Commentary Magazine


Debt Denial, Entitlements, and the “Caucus of Common Sense”

The Obama administration and its supporters have created a problem for themselves. Having spent four-plus years using straw men to delegitimize opposing viewpoints, they are running out of clever ways to insult the intentions of those who disagree with them while also blaming them for the president’s mistakes. So while the sequester was the president’s idea, those who would let it stand rather than let the president dictate policy to Congress are outside the vastly outnumbered “caucus of common sense,” as Obama has taken to calling it.

That’s a catchy phrase, but they can’t all be winners: this week the president’s advisor Dan Pfeiffer sneered that those who are criticizing the president’s budget proposals want Obama to “enact a Romney economic plan.” (Blaming the previous president at least retained some sort of logic; continuing to go after Romney makes no sense and is marked by a certain classlessness Pfeiffer should try to avoid displaying on behalf of the White House.) But the old standard, and the one to which self-styled “moderates” will forever return, is the label of “centrism.” Heading into the weekend, the president’s former “car czar” Steven Rattner published a piece in the New York Times titled “Reclaim the Center.” Rattner attempts to put both conservatives and liberals on the fringe with regard to budget priorities, and lays out what a true centrist approach–his, of course–would look like. In the process, however, Rattner unwittingly ends up showing that, despite the media narrative of extremist Republicans, it is the left that is much farther from the supposed center.

Rattner knocks the “delusional” idea held by many liberals that the skyrocketing debt is really nothing to be too concerned about. Here is how he frames the issue on both right and left:

The magnitude of these obligations is just too gargantuan to ever be fully reversed, but we must start now to bend that curve, particularly because any changes in Medicare and Social Security must be phased in over a long period of time. (The menu of policy options is, by now, familiar; we need to start making hard choices.)

That said, in a fragile economy, with the average American still earning less than he did a dozen years ago (after adjustment for inflation), federal belt tightening must occur gradually, a concept that is apparently foreign to both Mr. Stockman and Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee.

You’ll notice something: though Rattner tries to make both sides look equally unreasonable, he doesn’t succeed. Conservatives are actually right about the problem–they just want to implement their solution too quickly for Rattner. In contrast, the liberal view, in Rattner’s telling, doesn’t face up to the existence of the problem in the first place, and thus left-wing “solutions” are destined to make the problem worse or, in some cases, consist of misidentifying the problem as the solution.

Though Rattner doesn’t say so, a good example of the latter view would be a post published the same day as Rattner’s piece in the Washington Post by Ezra Klein. Klein’s headline says it all: “Washington thinks entitlements are the problem. Maybe they’re the answer.” Klein writes that the “three-legged stool” of retirement income security–Social Security, private savings, and employer pensions–is collapsing, with only Social Security left standing. Private savings are in terrible shape, and employer-based retirement accounts are increasingly taking the form of 401(k)s, which are underfunded. He calls attention to a new study for the New America Foundation arguing the real crisis is that Social Security isn’t generous enough, and writes:

They would keep today’s income-based Social Security program, but add a “Part B,” which would be a flat payout to all retirees. When parts A and B are combined, all retirees would be guaranteed 60 percent of their average working wage in retirement, with low earners seeing closer to 100 percent replacement. Part B would be pricey, adding almost a trillion dollars to Social Security’s costs in 2037, and the authors don’t have a clear proposal, much less a politically realistic plan, for how to pay for it.

Repeat: the idea is for the government to add a trillion dollars to the cost of entitlements with no idea how to pay for it. In truth, that should really have been the end of the discussion. With no funding mechanism, it’s not a plan; it’s just a suggestion that the government gives lots more money to people. I don’t even understand the point of publishing the NAF “report.” It’s 27 pages and has four authors, but should really just be one sentence: People would have more money if we gave them more money.

You have to admit, it has a certain airtight logic to it. The president can call for a “common sense caucus” and his former economic advisor can demand they “reclaim the center” all they want, but they surely know where the holdouts can be found. And it’s not in the Tea Party.

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