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Opinion
Matthew Yglesias

America’s Era of Free-Lunch Politics Is Over

Higher inflation will make it harder for either party to lower taxes, raise spending or both.

Is this kind of politics headed for a comeback?

Is this kind of politics headed for a comeback?

Photographer: STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP

The return of inflation for the first time in my lifetime also means the return of difficult short-term tradeoffs in economic policy for the first time in the 21st century. To put it another way: The era of free-lunch politics is over — and it’s Republicans, even more than Democrats, who will have a hard time adjusting.

When George W. Bush was president, it was commonplace to hear Democrats complain about the irresponsibility of waging two wars while enacting two large tax cuts and an expansion of Medicare benefits. But the alleged problems with Bush’s largess were set to occur in the future, with debt burdening our children and grandchildren. In the near term, economically at least, everything was fine. During Barack Obama’s presidency, political hysteria about budget deficits reached a fever pitch, but the failure to address them never generated any real-world problems. By the time of Donald Trump’s presidency, both parties had basically stopped worrying about tradeoffs. Trump cut taxes and raised spending, and disavowed any reforms to Social Security and Medicare.