How To Talk About the Deficit

A lesson in the art of avoidance from the Bush economic conference.

President Bush is holding an economic conference this week at the White House. The whole thing is about as spontaneous as a wrestling match; even David Brooks called it a “pseudo-event.” So I’m not particularly surprised that, at today’s session on the budget deficit, nobody suggested that taxes be raised. Republicans always oppose raising taxes. It did surprise me, however, that even a staged conversation about the deficit could take place without anyone proposing a specific budget cut.

Conservatives in general, and the Bush administration in particular, favor budget cuts. At the conference, President Bush said there were going to be “some tough choices on the spending side,” and he boasted that “non-defense, non-homeland discretionary spending” had increased at a rate of less than 1 percent over last year. But “non-defense, non-homeland discretionary spending” is a tiny sliver of all the money that the government spends. Overall, the federal government this year spent an estimated 5 percent more than it spent last year, and that’s only counting expenditures through November. Bush doesn’t like to cut spending; he likes to say he likes to cut spending. In truth, Bush spends just as freely as a Democratic president would, if not more. The only significant difference is that Bush is bleeding domestic programs in order to increase spending on the military and homeland defense. Bush’s hypocrisy about government spending is so naked that a whole new ideology, “big government conservatism,” had to be invented in order to explain it away.

The deficit is currently estimated at $422 billion for 2004. Amazingly, the White House economic conferees managed to conduct an entire pseudoscholarly discussion about the deficit today without stating, in dollar terms, its size. Instead, White House Budget Director Josh Bolton referred to its being a mere 3.6 percent of the gross domestic product, as compared to a more dire, earlier estimate that it would be 4.5 percent of the GDP. This is like being a weatherman during a blizzard and never once having to say the word “snow.”

Even though the Bush administration likes to say it favors less government spending, it somehow fixed things so that no participant in the economic conference would propose a particular government benefit or program to cut, even as a “thought experiment.” Some of the speakers stated outright that cutting spending was kid’s stuff. Others paid it lip service but wouldn’t say what they would cut. Even Tim Penney, a Democratic former member of Congress who is famously a deficit hawk, managed to deliver a jeremiad about out-of-control entitlement spending without once proposing a specific way to cut that spending. Was Karl Rove just outside camera range with a gun pressed to the temple of Mrs. Penney?

The purpose of the whole exercise was to demonstrate that the only way to save Social Security is to privatize—ahem, I mean “partially privatize”—it. I judge it a brilliant success. If there is no deficit, and no need or possibility of raising taxes or cutting spending, what the hell else is there to do? In a much-quoted passage from an October article in the New York Times Magazine, Ron Suskind quoted a “senior adviser to Bush” as follows:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

This is what he meant.