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How Do We Keep Getting the Deficit So Wrong?

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

It's not that hard to figure out.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

I really don't understand why it's so hard for some in the media to figure out the score on the parties and federal budget deficits. 

The U.S. federal budget deficit is going up. That's according to a projection from a group selling (some) anti-deficit policy, but it's not really a surprise, what with a large tax cut just having passed. I'm not a deficit hawk, so I'm not particularly upset by large deficits in the abstract. But I can't understand how Susan Cornwell of Reuters can say this is "a basic shift for the Republican Party, which has traditionally prided itself on fiscal conservatism."

Seriously? 

This is the third time in a row, going back to 1981, that incoming Republican presidents with Republican (or almost-Republican) majority Congresses have come in, slashed taxes, and seen deficits explode. Yes, Republicans like to talk about balanced budgets, but it's been at least 40 years since they acted in favor of them. They're consistent: They cut spending on some programs they don't like, increase spending on programs they do like, and slash taxes. They may not admit that they're following policies that will raise deficits, but it's not exactly difficult to draw that conclusion.

They then follow the exact same policies when Democrats have majorities. Perhaps they talk a bit more about deficits, but they advocate exactly the same policies. 

Democrats tend to be loosely Keynesian; they advocate larger deficits during recessions, and smaller ones during good times. They're also, I think, somewhat less consistent over time, but overall they've been the ones who actually seem to care about paying for what they do. Compare, for example, the unfunded Republican Medicare expansion when George W. Bush was president with the (more or less) fully funded Affordable Care Act passed by Democrats. Yes, there were some budgetary gimmicks in Obamacare, but there were also very real revenues. Which Republicans have been eager to delay or repeal, even when they couldn't also repeal the spending portions of the Affordable Care Act.

I'm not saying which is better policy. And I don't really care about how Republicans mischaracterize their own position. I just don't see why, four decades or so in, some reporters still get this wrong. 

1. Seth Masket on State of the Union speeches.

2. Sabrina Karim at the Monkey Cage on the new president of Liberia.

3. John Patty at Mischiefs of Faction on shutdown politics.

4. Jay Cost argues against majoritarian democracy. He and I are on the same side here, although based on somewhat different reasoning. It's important, in my view, to recognize that the majority position is not necessarily the "democratic" position. It's important, too, to recognize that the Framers were united in supporting anti-majoritarian methods (such as separated institutions sharing powers) that were themselves democratic, in that they ultimately trace their authority back to the people, not to any hereditary or otherwise nondemocratic source. I should add, however, that none of this is any kind of justification for the malapportionment of the Senate, which is just a problem however one looks at it.

5. Isaac Arnsdorf and Lena Groeger dig into the jobs Donald Trump promised

6. Nathaniel Rakich on congressional resignations.

7. Preet Bharara and Christine Todd Whitman make the case for legislating reforms in the wake of Trump. Count me as skeptical; most of the post-Watergate legislative fixes didn't really solve anything, and some were real steps in the wrong direction. But perhaps something positive can happen here, and it's not bad at all for people to be thinking about it.

8. And I love this one about Bob Stump, who was once my member of the House. No, not this Bob Stump. That Bob Stump. Confused? Jeff Singer has the story.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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