Debating a pivotal policy question -- like grown-ups

By |
The fashionable punditry on the current debt-ceiling debate is criticism of elected officials in Washington for failing to "act like grown-ups" and just "do their job."

There's plenty of truth in this exasperated assessment of a battle that often features more electoral posturing than anything else, but the critique also ignores an important truth: Today's debate reflects sincere substantive policy disagreements about the appropriate size of government and the best way to finance it. Given the profound nature of the disagreements, calls for Congress to "act like grown-ups" are either naive pleas or disingenous calls for one party to cave to the other.

President Obama's original desire was a "clean" increase in the debt ceiling -- that is, one without any spending cuts attached. While this is the same policy Obama attacked in 2006 as buck passing and "shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren," it also fairly reflects a coherent and widely held economic theory. Keynesian orthodoxy holds that during times of economic recession or stagnation, government ought to borrow more and spend more.

Government spending, according to this line of thinking, is the best stimulus, because folks buying government bonds are risk averse. In other words, money is pulled off the sidelines and injected into the economy.

Alternatively, there's Obama's more recent stance: Tax the rich as part of "shared sacrifice" to reduce the debt. The president has vowed to veto a debt-limit increase that cuts spending without raising taxes. It's easy -- and not wholly inaccurate -- to chalk this gambit up to simple political demagoguery: Obama trying to rally his base and reinforce the image of the Republican Party as the party of the rich. But taxing the rich to fund an expanding state is also a legitimate (if wrongheaded) policy view, known today as progressivism.

On the other side, there's the view that our government spends too much money, that tax rates are way too high, and that a growing national debt poses a serious threat to our economy. Most of the mainstream media may reject this viewpoint, but it's undoubtedly a valid one, and it's one many Republicans hold.

Of course both sides, as always, are playing cynical politics, too. Obama regularly invokes the taxation of corporate jets as if it's a real issue. (It's not -- companies can deduct the cost of their corporate jets over five years, while commercial jets have to spread the cost over seven years.) He also misleadingly portrays his push to exact punitive targeted tax increases on five large oil companies as loophole closing, thus painting his opponents as shills for Big Oil.

Republicans' plans are also gimmicky. House Speaker John Boehner has insisted on a 10-year spending reduction equal to the increase in the debt limit, which is about as meaningful as comparing the weight of an apple to the weight of fertilizer used to grow an orange: You can measure them both using pounds and ounces, but that doesn't make the comparison useful.

Finally, there's the real question of whether either side would be fine losing on substance in order to gain a political upper hand. Obama's failure to publicly put forward a plan with details suggests he's happy to angrily give in at the last second to the GOP plan, then spend the next 15 months attacking Republicans for taking the economy hostage in order to protect Big Oil and corporate-jet owners.

Republicans, meanwhile, have shown a reluctance to take yes for an answer, preferring to attack Obama as a big spender and high taxer.

But while the fight is largely -- and perhaps mostly -- political warfare, it's also a debate over crucial substantive matters, about which different parties hold very different views. So telling Washington to "stop bickering" is telling Washington to stop debating.

The "act like grown-ups" invocation seems to come mostly from liberals. For instance, it was mostly lefties who tried to push a Twitter theme, "F***YouWashington" (without the asterisks).

Draped in nonpartisan pragmatism, this talk amounts to, shut up and give Obama what he wants. There's nothing wrong with supporting Obama, but pretending that other viewpoints are illegitimate -- or that robust debate counts as dithering -- smells undemocratic.

Our politicians are arguing, in part, because they disagree -- not simply about how to cut our debt, but whether our debt is even a problem. And while the gravity of a government shutdown or possible default makes this debate scary, it's better to debate debt, austerity and taxes before a crisis hits than after.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on

View article comments Leave a comment