I'm sure Elmendorff (and Orszag) will have a good jobs waiting to do the same thing. They all end up in the same place.

In order to understand what this really means you you have to recall that there was no discussion, zero, when the last administration asserted without any debate that we were engaged in a war without end, for which costs could not be measured nor should they be. It was accepted by members of both parties as a simple imperative and no discussion of cost-benefit analyses were even on the table. But when it comes to directly benefiting Americans with a life and death threat of another sort, that's all we talk about. This is not an accident.

Again, it's not that deficits don't matter. But they don't matter more than everything else, certainly not more than the general well being of the people of this country. And if these people really cared about deficits, raising taxes would be a much bigger part of the conversation than it is and the kind of wreckless tax cuts and blind defense spending would have caused an uproar. What they all care about, in the end, Democrats and Republican, is ensuring that the Masters of the Universe are not disturbed by some perceived notion that they will have to pay more money to the government, that the government will borrow so much money that their personal profits are in danger, or that the rubes might get it in their heads that they are running things.

This little bipartisan club of wall street titans, industry magnates and deficit scolds are defenders of the status quo and enemies of the safety net because the status quo works for them and they don't need a safety net. And the problem is that they have all the money.


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